Coaches argue that rules changes affect scheduling, injury rates
The College World Series begins Friday with the same glut of teams from Sun Belt schools that has marked its recent history.
Despite mushrooming media awareness and fan appeal in the last decade, some observers have said that the concentration of power among teams from the South and the West Coast has hindered college baseball's chances for finding true national appeal.
The NCAA attempted to address that before the season, setting a universal start date that required each team to begin practice and play its first game on the same dates. Teams could begin practice this year on Feb. 1 with the season beginning Feb. 22.
Before this season, a lack of a uniform start date gave schools from warmer climates the obvious benefit of being able to go outside earlier. The new rule was thought to be able to narrow the competitive head start that those Southern and West Coast schools have traditionally received over the rest of the country.
Even with the new rule, it's been more of the same old domination that has marked college baseball's recent history. Since 1985, more than 90 percent of the teams that have made the College World Series have come from 15 West Coast or Sun Belt states. And it hasn't changed this season, with an Elite Eight consisting of Miami, Georgia, Stanford, Florida State, North Carolina, Rice, Fresno State and LSU.
Oregon State's back-to-back national championships in '06 and '07 appeared to show the game's growth, although the Beavers do compete in the Pac-10. Louisville's trip to the College World Series in 2007 also showed the talent increase in the Big East.
But history remains heavily stacked in favor of Southern and Western schools. Since 1965, only Ohio State (1966), Wichita State (1989) and Oregon State have won national championships as teams from north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
And the Big Ten, one of the nation's power conferences in all other sports, has been largely irrelevant in college baseball since a change to the regional format in 1987 removed the assurance that a north team would be represented at the College World Series. The most recent College World Series trip made by a Big Ten team came in 1984 by Michigan.
Veteran Rice coach Wayne Graham said the later starting date impacted college baseball "an awful lot" in 2008. It crammed a 56-game regular season into fewer days, resulting in more midweek games.
"I suspect there were more injuries than before because we didn't have the practice time we normally had. The level of play was definitely affected," Graham said. "The whole purpose of it was to help the North schools. I don't like it."
St. John's finished third in the Houston Regional and notched a victory over Texas before it was eliminated after losses to Rice and the Longhorns. But coach Ed Blankmeyer credits the universal starting date for providing more of an advantage earlier in the season than during the playoffs.
"In the old days, we would go down and play the University of Miami and they might have played 11 or 12 games and we're putting our spikes on for the first time," Blankmeyer said. "We're just trying to figure things out and they've played all those games. Now, those schools don't have as much of an early advantage. It's more equal."
Northern teams have traditionally constructed their teams to account for competitive disadvantages. Many Southern teams have traditionally worked with a three-man weekend starting group of scholarship pitchers as the backbone of their staffs, while teams from the North have invested their scholarships on building more pitching depth because of their compacted schedule.
Graham said he adapted that strategy because of the compact schedule.
"We had a lot of pitchers this year -- not necessarily great ones -- but we needed them to pitch a lot of games in a shorter period of time," he said. "We had a lot of relief pitchers. But the way it's structured now, we don't extend our guys past 120 pitches and we just recruit numbers."
An even bigger potential concern will approach during the 2008-09 academic year when college baseball will have to abide by stricter academic standards. Coaches have bitterly complained that a condensed schedule next spring will place more stress on students because of the likelihood of more travel and a greater number of midweek games.
Some programs have talked about a split schedule with at least a few games played in the fall. Both Rice and Texas plan to have some games in the fall next season as a way to alleviate the jammed schedules they faced during the spring this season.
"We're going to do that for at least four games in the fall," Graham said. "And I think a lot of people will determine they won't play 56 games. That magic 40 wins isn't as big as it was before because everything now is based on power ratings."
Others have talked about letting the season run later into the summer, perhaps stretching as late as July. But it would cost more in scholarships by necessitating that athletes continue through summer school. It would also have serious effects for the Major League Baseball Draft and would likely mean the demise -- or eventual death -- of many independent summer leagues that have traditionally nurtured college baseball over the years.
And though it wasn't seen this year, several coaches expect the new rules to have a gradual effect that could become more apparent in upcoming seasons than in the first one.
"I wouldn't call it a failure after the first year," Cal State-Fullerton coach Dave Serrano said. "It's something we'll have to gauge and see in year two or year three to see if it's had many effects."
Serrano arrived at Fullerton this season after previously directing UC Irvine for three seasons. The Feb. 1 starting date for practice gave him a better understanding of the scheduling problems that Northern teams traditionally faced before the rules change.
"It was different for us and drastic because we didn't have the whole month to work in January like before," Serrano said. "I don't think we knew enough to put the right guys in the position early in practice. I got a good feel for what the Northern schools have to go through. It's definitely been an adjustment period for me."
Despite the apparent polarization between the regions, veteran Texas coach Augie Garrido joked that too much is made of the supposed gap between the regions.
"I haven't thought about the Civil War in a long time, although I was in it," Garrido cracked after losing to St. John's earlier in the tournament. "I don't know what [sectionalism] really has to do with it. I don't think our players have any sense of that, or of any regional issues. And I know I don't think that way about it."
Garrido does have a better understanding than most Sun Belt coaches after coaching Illinois from 1988-90, guiding the Illini to a pair of Big 10 titles. But he said that good teams can be found across the country -- like the last two national championship squads at Oregon State.
"I still look at the way that teams perform," he said. "St. John's performed in relationship to this game very well. The fact that they have a different style or approach doesn't matter. Difference isn't always bad and is sometimes good."
Tim Griffin covers college sports for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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