Hoosier State Enjoying Golden Age

Bart Kaufman Field

Bart Kaufman Field

BLOOMINGTON, Ind.—On the sixth Tuesday of the 2012 college baseball season, the temperature in Bloomington was 70 degrees. One year later, on the sixth Tuesday of the 2013 season, the temperature peaked at 38, and lingering snow on Indiana’s new baseball field forced the postponement of a midweek showdown against Louisville.

A historically warm winter and spring contributed to the greatest season in decades for Northern college baseball last year, including a banner year for the state of Indiana. Purdue snapped a century-long Big Ten Conference title drought and hosted a regional. Indiana State and Valparaiso joined the Boilermakers in the NCAA tournament field.

But anyone who dismissed the surge of college baseball in the Hoosier State as a product of fluky weather was mistaken. The weather has been characteristically cold and snowy this year, but baseball in Indiana is stronger than ever before.

For most of this season, Notre Dame and Indiana have been fixtures in Baseball America’s Top 25 rankings. The Hoosiers broke into the rankings for the first time in program history after winning a series at Florida in Week Four—the beginning of a school-record 18-game winning streak. IU climbed to No. 12 in the rankings after Week Eight, boasting a 25-4 overall record.

The Fighting Irish ended a seven-year Top 25 drought in Week Two and have remained in the rankings ever since. The Hoosiers and Irish are legitimate College World Series contenders, loaded with physical lineups and quality arms.

“I’ve noticed, we’re a much more physical team than pretty much everybody we’ve played,” Indiana coach Tracy Smith said. “And when I think back to Purdue, that was them last year, too. They were a pretty physical team.”

There might not be a team in the country with a more physical core than Indiana’s slugging sophomores Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis and Scott Donley, plus seniors Michael Basil, Dustin DeMuth and Justin Cureton. The Hoosiers are built that way by design. After Smith’s pro playing career ended, he went to scout school, and he tells his assistant coaches that if a player doesn’t bring at least one major league tool to the table, the Hoosiers are not recruiting him.

Likewise, Notre Dame has an imposing, powerful heart of the order in Eric Jagielo, Trey Mancini and Ryan Bull.

“To me the big equalizer for us is Jagielo and Mancini,” said Irish coach Mik Aoki. “Both of those guys can change the game with one swing of the bat. I know that I wouldn’t want to be calling pitches against that three-four combination, I’ll tell you that.”

Purdue had similar physical talent last year, when Kevin Plawecki, Cameron Perkins and Nick Wittgren were all drafted inside the top 10 rounds. Indiana State features one of college baseball’s most talented players in junior lefthander Sean Manaea, a likely top 10 overall pick this June.

So why is college baseball suddenly so strong in Indiana? Is the state churning out more talent at the high school level? Smith doesn’t necessarily think so.

“I’m a product of the state of Indiana, and I spent nine years at Miami (Ohio) but came back here to recruit. I don’t think a lot has really changed,” said Smith, who took over as IU’s head coach for the 2006 season. “There’s always been quality players here, there maybe hasn’t been quite the number of them. Your good players in Indiana, trust me, they’re just as good as the players in California; we just don’t have as many.”

The state’s high school ranks have produced their share of top-tier talent in the past, but a number of the top players have gone to school out of state, such as Kyle Gibson to Missouri, Drew Storen to Stanford or Alex Meyer to Kentucky. Now, especially with beautiful new ballparks opening this year at Purdue and Indiana, there is more reason for the top players to stay home.

“I think the thing with the new facilities is keeping the good kids around,” Smith said. “Look at Purdue, with Plawecki—’Hey, I can go two hours from home rather than eight hours from home.’ Notre Dame recruits more nationally I think. Not lost on all of this is the quality of the institutions too. I think the Big Ten Conference in particular still does a really good job of valuing the student-athlete, so if you can evaluate the good baseball player who takes academics seriously, you’ve got a good chance of getting them.”

The Hoosiers have even had success getting players from the San Diego area to leave sunny Southern California behind in favor of the college-town charm of Bloomington. Former IU All-American Alex Dickerson was their most notable find, but current ace Joey DeNato and closer Ryan Halstead also hail from the San Diego area. Indiana has four California natives on its current roster.

“Honestly, we’ve had a lot easier time, when you get them on the visit, most of them will commit before they go home,” Smith said. “So it’s well worth our effort to go out there. It’s just different here—it’s a slower pace, and for a lot of those kids, that’s appealing to them and their families. So we’re going to keep going out there.”

Notre Dame, as a private school with strong academics and a huge national following because of its football tradition, recruits from coast to coast; the current roster features just five Indiana natives. Aoki said he believes the Irish have the pieces in place to continue to compete even after they move to the baseball-rich Atlantic Coast Conference, where they will be competing against mostly warm-weather powers.

“I think that the name brand of a Notre Dame, the kind of niche that we have, the academic/athletic market, I think it gives us a chance,” Aoki said. “Obviously the weather is always going to be something that’s used against us. We’ve got an indoor facility, we’ve got a financial wherewithal to be able to go south early in the season and play those games down there. From a strength and conditioning, nutrition, sports psychology standpoint, we’ve got all those resources that any other school in the country has. The only real knock you can make against Notre Dame at this point is weather, and truth be told if a kid is going to make his entire decision based on weather, he wasn’t the right fit for this university anyway . . . I think we’ll be able to compete for a regional spot year in and year out (in the ACC).”

The weather reality is inescapable, of course, and the Big Ten will continue to search for ways to level the playing field, such as pushing to allow teams the option to play games that count in the fall. That suggestion makes many Southern fans bristle at what they perceive as the Big Ten’s petulance, but there’s a reason baseball players are known as “The Boys of Summer,” not “The Boys of February.” Playing and watching baseball in the North can be a very unpleasant experience in February and March. Indiana’s home opener on March 20 was played in 30-degree weather, with a wind chill factor of 17. During the middle of their winning streak, the Hoosiers played nine consecutive games on altered schedules because of poor weather. Yet they kept winning.

Indiana’s sparkling new Bart Kaufman Field is built to alleviate some of the weather woes. It comes equipped with heaters in the dugout roofs and an AstroTurf playing surface—including the pitcher’s mound—that is less susceptible to the ravages of poor weather.

And as the weather has warmed up, fans in Bloomington have shown up to support their winning baseball team. The Hoosiers drew a school-record, sellout crowd of 2,757 for their first-ever night game April 5 against Illinois, then sold out again Saturday, as the temperature climbed into the 60s. Smith, who was involved in every aspect of planning the new ballpark (“all the way down to the door handles”), said he is particularly excited about the field-level “bullpen” picnic area behind the right-field fence, where he hopes students will get “conversational” with the opposing right fielder. He said the distance from home plate to the backstop was reduced from the standard 60 feet to 50 feet in order to get fans more involved, creating a feeling that they are right on top of the action.

As a result, Indiana has created a fantastic baseball atmosphere, and if the Hoosiers continue on their current path, Kaufman Field will be hopping in June while it hosts a regional. The next time Purdue is in position to host, it too will have a gorgeous facility to showcase. Its new stadium was not completed in time to host last year, so the Boilermakers had to host in Gary, Ind.

With the success of Indiana and Notre Dame, the state has at least a chance to host two regionals at on-campus facilities this June.

“I think college baseball in general is starving for venues for Northern schools to host when they put a product out there that is worthy of hosting,” Smith said. “The baseball in the North is good, the players are good.”

The rest of the country should find that out soon, if it hasn’t already.