A Look at College Baseball’s Lack of Support

Gator fans are the best fans in the country. Not in the ”West Virginia University Mountaineer fire-setting” kind of way, but in the ”Alex Brown (‘98-‘01) still chomps after every sack” kind of way. Florida has always been a football school, win or lose. But for everybody else there is one rule: you must win.

Billy Donovan understood this and Florida is now a basketball school as well, maybe not as popular as football, but old habits die hard.

Baseball has been around in Gainesville since in 1912. For time saving purposes, let’s fast forward to the Jeremy Foley years. His first two hires, Andy Lopez and Pat McMahon were inconsistent with extreme highs – reaching the College World Series, followed by extreme lows – a losing SEC record and missing the NCAA Tournament all together. For a university where you must win, it’s understandable that the fan support fluctuated along with the teams’ records. When Mr. Foley hired Clemson pitching coach Kevin O’Sullivan in 2008, the pendulum began swinging upwards again. In his first three years as head coach, the Gator baseball team had a record of 126-63. They won the SEC East in 2009, and won the SEC Conference and reached the College World Series in 2010. This season, the Gators have been ranked No. 1 in the country since pre-season and to date boast a record of 20-2. Coach Sully is indeed winning.

McKethan Stadium holds 5,500 spectators, and only twice so far this season has had attendance over 5,000 (5, 157 season opener vs. USF 2/18 & 5,930 vs. FSU 3/15). As a fan of Gator baseball, it’s a little disheartening.

There was a recent article published on Yahoo Sports asking why college baseball isn’t very popular, listing five reasons from a fan’s perspective:

1. Television Coverage
During college football and college basketball seasons, you can find games on almost every night. Conferences sign contracts with ESPN and other networks in order to televise these games. You are likely to be able to see every football and basketball game that your school plays.

The same is not true of baseball.

Outside of the College World Series, it is almost impossible to find a college baseball game on a regular network. Exposure has improved with conference networks. I am a Penn State graduate, but never saw a Penn State game on television before the advent of the Big Ten Network. I still don’t watch a lot of games, but I will see them from time to time.

This is an extremely valid point. I live in Illinois, and have the ‘pleasure’ of Big 10 Network as part of my cable package. I know they televise some games, but I do not care nearly enough about the Big 10 Conference, or their network to pay attention to how many games are covered. ESPN the “World Wide Leader in Sports” doesn’t televise college baseball games until after March Madness, but does televise other college sports such as lacrosse and men’s hockey on ESPNU. Maybe if one of the brass’ sons over at Disney starts to play college baseball it will finally be televised more. Until then, you can go to games, or like me subscribe to Gatorvision (which comes in handy in other sports as well).

2. Geography
College baseball has virtually no life in much of the country. The Northeastern and Midwestern United States are largely shut out of the major events. Big schools like Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan haven’t appeared in the College World Series for close to 30 years.

Most schools come from the ACC, PAC-10, or SEC. That is no knock on those teams, but it does reflect how limited the sport is geographically

Another point I agree with. There’s a reason why MLB winter/spring training takes place in Florida or Arizona. It’s too cold in Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Massachusetts, etc. If you are a high school baseball player from Kenosha heading to college, you can’t play at the University of Wisconsin – they don’t have a baseball team. You probably have your sights set on a school from the south, southwest or California anyway – if you’re good enough, that is. States below the Mason-Dixon and California produce good ball players; you have to be really special to get from the state of South Dakota to the University of South Carolina. To reiterate the author on Yahoo it’s not a knock on those teams or states; it just reflects why the sport is limited geographically.

3. No Stars                                                                                                                                                                                     Unlike basketball and football, the best baseball players usually go to the minor leagues right out of high school. There have been exceptions, but this is generally the case. Until recently, many of the best basketball players skipped college to go to the NBA. However, the NBA has no minor leagues and limited roster spots. As a result, the bulk of the top recruits still went to college.

The same is not true of baseball players.

Teams have multiple teams in their farm system, and players are better served by playing there. When looking at the list of CWS MVPs, you are not likely to see many names you recognize.

Here is where the author and I differ in opinion. According to baseball-almanac.com, there are more current and past baseball stars that attended college then both the author, and many other people realize. I found five alone from Arizona State University: Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds, Dustin Pedroia, Andre’ Ethier, and Ian Kinsler (who also went to Univ of Missouri – bonus for my argument). Then there are two of my favorites, Evan Longoria (University of California – Long Beach) and David Price (Vanderbilt). I’m sure most baseball fans have heard of all of them. Most would also contend that they are, by all accounts, stars.

