Commentary

Rules changes don't leave Northern schools out in the cold

Originally Published: June 19, 2007
By Curt McKeever | Special to ESPN.com

Rich Maloney can't believe how summer-like it's felt in Ann Arbor, Mich., this fall. On most days his University of Michigan baseball team has worked out in 80- and 90-degree weather.

"We've been spoiled," the Wolverines' sixth-year coach said. "Last year was really wet. The other four were splendid -- but this is the best."

Leif Mahler
Tony Ding/Icon SMIMichigan co-captain Leif Mahler and the Wolverines appreciate the uniform start date -- and the warm fall weather.

Understand, now, that Maloney probably wouldn't feel much different even if it had been 50 degrees and damp every day in September and October. Given the new expanded fall schedule and uniform start dates for practices and games next spring, coaches at schools outside the Sun Belt have more cause for warm and fuzzy outlooks.

The NCAA's new rules have set in motion the beginning of an era aimed to put college baseball programs on more equal footing.

This fall, teams have been given a 45-day window in which to conduct all of their work. During that time, they can weave in individual skill instruction with full-squad practices.

In the past, clubs, basically, would have four or five weeks for team work only. Voluntary individual work would be done before and/or after that period.

"I like that," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said of the new fall rule. "We get to do a better job of developing and evaluating our players. Plus, we don't feel the pressure to go six days in a row [over concerns that poor weather could wipe out some scheduled practices]. Now, we can practice four days, take a day off, take two if we want, do skill instructions, and then come back and practice again."

Arizona State's Pat Murphy noted how a year ago, most of what the Sun Devils did in the fall was put in their system. Things like learning how to defend bunts, execute rundowns and teaching signs got more priority than putting players through repetition work.

That's changed this year.

"Definitely, there's a different focus," Murphy said. "I would say this type of fall provides us more information. It gives opportunity for kids to grow in the fall and earn a position.

"I can think of a kid where I didn't have a feeling he'd play that much, and now, all of a sudden after watching 17, 18 [scrimmages] it's 'Hmm. I might not think this or this, but that kid can play.' "

Van Horn still would like to see teams be allowed to play outside competition during the fall. But he also understands there's a greater need to address changes coming this spring, as well as what's been put in place for the 2008-09 scholastic year.

This spring, teams cannot start full practices before Feb. 1, and the first day games can be held is Feb. 22.

The condensed schedule figures to have a bigger impact on teams from the Sun Belt who haven't been forced to play as many midweek games. Along with that, coaches will face new challenges in handling pitching staffs. And what comes from that will surely influence the amount of scholarship money they'll devote to pitching.

"I hear a lot of people scrambling around," Maloney said. "On one hand it's chuckling, on the other hand it's sad."

Maloney recalled when he was at Ball State in 2002, the Cardinals had right-handed pitcher Bryan Bullington, who ended up as the No. 1 pick in the Major League Draft, and Luke Hagerty, a left-hander who was the 32nd overall choice.

"We had to put more money into our pitching, because we [already] had this condensed schedule," he said. "If I could have started in January, you realize how many games I could've won? Think about how many more starts those guys would've gotten. Probably four each, and we win three of those, at least."

Pat Murphy
Douglas Jones/Icon SMIFor Arizona State coach Pat Murphy, weather is rarely an issue. Scholarship limitations, however, could be.

Murphy agrees that the new spring schedule will be more taxing on pitching.

"You play more games a week, that's going to help offenses more," he said.

At least the added time this fall gives coaches more opportunities to prepare.

Meanwhile, at the same time, many are already implementing changes because of what's coming in 2008-09. When teams start practicing in February of 2009, their rosters will be limited to 35 players. And of those, only 27 can be on scholarship, with the smallest allotment for any player being 25 percent of a full ride.

Currently, baseball programs are limited to just 11.7 scholarships.

"I think you have to plan for a couple years in advance, to make sure you've got enough pitching," Van Horn said. Because of the condensed schedule, "we're going to use 10 or 11 or 12 now in certain weeks, and you're going to have some injuries. We have to plan on that, and so we've tried to develop some more pitching.

"But now they're telling us we can't have those small scholarships. It's been interesting, to say the least."

In regard to having a limit put on his roster, Murphy joked, "I'm not a good enough coach to handle more than 35."

When his serious side kicks in, though, he realizes the likelihood that there will be fewer opportunities to play Division I baseball -- and no coach is happy about that scenario.

"I don't like the roster cut, either, because you're going to have to tell them they can't play anymore," said Van Horn, adding a concern about the attitude of players who don't fall under the new scholarship setup. "Let's say I have an in-state kid who really wants to be a Razorback, and he's someone who needs to develop so he can possibly help you a couple years down the road. Kids aren't coming for nothing."

In addition to having to figure out that part of the process, coaches, at the end of this fall semester, will have to deal with a new transfer rule.

Any player who opts to change schools after December will have to sit out of competition for one year.

"A kid where there's a question about whether they're going to play … we're going to make sure they know what's going on at the end of fall ball," Van Horn said. "If you're going to jump ship, you'd better go now. If they wait and don't make it [into the lineup], then they've got to sit out [if they leave]."

Once the season begins next spring, teams also might find it harder to reschedule games lost due to weather.

Leave it to the happy-go-lucky Murphy, who doesn't have to give much thought to forecasts, to put a positive spin on it all.

"College baseball is such an unbelievable game -- so much better than the pro game," he said. "The bottom line is keep your mind on playing great baseball, develop them and let's believe in ourselves."

Indeed, offered Maloney, who can only hope the fall climate in Ann Arbor carries into next spring.

"It'll be interesting to see after we live through a year of this what [happens]," he said, "because the college game is growing immensely."

Curt McKeever is a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star.