College Baseball Comes Of Age In The Video Game Era

College baseball’™s future looks prosperous. The evidence is all over our 2006 College Preview issue.

• Many of the game’™s marquee programs are doing well, starting with defending national champion Texas, but there’™s still room for upstart programs. Missouri has its highest preseason ranking ever; same for Oregon State at No. 8, a program that made its first trip to Omaha in more than 50 years last year.

• The game will get more chances to market itself on television. Last year college baseball got a break, as ESPN had plenty of ice time, so to speak, because of the NHL’™s labor conflagration. Hockey’™s loss was college baseball’™s gain, and the sport was all over ESPN’™s family of networks last spring. This year, with soccer’™s World Cup in effect and no need for NHL replacement programming, it appears college baseball will be predominantly on ESPNU, as well as on rival CSTV. Those are still two more national outlets (however limited they may be) than college baseball used to be on.

• A change-of-season plan with a uniform start date, long desired by Northern schools, finally has passed the NCAA’™s labyrinthine legislative process. In 2008, your College Preview will arrive about a month later, because all the teams will start their games in late February, rather than trickling out in January or around Lincoln’™s Birthday.

• No one’™s talking about bats, bat standards, out of control offense or exit-speed velocity. Isn’™t that nice?

• Coaches are talking about constructive solutions to scholarship issues, instead of merely bemoaning the NCAA’™s 11.7 limit, imposed in 1991. Of course coaches would like to have more scholarships to dole out to players. Now, it’™s apparently possible that they could have 14 scholarships to play with, or go to a tuition-based scholarship system that could help bring more low-income (hence minority) players into the sport.

• Finally, and perhaps most improbably, college baseball has its own video game.

MOP Up the Competition

Perhaps the San Francisco Giants will be unhappy to see that their 23rd-round pick in the 2005 draft, former Texas infielder David Maroul, is on the cover. Will the Madden Football cover curse carry over to EA Sports’™ first college baseball game, MVP 06 NCAA Baseball? Maroul didn’™t have a curse in mind when he was told he could grace the cover.

“They called me and said it might be me, but it might also be some old-school player,” the 2005 College World Series Most Outstanding player deadpanned. “But when they told me I got it, I thought it was pretty neat.”

Maroul has played the game on an XBox system, but admits he’™s not a gamer per se. He’™s just a baseball player (and fan) who likes to play video games. That’™s going to describe plenty of people who will buy the game for the combination of EA’™s passion for college sports and ability to design realistic baseball video games.

“The coolest thing was how much the ballparks look real,” Maroul said. “They made our park (Texas’™ Disch-Falk Field) look just like it really looks, the level of detail really surprised me. Same for Rosenblatt. They’™ve got it down to a T.

“When you’™re playing, it’™s like you’™re watching a game on ESPN. Kyle Peterson and Mike Patrick are the announcers, and they have the crawl of scores at the bottom of the screen. The whole thing is pretty cool.”

The game launches today, in plenty of time for the start of the 2006 season, with 128 teams from 14 conferences; a Creation Zone for gamers to build their own universities and teams, ballparks and even players; and, we’™ll selfishly admit, Baseball America signage on the walls, BA rankings during the year and the presentation of our Player of the Year Award.

Better Days Are Here

Ten years ago, our Player of the Year got his trophy in a press conference in Omaha, not in a virtual world of a video game. OK, maybe that’™s not progress. But then 10 years ago, progress this significant for college baseball seemed impossible. The game frankly wasn’™t in great shape. Here’™s what the scene looked like then:

• The NCAA Tournament included 48 teams, not 64. Super-regionals didn’™t exist; regionals were six-team meat grinders known for destroying pitchers’™ arms. In its last year as a 48-team event, the tournament lost almost $250,000. Now, it routinely turns seven-figure profits.

• CBS telecast the CWS title game, and it was a one-game, winner-take-all show played at 11 a.m. local time in Omaha. And CBS frankly didn’™t care.

• Bats were getting “nuclear,” as the sport was in the midst of the minus-5 era. With lighter bats built of stronger metal alloys, hitters ruled the day, and the term “gorilla ball” was born.

It wasn’™t a useful marketing moniker for anyone but Louisiana State. But in 1996, Warren Morris belted his Series-winning home run. That lifted the profile of college baseball, and in 1999, two major factors came together: The bats were toned down and the tournament expanded. Those twin events made the game better while simultaneously making it more accessible. And the good of the game’"which was there 10, 20 and 30 years ago’"was able to shine through.

In the last 10 years, the sport has come of age. There’™s no better evidence than David Maroul on the cover of a video game.