Ranking The Top 25 College Baseball Stories of 2020
Because the college baseball season got sidelined just four weeks after it began, it would be easy to view 2020 as a year when not very much happened in the sport. And that would be true, on the field at least.
But there were still plenty of headlines in and around college baseball throughout the year. Many, of course, were related to the coronavirus pandemic. Some involved the business side of the sport, others involved changing of the guard at certain programs and still others left us remembering those we lost.
We’ve all been waiting for 2021 to roll around so that we can put a tough 2020 in our rearview mirror. That’s especially true in college baseball, with the promise that the new year will bring a full season for players, coaches and fans who will have gone 11 months without the sport they love.
Before we do so, however, it’s worth reviewing the 25 biggest stories in the sport from 2020.
1. College World Series canceled
In an unprecedented move, the NCAA on March 12 canceled the College World Series, along with all other winter and spring sports championships. It was a shock to the entire sport that the Road to Omaha had been closed just a month into the season. While the move did not officially cancel the season—a decision left up to individual conferences—it effectively marked the end of college baseball for 2020. The decision not only served as a crushing blow for players and coaches who felt like they were just getting going, but it was also a tough hit to take in the city of Omaha, where many businesses rely on big events like the CWS to stay afloat. The singular hope and purpose of the 2021 college baseball season is making sure it ends with a team lifting a trophy in Omaha.
2. NCAA grants eligibility relief
The season being canceled after roughly a month immediately led to many questions about what would happen with player eligibility. Would the NCAA simply chalk it up to poor fortune and have players matriculate as usual? Would eligibility relief be provided only to seniors? Would everyone get the year back? On March 30, the NCAA’s Division I Council approved a proposal that gave every spring sport athlete affected by the 2020 season cancellation their season back, and at the same time, relaxed roster cap rules in order to make room for players who were not expected to be part of the program in 2021.
3. The extended recruiting dead period
One other product of the pandemic in college baseball is that it severely limited recruiting in the sport. On the day the CWS was canceled, college baseball reverted back into a recruiting dead period, during which in-person contact with recruits and off-campus recruiting is prohibited. Since then, the dead period has been extended a number of times, and currently is in effect until April 15. The dead period affects how coaches are able to evaluate recruits, of course, but more importantly, it potentially limits opportunities for evaluation for players. Effectively, all of the in-person evaluation period in 2020 was lost and recruiting moved online.
4. A five-round MLB draft
After speculation throughout much of the spring that MLB would cut the size of its draft from 40 rounds down to some smaller number as a cost-saving measure, word came on May 8: the draft was going to be cut all the way down to five rounds. From a college baseball perspective, this bit of news cut both ways. On one hand, coaches and players across the country were disappointed that hundreds of college players who would have otherwise been drafted and started pro careers would instead be left to decide between signing as a free agent for a maximum of $20,000, coming back to campus, transferring to a new school or simply moving on from baseball in many cases. But on the other hand, the relative lack of current college players and incoming recruits drafted has made college baseball rosters more talented than ever, and the sport stands to gain from that.
5. College baseball programs cut
After going several years without losing any programs from the ranks of Division I, 2020 saw three eliminated: Chicago State, Furman, and perhaps most disappointingly, Boise State, which had just begun playing baseball again in 2020 after a 40-year absence. A fourth, La Salle will be eliminated following the 2021 season. Bowling Green State also announced in May that it would eliminate baseball, but the decision was reversed weeks later after a fundraising effort saved the program.
6. Florida’s vault to No. 1
After Florida was one of the last teams in the 2019 Field of 64, it was fair to mix some caution with the optimism around a very talented team as the 2020 season approached. Very quickly, however, that caution was thrown to the wind, as the Gators swept Miami emphatically on the road the second weekend of the season on the way to starting 16-0—the best start in program history—and vaulting all the way up to No. 1 in the rankings, where they ended the season. Entering the 2021 season, Florida will look to essentially pick back up where it left off, as it is the national title favorite.
7. Cape Cod League canceled
College baseball fans hoping that a difficult spring would give way to a summer highlighted by a return to ballparks to watch high-quality college baseball were dealt a blow on April 24, when the Cape Cod League canceled its season. In the end, some summer leagues pressed on with altered formats and schedules, but the Cape was far from alone in canceling the campaign and hoping for better days in 2021. With USA Baseball also not fielding national teams this summer, the two biggest showcases for college underclassmen talent were not available, which only serves to increase the anticipation of seeing those players this spring.
8. Fall ball gets underway
After having the season canceled prematurely and having summer ball cut back significantly, it was a sight for sore eyes to see college baseball teams take the field once again for fall practice. While there was a great disparity in how much practice each team got, ranging from certain teams getting in something resembling a normal fall practice period and others not taking the field at all, it was nice just to have teams all working toward the 2021 season.
