Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Cold Facts of College Baseball Up North

By Steve Rundio

They’re trying to save baseball at UW-La Crosse.

Bless their hearts. When the university announced last June it was eliminating baseball and men’s tennis as cost-cutting moves, players from both sports began raising funds, and they have a good chance of keeping both alive in 2010, perhaps beyond. It’s hard not to admire players for initiating a fund-raising effort during a tough economy to sustain a sport they love.

But baseball’s supporters face an intractable long-term problem: Spring baseball up north can be a bummer.

As someone who loves sports and is a very lucky man to get paid for attending high school sporting events, I must admit my least favorite task as sports editor is sitting through an early-spring high school baseball game. As a baseball fan, I prefer the American Legion season.

It’s not the cold weather -- watching soccer, cross country, track & field or football in 45-degree weather doesn’t bother me. What bothers me about early spring baseball is the quality of play. Forty-five degrees doesn’t compromise the quality of soccer, football or cross-country (many runners actually prefer 45 degrees to the mid-summer heat). Those sports allow for enough movement to sustain peak performance.

Baseball is a different game. Players remain stationary most of the contest -- both on the field and in the dugout -- and are as cold as the fans who watch them. And since baseball is primarily a game of hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills, it’s more dependent on nice weather than any other sport. Football can be played in a sleet storm. Baseball can’t.

At least high school baseball gets the benefit of some decent weather. Half of Tomah’s Mississippi Valley Conference schedule is played in May, when conditions range from plausible to comfortable. The WIAA doesn’t conduct its post-season until the baseball-friendly month of June.

Colleges face a tighter schedule. Take UW-La Crosse. Its first home game last season was March 24. Average high temperature: 48 degrees. Why so early? To get the regular season done by May 8 (the team’s final home game was May 3).

Most northern teams take a trip to the Sun Belt to get a sufficient number of games in adequate weather. UW-La Crosse went to Arizona in mid-March and played eight games in six days. These trips aren’t cheap, and they’re even more difficult for athletic budgets to sustain during a deep recession.

UW-La Crosse isn’t the only northern university to target its baseball program. Vermont and Northern Iowa just played their final seasons of baseball. UW-Madison dropped the sport 18 years ago. It’s tempting to conclude that UW-Madison doesn’t offer baseball for the same reason Mississippi State doesn’t offer hockey. It’s a climate thing.

Wisconsin has many weeks of nice baseball weather. Unfortunately, few of them coincide with the second semester of college. So while the La Crosse Loggers draw 3,000 fans to watch college players on a glorious evening in July, local colleges struggle to attract any fans at all during raw afternoons in April.

Hey, I’m rooting for baseball to survive at UW-La Crosse. But I also know the cold, cold facts.

Steve Rundio is the sports editor for Tomah Newspapers.

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