For the casual baseball fan, the biggest difference between college baseball and pro ball is obvious.
It’s the bat, stupid.
I used to have a line for people (like, say, my big brother) who complained about the ping of the metal bats that they shouldn’t let the ping ruin a good thing for them. The old metal bats and the offensive game they created gave college baseball a brand, an identifiable quality separate from professional baseball, that I thought was good for the sport.
College baseball is looking for a new identity in this BBCOR bat era. There’s less offense, which is exacerbated on the sport’s biggest stage by TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. And those two facets are not going to change anytime soon. Changing the baseballs—from a raised seam to a flatter seam—supposedly will help a bit, and the flat-seamed ball is the ball the pro ranks use. Maybe pro ball has other elements the colleges can, let’s say, appropriate …
But when you break it down, it’s really the other way around. College ball does a lot of things better than pro ball.
The Schedule: This is the biggest difference between the two, not the bats, and all the advantages are with college ball here. Major League Baseball is awesome, but if anyone in charge of the game could start it over from scratch, the biggest change would be the schedule. No one would pick a 162-game schedule.
Japan’s 140-game slate, with one day off per week, makes more sense, but an even shorter schedule—making the games matter more, giving the players (especially the pitchers) more rest to help avoid injuries and bring out a better performance—makes sense.
College baseball’s 56-game regular season is a great length for the age group, especially now with a common start date. Sure, it would make logical sense for the season to start, say, in mid-March rather than mid-February. But that six-week lead time on the start of pro regular seasons also is a nice advantage for college baseball, allowing it to take the edge off a long, cold winter.
The shorter schedule also ensures that teams usually use their ace pitchers against each other. I relish the great Friday night matchups I’ve seen over the years, or the stories of matchups that attracted loads of scouts. My personal favorites remain the 1998 Jeff Austin vs. Seth Etherton duels between Stanford and Southern California, the 2002 Bryan Bullington-Joe Blanton showdown, which was delightfully random, and the Carlos Rodon vs. North Carolina matchups in the last two ACC tournaments.
Intensity: The shorter schedule, with many more days off, is a big reason college players can and usually do play so hard. As one area scout put it, “There’s a reason they call it, ‘The old college try.’ Those guys are young and full of energy.”
But scouts confirm the effort level is real, as are the rivalries, which you just don’t get, at least in the stands, when, say, Durham plays Gwinnett in the International League.
“It can be a lot of fun on a weekend in the SEC or ACC or a big school when the top arms are going at it and the place is full,” a scouting director said. “You don’t get that when you’re pro scouting in the minors.”
Less Homogeneity: Some teams play a West Coast, small-ball style, with a lot of bunting. I can appreciate it, but I also can appreciate teams that play more of a pro style and wait for the three-run homer. Some schools are known for developing power pitchers, others for submarine pitchers, others for offense, others for their myriad bunt defenses. Despite more diverse rosters, MLB is fairly homogenous in terms of playing style.
Coach vs. Manager: I have to say, I always preferred the term “coach” to “manager.” I wonder if the use of the term “manager” is an anachronism, a vestige of the days when managers helped sign the players and often were active players themselves. Also, pro players theoretically need less “coaching.” But coach is good enough for basketball, football and every other team sport. I like that college baseball uses it. Also, it’s a major reporter’s faux pas to call a minor league manager or see him in the dugout before a game as a media member and accidentally say, “Hey coach.”
Ballparks: The major leagues have tremendous cathedrals for ballparks. But very few of us can afford to sit in the best seats. College baseball now has many fine ballparks of its own, and the best seats are in most cases much more accessible to the 99 percent than the best seats in the big leagues.
The football playoff coming to college sports is just going to pump more money into college athletics. Some of that money is going to find its way into making these college parks even nicer, and more intimate by the sheer fact that they are smaller.
I would love to see college ball borrow some elements from pro ball. I’ve love to see the season played in the spring and summer, and I’d love to be able to buy a beer at a college game. (Loosen up, America!)
But 15 years ago, when I first started covering college baseball, I tried to trade the beat with another BA writer who covered the minors. Man, am I glad he said no. I would have missed out on a great period of college baseball and an awful lot of fun.