It’s hard to comprehend sometimes just how much the sport of baseball crams into the month of June.
Baseball America comes at the game from a unique perspective, and we hope it remains unique even as other media outlets flatter us by emulating our focus on scouting and player development. But we remain the only publication that covers the game with a high level of scrutiny on both the amateur and professional levels. And because we cover both, June is our biggest month because of two of the game’s most important events, which make it thrilling.
It opens with the draft, as professional baseball organizations scour the best high schools and colleges have to offer. The business side of the game makes itself known with the silly season of signings, but those are less messy than they used to be with a mid-July signing deadline. The month closes with the College World Series, which I failed to attend for the second time since 1998. Blame the draft, a broken foot and my poor planning.
I did my best to follow from afar, consuming our coverage from Jim Shonerd and the inimitable Aaron Fitt, our national writer for college baseball. I certainly missed our usual Omaha haunts, but I didn’t feel like I was missing much action the first 10 days or so, until Virginia and Vanderbilt delivered a fairly dramatic, best-of-three Finals.
Watching on TV rather than being an on-site reporter and analyst or spectator (I sat in the seats with my son last year) was much more difficult than expected. The College World Series just isn’t translating well on TV these days, at least not for me. And I have some ideas to help that go beyond the obvious, self-serving one of using me as an analyst. (I mean, look at that column mug. If you saw that face as the game opened, how could you change the channel?)
Pace Of Play
This is a big deal for all baseball, but the college guys aren’t as good as the big leaguers, and they need to pick it up. College baseball players and coaches just have to understand a simple truth: They play in a $132 million stadium, built just for them. It’s essentially a TV studio, and they are programming. So they need to play faster.
A pitch clock with no one on base would be a good start. The Southeastern Conference has used it for three years now, with nary a controversy. A clock is necessary to pick up the pace and make it easy for umpires, who have enough to worry about. But they do need to worry about pace, and force hitters who tarry to stay ready.
Baseball is entertainment. Everyone involved has to be reminded of that from time to time.
Find A Voice
ESPN cares about college baseball, evident in its expanded regular-season coverage (particularly on ESPN3) and especially with the Bases Loaded channel, showing every game on the weekend of regional play. It’s the best thing to happen to college baseball in the last five years.
But for every other sport it broadcasts, ESPN has authoritative voices, broadcasters who are synonymous with the game. That hasn’t happened with college baseball yet.
Former Stanford All-American and big leaguer Kyle Peterson, an Omahan who still makes his home in town, has become the network’s go-to color analyst, which is a start. Peterson follows the game and is passionate about it, but he’s at his best in a three-man booth with another analyst to amplify his energy level. I thought he worked well with Aaron Boone, the third-generation former big leaguer whose college coach from his Southern California days, Mike Gillespie, was in this year’s series leading UC Irvine.
The CWS could use a play-by-play announcer who knows and loves college baseball, though, and who covers it all season. Bringing in the big league guys for two weeks just doesn’t work. By the end of the series, you can hear how much they miss the big leagues, which is human and understandable, but does no credit to college baseball’s biggest event.
Bring Back Rosenblatt
OK, not really. I know this can’t happen. And I don’t want to belabor points some of you saw on my Twitter feed (@johnmanuelBA) during the series. But the CWS has become the perfect storm of offensive ineptitude.
The ballpark is too big and points in the wrong direction. The bats and balls are frankly lifeless, and the change to the baseballs coming in 2015 does not include the livelier core that the pros use, just flatter seams. Hitters in Omaha lack confidence and rarely even try to drive the ball, favoring a contact-oriented, defensive approach.
Four-year-old TD Ameritrade Park finally did get a moment this year, though. John Norwood’s solo home run in the eighth inning helped deliver Vanderbilt its championship, and was a shocking way to end the CWS, especially considering it was just the third home run hit the entire event.
But the game in Omaha is out of balance when a home run is a shock and not a threat. Attendance was down this year, and while TV ratings improved, it was only back to the levels of 2011. College baseball was growing by leaps and bound in 2010, but in the last four years of the TDAP/BBCOR bat era, the sport has stalled.
I’m rooting for it to get going again.