We’ve detailed Clemson’s struggles, with the Tigers losing 11 of 12 games going into Sunday to fall to 19-20, 7-13 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Duke played host to Clemson over the weekend and was trailing the Tigers by a half-game (one victory) in the race for the eighth and final ACC tournament slot.
Sunday’s game officially ended in a 6-6 tie in 10 innings. The Tigers believe the outcome of the game should have been different, however. Clemson’s Kyle Parker homered in the top of the 11th inning, a two-run shot giving Clemson the lead 8-6. However, a Duke official emerged to inform umpires of a lightning strike in the area and a 30-minute lightning delay ensued. According to Duke’s official press release on the game, "The two-run bomb was quickly followed by a bolt of lightning from an impending thunderstorm, causing a minimum delay of 30 minutes. Near the end of the delay, rain and hail set in and rendered the field condition unplayable. Because the teams could not complete the 11th inning, Parker’s home run was rendered moot and the score reverted to the 6-6 final."
That’s the Duke version. Clemson fan websites (warning: the story in the link is pretty over the top) and the original game-story release by the Tigers sports information office can give you the long version. Actually, the original press release is no longer available. The press release was later re-issued with about four paragraphs of unflattering details and sarcasm excised, but clearly Clemson felt Duke did less than it should have as an athletic department and as a baseball program to make sure that Sunday’s game was played.
“It’s one of those things where unfortunately it affected us—their lack of preparation and not having a grounds crew there or a warning system that allows you to get the tarp out there earlier,” Clemson coach Jack Leggett told The State in Columbia, S.C.
Leggett put it diplomatically but also well. BA’s world headquarters (which is moving tomorrow, though only a few miles) is in Durham, N.C., and Duke’s Jack Coombs Field is the closest college ballpark to us. In 11-plus years at BA, I’ve been to plenty of baseball games at Duke, and Leggett’s observations are a subtle way of stating the obvious–Duke doesn’t care about baseball the way Clemson cares.
Duke baseball games remain free. Earlier this year, McNally (a Duke alumnus) compared the seating setup at The Coombs to "going to a theater and watching a baseball game instead of the stage." He has a dream for the program, for a refurbished or perhaps brand-new Coombs Field, with spectators brought much closer to the action, a more intimate setup, and perhaps a ballpark as nice as the Duke basketball practice facility that now looks down on the ballpark from a hill down the right-field line.
The problem isn’t just Duke; it’s also the ACC, where baseball almost seems like an inconvenience at times when it comes to the league office. McNally’s official statement Monday indicated he just tried to follow school and league protocol when it came to Sunday’s storm.
"We followed our institutional protocol for inclement weather in the proper manner," McNally said in the statement. "When lightning is in the area, we will not put our student-athletes, coaches or staff members, nor the student-athletes or staff members from opposing schools, at risk. The safety of those involved with the game should and will always take precedent over the contest’s outcome. No one wanted to finish the game more than I did; it was not an ideal way to end a very competitive series. ACC officials have stated that institutional policies and procedures are used in conjunction with league policies for all home contests throughout the regular season."
Duke hasn’t cared enough about baseball over the years to raise the bar, and the ACC hasn’t cared enough about baseball to make Duke care. The Blue Devils’ administration doesn’t care enough to have a substantial grounds crew, or to have a significant early-warning system for lightning strikes like Clemson has. Former athletic director Joe Alleva—who recently left Duke for Louisiana State, succeeding former LSU baseball coach Skip Bertman as the AD—even had two sons play baseball at Duke on his watch, and yet the baseball program never made significant progress in building a new ballpark or in making a push to be nationally relevant, and McNally is its third coach in the last decade. His predecessor, Bill Hillier Sr., had a .357 winning percentage in five years at UNC Asheville, somehow got the job at Duke and produced a .361 winning percentage there, complete with a steroids scandal thrown in.
With plenty of work to do, McNally nonetheless has Duke on the right track. Duke’s 27-13 record certainly has been padded a bit by a weak non-conference schedule, but the Blue Devils have talent, and with remaining series against Maryland and at Wake Forest and Boston College, Duke has a legitimate chance to finish ahead of Clemson and force the Tigers to sit on the ACC tournament sidelines, not to mention the NCAA tournament.
That’s why Sunday’s game mattered so much to the Tigers, who just can’t seem to catch any breaks. That’s how you wind up 19-20, 7-13, with a streak of 21 consecutive regional trips (stretching back to 1987) in jeopardy. The irony is Duke needs to have a big finish to this season to start down the path to having a program that cares about baseball as much as the rest of the ACC.
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