Friday, October 1, 2010

College baseball dying as Title IX stays alive

By: Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

In each of its financial crises over the last 25 years, the UA's athletic council establishes a hypothetical doomsday scenario. It asks: If we absolutely have to eliminate a sport, which one goes?

It doesn't take long to get down to baseball.

Is it unthinkable? Yes. In a century of sports competition, Arizona has a deeper baseball tradition than it has in any other sport.

Arizona would no sooner eliminate baseball than, say, the Cal Bears.

On Tuesday, running a $12 million sports deficit, Cal announced that baseball will no longer be part of its athletic program. Blowing up baseball might save the Bears about $1.2 million per year.

While hitting fungoes to some ballplayers at Kindall/Sancet Stadium, UA coach Andy Lopez was informed that his dear friend, David Esquer, Cal's baseball coach, will be out of work by June.

"Is this a bad joke?" he asked.

Here are some earlier bad jokes: College baseball no longer exists at Colorado, Wisconsin, Iowa State and Wyoming. That's not much of a surprise. Yes, it's often too cold for springtime baseball, but mostly it's because it costs so much to operate a women's soccer program and a women's basketball team.

Baseball also died in warm-weather precincts like UTEP, Tulsa and SMU. Why? Because women's track teams and the women's volleyball teams absorb so much of strained budgets.

"I almost refuse to believe what I've heard," said Lopez. "It's like being hit over the head."

Once an august entity such as Cal whacks its baseball team, it's time for every middle-income college baseball program to worry. Because of Title IX regulations and ratios, women's sports are untouchable. At most baseball places, including Arizona, baseball runs a notable deficit. Arizona baseball had expenses of close to $450,000 last year, the school's most costly nonrevenue men's sport.

There is some irony at work here. New Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott met with the league's baseball coaches about a month ago and talked aggressively about a way to market the sport, gain exposure and turn a buck.

Lopez, UCLA's John Savage and Stanford's Mark Marquess were appointed to a committee to promote Pac-10 baseball, and later, the Pac-10 dispatched its director of marketing, Danette Leighton, to meet with Lopez in Tucson.

There are some grand plans, such as the creation of a Pac-10 tournament, possibly to be played at Spring Mobile Ballpark in Salt Lake City, a baseball haven that seats 15,500, a delightful place to celebrate Pac-10 baseball.

Yet a few weeks later, Cal's baseball program was dumped.

"I flew home from the Pac-10 meeting in San Francisco genuinely excited about Larry Scott's passion for college baseball," said Lopez. "When it starts at the top like that, it makes you think about all the good possibilities."

In the public mind, Pac-10 baseball has been dormant for years, living off the long-ago reputations of Bobby Winkles, Rod Dedeaux, Jerry Kindall and Jim Brock.

Until Oregon built the first SEC-type, get-the-fans-involved ballpark two years ago, the Pac-10's baseball season just sort of trudged on. Cal never did install lights at its on-campus field. Arizona has been similarly slow to move forward.

When perennial national power Wichita State played at Kindall/Sancet Stadium in March, