Tuesday, January 26, 2010

West coast baseball is its own worst enemy

By Bob Keisser Sports Columnist
Posted: 01/22/2010 11:11:55 PM PST

The camaraderie at the ESPN Zone Friday morning for the Easton Southern California College Baseball media day was jocular and fraternal, a like gathering of minds and personalities who share a comfortable bond. Of course, this was January. By the time April arrives, they will eventually feel like they're all stuck together in one sleeping bag.

These coaches play each other so often each season that they know the names of each other's children. With the depth of talent in the region, that means everyone schedules some raucous early weekend series and a slew of midweek showdowns between conference play.

Essentially, they beat each other up. Last year was almost a TKO for the West.

There were great teams in the West, including Fullerton and UC Irvine in the Big West and Arizona State in the Pac-10, but everyone else seemed to be a few games over or under .500.

Seven Pac-10 teams had between 24 and 32 wins. Six in the West Coast had between 28 and 31. Six in the Western Athletic Conference had 25 to 32 wins. Two WAC teams had 40-plus wins but didn't get a postseason sniff because of low RPIs.

The Mountain West Conference had three teams with dynamic records but sub-.500 Utah won the conference tourney.

Some teams are reaching the end of the season with depleted pitching staffs and fatigued teams after slugging it out with each other. Fullerton and Long Beach State played a dozen games each against Pac-10 teams last season. UCLA played 13 Big West teams.

In other parts of the country, there are oodles of Mid-Major conferences to provide fodder for schools from those dreaded BCS conferences like the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big 12.

It's a problem without a universal solution.

"I like to travel and go places," Pepperdine coach Steve Rodriguez said. "We've all come to realize that we're willing to travel and play the best teams even though they won't come out here to play us.

"Because of their financial backing" - the bountiful BCS revenue that supports other programs - "it's hard for them to travel. They can actually lose money if they pass up a home weekend. They don't need to travel."

Pepperdine hits the road for four games at LSU, but only two of them versus the defending national champs. They were able to get East Carolina to come West for a series. They have 19 games against their contemporaries beyond their league showdowns with Loyola and San Diego.

Long Beach State last season played series at South Carolina and Wichita State. In 2007, they played at Rice, Arizona State and Wichita State. In 2010, they'll get on a plane once, to play at Oregon State. The Wichita State rivalry which began in 1994 comes to an end after 2010 because of economics.

"We can't afford to travel like we did," Dirtbags coach Mike Weathers said. "So now our decisions come down to scheduling teams that are closer. Do we schedule, for example, Portland or Washington? Portland might help our won/loss record, but we can attract a bigger crowd with a Pac-10 team and help our RPI."

Long Beach and Fullerton are rare examples of West Coast programs that consider baseball to be an important revenue stream. The Dirtbags will play 17 games against Pac-10 teams, and Fullerton will play 11 and Cal Poly 10. UCLA has 13 and USC 12 games versus Big West teams.

"We can't afford to (be cavalier) about our home schedule," Fullerton coach Dave Serrano said. "We depend on the gate."

San Diego coach Rich Hill decided to do what he can to limit games against his peers.

"What we've done as a WCC team and non-BCS school is to increase our guarantee and bring in teams from outside the West," he said. "This year, we have Indiana for four games, and we have Wake Forest and Vanderbilt on our future schedules.

"I also would rather play one of the Oregon or Arizona schools to avoid the common opponent syndrome that seems (to depress) RPIs. If Loyola, Pepperdine, Long Beach and Fullerton play each other and wind up playing .500 after they're done, it isn't good for anyone. So I stay away from that."

In addition to Indiana, San Diego will host Rice. They will play seven road games against Coastal Carolina, Arizona State, Oregon and Oregon State.

UC Riverside, meanwhile, just plays Road Warrior. Eighteen of their 30 non-conference games last season were away from home, which was an improvement on 2008, when they played 16 of 19 games early in the season on the road, a run that included dates at Nebraska, Nevada and Texas Tech.

"We can't combat it," head coach Doug Smith. "We're not as high profile as Long Beach and Fullerton, so we go on the road and make it part of our approach; let's beat these teams that would never play us at home. We use it as a weapon, a little bit of a chip on our shoulder."

UC Irvine opened last season playing 11 of their first 12 on the road and had five trips outside California that required an airplane.

"Frankly, I think it's horrendous that only three or four teams from the Pac-10 get bids (each got three in 2009) when there are nine teams from the SEC and ACC getting bids," UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. "And I think if you backed any coach in a corner, including those from the SEC and ACC, they'd agree.

"They don't want to play the fifth best team in the Big West or Pac-10 because they can schedule easier teams. Here, we have no gimmes."

But they share a gauntlet and have darn good friendships.

Mike Weathers didn't compete in the "Coaches Cookoff" segment of the program because he had to pick up keynote speaker and alum Jason Vargas for the the Dirtbags annual Lead-Off Dinner Friday night.

Pepperdine's Steve Rodriguez was named the Top Chef and USC's Chad Kreuter, the defending champion, earned the "Kitchen Nightmare" award. That pleased Gillespie, last year's "nightmare" chef, and also Kreuter's father-in-law.

"I had six sessions with Ken Ravizza (the noted area sports psychologist), and he told me to visualize the meal," Gillespie quipped. "I have a five-year plan now. I'll have my own TV cooking show in five years."



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