What are two of the best days annually on the American sports calendar? The first two days of the NCAA basketball tournament, of course.
Since the mid-1980s, when the all-day, all-basketball blitz became a Thursday and Friday tradition in March, we’ve been glued to our TV sets and had our attention fixated on our brackets. It’s become an integral part of our sports culture.
So let me let you in on a secret. The opening weekend of the NCAA baseball tournament, in which Indiana State has reached its first regional since 1989, is just like the first two days of the NCAA basketball tournament. Only take the first two days of the basketball tournament, give it a dose of steroids, and you have a compelling weekend of great sports.
Like, the NCAA basketball tournament, games are wall-to-wall, all-day long, on the first two days. Unlike the basketball tournament, that action continues into a third day with advancement to NCAA baseball’s version of the Sweet 16 – the super-regional – on the line.
Unlike basketball, you don’t sterile arenas in big cities. You get 16 home baseball fields. All distinct with their home park quirks, crazy fans, and college ambiance. From a pure atmosphere standpoint, ISU got one of the better sites at Vanderbilt’s idiosyncratic Hawkins Field, but any home SEC, Big 12, Pac 12 or ACC ballpark – college baseball’s big four conferences - will likely have a fun atmosphere.
Upsets? You want them, college baseball has them. Defending national champion Oregon State has already been knocked out on their home turf in Corvallis, Ore. UCLA, the No. 1 team in the country, faced an elimination scenario on Sunday. As of this writing, Campbell, Quinnipiac and Jacksonville State – among many others – was still alive and kicking.
Are you a fan of those great runs the Missouri Valley Conference has made in the NCAA basketball tournament over the years? The Valley is doing it on the baseball side of things too. As of this writing, all three of the MVC teams that were selected for the tournament – ISU, Illinois State and Dallas Baptist – were all still alive and playing in regional finals. Better-known schools like Ohio State, Indiana, Louisville and Florida have all been put to the sword by MVC teams. The MVC has always been a good baseball league, but this run will just add to the respect the league already has.
And all of this occurs even with the double-elimination system that, on-paper, should lend itself to favorites advancing. Instead, double-elimination provides a sort of fair second chance. It’s unlikely teams that have to take a mulligan are going to survive the weekend, but at least one oddball bad day by a primary contributor isn’t usually going to prove fatal. That seems imminently fair to me.
Plus, this is baseball we’re talking about – the best sport of all. The pitching might run out, but the clock never does. ISU proved this with a near miraculous comeback in the ninth inning against Vanderbilt on Saturday night.
And because this is baseball, you also get unlikely heroes. For ISU? It was Chris Ayers and pitchers Tyler Ward, Austin Moralis and Evan Giles at the MVC Tournament - baseball conference tournaments are also like basketball conference tournaments on steroids. At the Nashville Regional? Joe Boyle emerged from the shadows – he last started on May 12 and played just twice since – with a big 2-for-2 day at the plate to help ISU eliminate Ohio State 10-5 on Sunday.
It all adds up to a weekend of great excitement, but you know what? College baseball is worth getting to know even outside of its postseason.
I hadn’t been exposed to college baseball at all until I came here to Terre Haute. Once I learned its rhythms – weekend conference series, weekday nonconference games, three-man rotations, Johnny Wholestaff weekdays – I really learned to appreciate it. I’ve written it before, but I wish the sport had more fans in the Midwest. You see more future pros in a college baseball game than you ever will in a typical college basketball game, no matter what conference you’re watching.
However, I think the sport is making strides in the Midwest. The Big Ten, the bell-weather in our part of the world, has become significantly better in the last decade, with Indiana leading the way as a now-perennial power.
Some of this can be interpreted as bad news for nearby schools like ISU that have been more devoted to the sport for a longer period of time. Indiana will always have the resource advantages.
However, I see it as the big boat raising the tide. The more interest there is, the better it is for everyone. And besides, unlike basketball and football, ISU has a head start on Johnny-come-lately’s like Indiana. The Sycamores can sell tradition that other state schools can’t and on the same level of competition. And the Sycamores have been included in the statewide coverage the Hoosiers naturally draw. If you want to look at it a certain way? It’s a win-win.
Another thing that’s appealing about college baseball – it’s far more democratic than basketball or football is. The playing field is not completely level between the Power Five and the non-power schools, but it’s a far kinder bevel. Perhaps not in resources, but in access to games and in the way the sport operates.
If Indiana deigns itself worthy of playing ISU in men’s basketball? It’s headline news. Not so in baseball. ISU and Indiana schedule each other home-and-home every year (the game at Bloomington was a victim of bad weather this year). Same for Purdue and usually Illinois. ISU played seven Big Ten schools this season and no one in baseball thinks twice about it being a “threat” to the big school, the silly excuse you hear all of the time in basketball and football.
As far as the way the nuts and bolts of the way the sport works for the players, it’s fair. No silly debates about one-and-done’s. When you’re a freshman, you’re draft eligible. If you don’t sign with a team, you have three years until you can be drafted again. It’s simple, it’s worked for years and college baseball and the professional ranks complement each other better than any of the other sports do.
No sport is perfect and neither is college baseball. The season starts in mid-February, basically killing interest in the crib in the cold weather states, giving the southern-based SEC, Big 12, ACC and West Coast Pac 12 a big advantage. A move to a March 1 start date would do a world of good, not only for competitive reasons, but for growing the sport outside of its traditional geographic base, but good luck getting the southern and western conferences to give up their advantage.
Scholarship limits – baseball teams only get 11.7 scholarships to spread among their roster – are way too low, especially in the pitch count era. That’s a financial problem as any increase in baseball scholarships requires an equal increase in a women’s sport. Baseball has grown, but it’s not quite the revenue sport to the point where it can justify the money and stay compliant with Title IX.
Baseball still fights an uphill battle administratively too. Within the sport, many were angry when a third full-time assistant coach proposal – teams can only have two full-time assistants now – for baseball and softball was defeated partially by bigwig conferences Big Ten and Big 12 that can easily afford it. The MVC voted for it.
It’s a sport that still fights for its place in the sun sometimes.
However, if you allow yourself to enter its orbit, you can really learn to love college baseball. ISU has given Sycamores fans a chance to peek into its world. I hope they’ve liked what they’ve seen and give ISU, and the sport of college baseball in general, the attention and monetary support it deserves.
Todd Aaron Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or email@example.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.