Bluegrass State Emerges As A Baseball Hotbed
LEXINGTON, Ky.—Cole Sturgeon wanted to be Logan Johnson back in 2007. Sturgeon was a freshman at Owensboro (Ky.) Catholic then, and he watched excitedly as Johnson, a family friend from his hometown, set a College World Series record with four home runs in three games during the University of Louisville's first trip to Omaha.
"That was awesome," Sturgeon said. "Everybody here was watching that team and watching Logan and wanted to be doing what they were doing some day."
Cole Sturgeon still wants to be Logan Johnson in 2013. Sturgeon followed in his footsteps and is now a junior pitcher and outfielder for the Cardinals, hoping to help lead Louisville back to the CWS and be the guy all the youngsters in Owensboro dream of becoming. The Cards are No. 4 in Baseball America's preseason rankings and have their best shot to get back to the big show since '07.
"It would be so big for this program," Sturgeon said. "I remember what it did for them back then. The plan is to do it again."
This season represents the rise of baseball in the Bluegrass State. Louisville's rival to the east, the University of Kentucky, fresh off a record-setting season in 2012, opens at No. 11 in Baseball America's rankings. The Wildcats won a program-best 45 games last year and were one win away from taking the Southeastern Conference regular-season title. They reached a regional final, their best postseason showing so far.
Homegrown Talent Is Key
Like Louisville, UK's climb to national relevance really started just a few years ago. The Cats won the mighty SEC in 2006 to put themselves on the map.
"It changed how people perceive you," said Kentucky head coach Gary Henderson, who was an assistant on that team. "In '06 and '07, baseball really changed in this state. That was the beginning of it. It's been great for the state, for youth and high school baseball. The interest level is obviously much greater than it was a decade ago."
Both the Cats and Cards are loaded with talent, much of it homegrown. UK has 15 players on its roster who've been selected in the draft, which is second-most in the country. Only Vanderbilt (18) has more. Louisville has three players, along with two Wildcats, ranked in among Baseball America's Top 100 draft-eligible college prospects for 2013.
U of L catcher and outfielder Jeff Gardner, a Louisville native, said he was part of a burgeoning youth travel baseball movement in the last decade that has helped boost the talent produced in that city in particular, and across the commonwealth.
"Kentucky's always known as a basketball state. It's pretty neat now to see teams like us and Kentucky starting to do some big things in baseball," Gardner said. "I think it's a huge thing for the community, for high school guys to see people like me and Cole Sturgeon doing big things. Growing up, I always heard the stereotype that guys further south were always going to be the ones doing big things. Whenever you can see guys from your neighborhood and your town going places like Louisville and Kentucky and doing it, I think it definitely helps."
The Wildcats have 19 in-state players on their roster, including three starting position players, two weekend starters—lefty ace Corey Littrell is a Louisville native—and their dominant closer, Trevor Gott. The Cardinals have 12 in-state players on the roster, including four starting position players.
Both Henderson and Louisville coach Dan McDonnell agree that harvesting the local talent is key, maybe more so in baseball than any other college sport because teams are forced to use partial scholarships to fill their rosters—and in-state players cost less than out-of-state. Henderson, who helped build Oregon State's 2006 and 2007 championship teams with largely in-state recruits, said UK can essentially get five homegrown players for the tuition cost of four beyond the borders.
"You're only going to go as far as your in-state players take you," McDonnell said. "So Kentucky kids are our No. 1 priority."
Which makes postseason success even more a priority. Memories of 2006 and 2007 are fading. Both programs are thrilled to be back in the spotlight to start this season, but both know they really need to be there at the end.
"The reason a kid grows up from the state of Texas wanting to get to Texas or from Louisiana wanting to go to LSU is because when they were in elementary and middle school, they saw that team in Omaha," McDonnell said. "They saw the excitement and the publicity and kids go, 'One day, I'm going to play there.' So us making it to Omaha in '07 was definitely a factor. I have signed kids who were in middle school then and decided then they were coming to Louisville."
Omaha Or Bust
So what will boys on bluegrass diamonds say this summer? Can both the Cats and Cards increase their cachet with a trip to the College World Series?
"You want to do it. You have to do it. It's never been done before," Henderson said. "And we're at a spot where we can do it."
McDonnell warns that injuries are an unpredictable variable and that the "Disease of Me" is an ever-present threat to a team like his, stocked with draft-eligible juniors with an eye on scoring a big signing bonus.
"But before we start Game One, we definitely feel like this team has the capability of getting to Omaha and winning a national championship," he said.
Maybe UK and U of L will meet there, raising the stakes on a rivalry that loses some luster because it isn't played as a weekend series, rather as two one-game affairs on Tuesday nights. They play this season in Louisville on March 2 and Lexington on March 16. Both sides say it matters—because pretty much everyone in the state grows up loving either red or blue and hating the other hue—but the series would have more juice if played on a weekend. Players for both teams suggested a Clemson-South Carolina style traveling series.
As it is, Henderson said, "It's an important rivalry that we want to win. Is it more important than 30 SEC baseball games? It's not. It doesn't define your season."
No, Kentucky's season will be defined by series against the SEC's other seven teams in BA's preseason top 20. If the Wildcats can survive a schedule that features 17 games against top-10 opponents, they'll have a chance to elevate the program to new heights.
"We'll be as good as we want to be. We have enough talent at every position to make it to Omaha," Littrell said. "A lot of people like to say Kentucky's not a baseball state. This is us showing the country that we can play baseball here, too."
Kyle Tucker covers Kentucky for the Louisville Courier-Journal.