9. Transfer reform progresses
Transfer reform has long been debated in college sports and has gained increased prominence in recent years. Now, after much discussion, reform is nearly at hand. On Oct. 14, the NCAA Division I Council formally submitted a proposal to green light one-time transfers, with the expectation that it will be passed by the NCAA Board of Directors in January. Those looking for more freedom of movement in college baseball appear to have gotten their wish at long last.
10. Mike Fox retires
On Aug. 7, longtime North Carolina coach Mike Fox, one of the most successful coaches in the sport over the previous 22 years, announced his retirement. The idea of Fox retiring was not a new one, as rumors had floated for several years that he was considering it, but he admitted that the pandemic, and the ensuing time spent at home with family when he normally would have been at the ballpark, helped him fully understand the importance of family and helped him to see that it was time. The job Fox vacated never actually came open, however, as his assistant of 19 years, Scott Forbes, assumed the role upon Fox stepping away.
11. Dane Acker throws no-hitter against Louisiana State
One of the clear highlights of a college baseball season that was much too short was the 11-strikeout no-hitter thrown by Oklahoma righthander Dane Acker on March 1. The story was so good on so many levels. Not only was it a no-hitter, but it came against Louisiana State, it was a 1-0 win Sooners win that basically required Acker to be every bit as good as he was that day and the cherry on top was that it was a game that took place in Minute Maid Park, not far from where Acker began his college career at Rice and where he attended junior college at San Jacinto. The season ended a couple of weeks later and Acker was drafted over the summer, so this was a moment he’ll never forget slipped right in under the wire.
12. Gary Gilmore’s cancer diagnosis
On Feb. 15, after his Coastal Carolina team won its season opener, coach Gary Gilmore announced that he had been diagnosed with what at the time was believed to be a form of liver cancer. Later, upon further examination, his diagnosis was changed to pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer. Since then, he has been receiving treatments and has been very positive about the way his body has responded to the treatments and about his excitement to be back with his team for the 2021 season. And if we know anything about Gilmore, it’s that he’s going to continue to fight and will do everything he can to keep Coastal Carolina rolling along as one of the premier programs in college baseball.
13. A New Model presented
After seeing the damage that the pandemic was doing to university athletic department budgets all across the country and wanting to secure a better financial future for the sport of college baseball, coaches got together this spring and worked on a proposal for a new model for the sport. Spearheaded by Michigan’s Erik Bakich, the coaches put together an exhaustive presentation of the plan, the crux of which is that the season would be moved back about a month to begin in mid March and end in Omaha in July. The proposed upshot of the plan is that college baseball would be given a greater chance to thrive (and draw a profit) in places where it’s simply too cold to enjoy the sport in February, increasing the level of financial independence around the country. It’s still too early to know just how popular this new proposal is or when it can be expected to be put up to a vote, but early on, there was a lot of positive buzz about the core idea.
14. Mike Gillespie passes away
Mike Gillespie, the former coach of Southern California and UC Irvine affectionately known as “Skip,” passed away on July 29. After winning a national title as a player at USC and then coaching at College of the Canyons, Gillespie had the unenviable task of taking over the USC program from the legendary Rod Dedeaux. Despite the pressure of following a legend of that scale, Gillespie kept the Trojans in the college baseball spotlight, taking the team to Omaha four times and winning the 1998 national title, which placed him alongside Jerry Kindall as the only individuals to win national titles as both a player and a coach. Gillespie’s final act in college baseball was as the coach at UC Irvine, where he proved he could still lead teams to the mountaintop by guiding the Anteaters to the CWS in 2014.
15. Long Beach State’s hot start
One of the best underdog stories from a team perspective in 2020 was the hot start of the Long Beach State Dirtbags. Coming off of a 14-41 season in 2019 and under the leadership of a first-year coach in Eric Valenzuela, very little was expected of the Dirtbags in 2020. But from week to week, they continued to exceed those modest expectations. It began with a series win over California. After that, it was a series win over a talented Wake Forest team and then a series win against Mississippi State, fully announcing itself as a team to be feared in 2020. We never got to see how that story was going to end, but it does create some excitement about what we’ll see from the team in 2021.
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16. Nick Gonzales leaves on a high note
As a lightly-recruited walk-on to New Mexico State who turned into the best player in program history and one of the best in the country, over the last three years, Nick Gonzales has given college baseball one heck of a story. And in a shortened 2020 season, he went out on a high note, hitting .448/.610/1.155 with 12 home runs and 36 RBIs. He also had not one but two three-homer games. The first came against Texas Southern on Feb. 16. The second came against Purdue-Fort Wayne on Feb. 29 after hitting two homers in the first half of that day’s doubleheader. It’s hard to imagine a player coming along and following Gonzales’ precise path any time soon.
