You hear and read a lot about the state of baseball and not much of it is good. That’s an evergreen statement because baseball is the national pastime and its followers, this one included, tend to expect more from it.
The current aesthetic problems — pace of play, lack of action, and the rest — are exacerbated by the game’s hierarchy and its penchant for diving into rules changes. The glorified exhibition season of 2020 was a laboratory for several that have stayed in place, such as the “ghost runner.”
Another rant for another day.
But there is a brand of baseball that is much more watchable: The NCAA Division I tournament, also known as “The Road to Omaha.” Anecdotally, I was at a lunch counter Friday, asked them to switch the cable news with ESPNU, and within a few minutes people who had no idea UConn was playing were getting pulled into it, asking questions.
College baseball is fun. The exuberance is real, unforced. Starting pitchers, usually with a week between starts, stay in games, and there is plenty of power, with a mix of small ball, lots of aggressive baserunning. Bunting is a weapon because teams have problems defending it. The college game is beginning to dip its toes in analytics, but the wide variance of matchups dictates it will never be driven by them.
If you get past the ping of the metal bats, a big ask, it’s an enjoyable version of the game we grew up with. A niche sport, but it has everything to be the next big thing, except its regional nature.
That’s where my proposal comes in: The NCAA should make an investment in growing interest in baseball and softball by placing some of its regionals in the Northeast.
“Geography should be taken into the equation, too, just like it was in 2010 when we hosted as a No. 2 seed,” UConn coach Jim Penders was saying at the Coaches Roadshow in May. “Why wouldn’t college baseball want to spread it out geographically. It’s not like we’re asking for any special favors, either.”
UConn did make a successful bid to host a regional as a No. 2 seed in 2010, and its first game at Dodd Stadium in Norwich drew more that 5,600, clogging the roads for hours. The Huskies, with six future major-leaguers on the team, lost a heartbreaker to Oregon. Florida State, the No. 1 seed, a middle-of-the-pack ACC team that year, won the regional, though not without snark about having to come to Connecticut.
We haven’t seen a regional since, though UConn has put in a few bids, including this season. When the bracket was revealed on Memorial Day, it was the usual: two on the West Coast, Oregon and Stanford, everything else south of Mason-Dixon. Softball got one in Illinois, the rest south and west.
“No respect for what it takes to be a successful program in the Northeast,” UConn AD David Benedict lamented, via Twitter..
The power of the ACC and SEC dictates that those schools should get the largest share of host opportunities, but wouldn’t it be forward thinking to put a regional in New England or the New York area?
UConn was not a serious candidate to host this year because despite a 46-13 record, it’s strength of schedule (and RPI) were found lacking. Many of the Huskies’ nonconference opponents were not as good as they usually are. But the Huskies dominated the Big East and were the best team in the Northeast. Games at the new Elliot Ballpark or, when available, Dunkin’ Donuts Park, would be great for fans in Connecticut, yes, but also good for the college game.
Neutral sites could be chosen, with the No. 15 or 16 national seeds getting the top seeds, and staged in a number of beautiful minor-league parks like Brooklyn, Hartford or Worcester.
The warm-weather programs would still get ample opportunities to show their strength, but teams like UConn, Boston College, Rutgers (which should have been in the field this year) would also get a chance to play before their fans.
UConn won an exciting, entertaining game, beating Wake Forest 8-7 in College Park, Md., on Friday, enjoyed by those who knew the game was on TV and didn’t have the feed cut off on their cable system as I did. The Huskies played top seed Maryland late Saturday. However it turns out, the Road to Omaha is a product worth showcasing in every corner of the country and the NCAA should find a way to do it.
And here are a few other tidbits and observations for our corner of the sports universe:
Hartford basketball icon Johnny Egan was hospitalized recently, but his son, John Jr., tell me he’s rehabbing and expecting to make a full recovery.
Johnny, 83, who played at Weaver High, then Providence and then played and coached in the NBA, has been retired and living in Houston. During a long chat last year he described his active lifestyle, which includes finger-tip pushups.
Michael Macchi of Bethel, a longtime Egan friend and admirer, makes the case that he invented the “teardrop” shot, also known as a runner or floater. Egan, 5 feet 10, used it to shoot over the NBA’s towering centers of the 1960s and once won a bet with Wilt Chamberlain that it couldn’t be blocked.
“I grew up in the Hartford area and my father was very close to Egan so I was regaled with tales of how Egan invented and perfected that shot to make up for his lack of height,” Macchi says.
This first of June found both New York teams with commanding leads in their divisions. The Mets’ emergence shouldn’t be a surprise — it’s classic first-year Buck Showalter. When Buck takes over a losing team, he immediately establishes a professionalism within and makes a statement to the outside that it will no longer be pushed around.
He did that as a rookie manager with the Yankees in 1992, getting into a shoving match with Tony La Russa. He he did it in Baltimore, getting Yankees players kicked off the field at Yankee Stadium when it was the Orioles’ turn to take BP. Hedid it this year with the early season hit batsman. The Mets became a more mature team the minute Showalter took command.
The Yankees are more of a surprise in that they are not as imposing on paper as they’ve been in the past. But the roster changes leading into this season have connected pieces that fit together better, not as many players playing out of position, better defense, especially behind the plate, which has enhanced the pitching performances.
P.J. Higgins, who played at Lyman Hall High in Wallingford, was called to the major leagues May 22, joining the Cubs. He’s 8-for-28 with a triple in his first game, and his first two major-league homers in back-to-back games, May 30 and 31.
Nice to see for Higgins, 29, who’d been in the minor leagues since 2015, lost a chance to make it in 2020 when COVID wiped out the minor-league season and needed Tommy John surgery last season. His family and friends could get to see him next weekend when the Cubs come to Yankee Stadium.
UConn and Benedict have had their share of extenders remorse, which is inevitable in college sports today. Coaches can’t recruit as “lame ducks,” so the extension gamble must be taken. One has a feeling the decision to extend men’s hockey coach Mike Cavanaugh for six years, $3.5 million this week will prove to be a wise one. The program is on the rise, and with the new arena soon to open, the stability that comes with locking in it’s builder will help keep its momentum.
Dom Amore can be reached at email@example.com