I asked David Price via twitter if he would give me his opinion on the original yahoo post, but he never responded. I’m convinced it has everything to do with that fact he had just thrown 103 pitches when his expected pitch count was 90. It can be very tiring throwing that many pitches at a speed of 96-99, but I’m sure I’ll hear from him about it one day.

While I wait for his email, here’s a little information: David Price was drafted out of high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but did not sign. He decided to attend Vanderbilt on an academic scholarship. This is an extremely common practice. When a player is drafted out of high school but does not sign with the MLB team (for whatever reason), they go to college and re-enter the draft three years later. This is exactly what David Price did and was drafted first overall in 2007 to the Tampa Bay Rays.
Evan Longoria on the other hand, wasn’t even offered a scholarship by a Div 1 school. USC had considered making an offer, but pulled back citing his size. He attended Rio Hondo Community College where he played his freshman year and won first-team All State honors. He was offered a scholarship by Long Beach State University and transferred before his sophomore year. Because LBSU already had a short stop,Troy Tulowitzki (of the Colorado Rockies), Evan moved to third base. He was the 2006 Big West Co-Player of the Year, and drafted as the third player overall by the Rays that year.

Not every Florida Gator will be drafted by a MLB team, but six from last year’s squad were –Kevin Chapman (Kansas City Royals), Matt den Dekker (New York Mets), Tommy Toledo (Minnesota Twins), Hampton Tignor and Justin Poovey (LA Angels of Anaheim), and Matt Campbell (Cincinatti Reds). I think it’s exciting to watch a preview of who could be the next Cy Young or MVP Winner.

4. Metal Bats
To me, metal bats have the feel of little league. Much as been made of the safety of metal bats, but they were a problem long before that. The pinging sound has become almost a joke to the sporting world.

When I was little, I used metal bats. Granted, I never played baseball beyond little league, but I associated wooden bats with a mature game. If college baseball wants to help itself, it should make the switch. People would take it more seriously.

A lot of people agree with switching the aluminum bats to wood for many reasons stated above. I like the ping. To me, the aluminum bats are the last age of innocence for the boys of spring, before they become the boys of summer.

5. No History of Popularity                                                                                                                                                    College baseball is hindered because it never had an avid following. Most of us get in to a sport because our parents watched them with us. However, our parents never watched college baseball with us. Therefore, there is no tradition. You can’t force a fan to be passionate about something. It is just a part of someone.

Everyone has to start somewhere. I started being an MLB fan in 1998 when my hometown was rewarded with the Devil Rays. I started being a Gator baseball fan in 1994 when a boy I had a crush on in high school was a baseball player who was going to be attending UF. Because of that, I was able to watch David Eckstein play long before his two World Series Championships (02 Angels, 06 Cardinals – MVP).

Everyone becomes a fan of a sport or a team at some time, for some reason. You don’t have to be born one. If that was the case, the Rays wouldn’t have a fan older than 13.

College baseball is a great game. I will never knock the ability of those that play the game. But it is just not the same as the other major college sports.

While visiting the Duke campus once, I was surprised to be able to just find a seat in the bleachers while they played their most bitter rival in North Carolina. Even then, few students there seemed to care. Sadly, it’s like that in a lot of places. For college baseball to thrive, it has to start with its most passionate fans. They need to spread the word and get new fans on board.

Once that happens, college baseball can find some popularity

Agreed. So as a passionate fan I will say this: the best college baseball team in the country deserves the best fans in the country to go to one of the best college parks in the country and cheer on these stars. Our stars. So you can all say you had your “Eckstein” moment too.

For more thoughts on the Florida Gators (and more) follow Dory LeBlanc on Twitter (@Dory_LeBlanc)
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One Response to A Look at College Baseball’s Lack of Support

  1. MM from Georgia says:

    I agree that college baseball hasn’t been given fair treatment. It’s getting better – they now televise a lot of games on Sport South and several other networks. As you say it’s a good sport with very good talent. The College World Series is always interesting. Until a very few years ago you would have trouble finding any coverage of the sport on television other than the College World Series. The CWS is always good.

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