17. Construction finished at new stadiums
Several new college baseball stadiums were completed over the course of 2020, including two in O’Brate Stadium at Oklahoma State and Elliot Ballpark at Connecticut that were slated to host play during the 2020 season but never got the chance. As 2020 came to a close, Nebraska-Omaha was also putting the finishing touches on a new ballpark. The most anticipated ballpark in the group, however, is probably the eponymous Florida Ballpark, the new home of the Gators. While it was always going to first host regular-season games in 2021, it was able to play home to UF’s fall scrimmages, which only served to heighten excitement around its debut next season.
18. Binghamton announces $60 million baseball complex
The facilities arms race in college baseball is not new, as many programs from coast to coast have invested in baseball in a big way over the last decade in particular. But that race kicked up a notch when Binghamton announced plans to build a new $60 million baseball complex. The new facilities will give the Bearcats one of the best facilities not only in the Northeast, but for any team not in a major conference. For a small-conference team, even one as successful as Binghamton, it is a significant move.
19. Michigan soars to No. 1 after opening weekend
Michigan started the 2020 season off with a bang. It started with a dramatic 4-3 win over then-No. 1 Vanderbilt, and before opening weekend was over, it had also collected wins over Cal Poly and Arizona State. Combined with some other chaos in the top 10 in the rankings, that was enough to jump the Wolverines from No. 8 all the way to No. 1. While they would later stumble and end the season at No. 25, they showed enough in that first weekend to suggest that the ceiling for the team was incredibly high.
20. Ed Blankmeyer leaves for minor league managing
One of the few big pieces of off-field news that broke before the pandemic halted the season came Jan. 6, when longtime St. John’s coach Ed Blankmeyer announced that he was leaving his post to take a job as the Mets’ extended spring training coordinator and manager of the Brooklyn Cyclones. In 24 years coaching the Red Storm, Blankmeyer led his team to 11 postseason appearances, including one trip to super regionals in 2012, all the while keeping the program among the best in the Northeast.
21. John Altobelli passes away
On Jan. 26, the college baseball world was rocked by the news that Orange Coast (Calif.) JC coach John Altobelli was killed in a helicopter crash that also took the life of his wife Keri, his daughter Alyssa, NBA legend Kobe Bryant and Bryant’s daughter Gianna. Altobelli’s reach into Division I college baseball was vast. His program produced numerous players who went on to play in Division I, he spent time coaching on the Cape, where his roster of players included Aaron Judge, and the tree of coaches who learned from him is impressive.
22. MLB announces new summer leagues
In 2020, MLB announced a reorganization of its minor league system, which resulted in a number of teams losing their status as affiliates. As part of MLB’s larger plan, it repackaged some of those former minor league markets as teams taking part in new college summer wood bat leagues. On Sept. 25, the Appalachian League was announced as a summer league for rising freshmen and sophomores, with players for the league to be selected in conjunction with USA Baseball. Then, on Nov. 30, MLB and Prep Baseball Report created the MLB Draft League, which is designed to showcase draft-eligible players who might have gone under-scouted in the spring. Also wrapped in that announcement was the news that Southern coach Kerrick Jackson would be leaving his post to become the first president of the league. It remains to be seen how these new leagues shift the summer ball landscape, but it’s a lock that there will be some trickle-down effect.
23. Chris Fetter leaves Michigan for Tigers
On Nov. 6, Michigan pitching coach Chris Fetter was hired to be a big league pitching coach, but he didn’t have to move far, as he took the job with the Tigers. He became just the second coach in 40 years to make a move directly from college to the major league ranks, following Wes Johnson, who made the move from Arkansas to the Twins in 2018.
24. Bryce Jarvis throws a perfect game
On Feb. 21, Duke righthander Bryce Jarvis gave us the first sign of the breakout season that he was about to enjoy when he tossed a perfect game in an 8-0 win over Cornell. Just as impressive as holding the Big Red to no baserunners over nine innings, he did it while simultaneously striking out 15 and holding his pitch count to just 94. Jarvis gave up just one earned run across his next two starts against Purdue and Florida State, striking out 11 and 12 batters, respectively, on the way to being selected in the first round of the draft by the D-backs.
25. Central Florida sweeps Auburn
Sometimes it’s easy to overreact to a single weekend series result, but it’s not an overreaction to draw the conclusion that Central Florida was the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference, and a team to watch nationally, after they swept a road series with Auburn that took place from Feb. 21-23. Far from a fluke result, the Knights simply outplayed the Tigers all weekend, winning the three games by a combined 22-6.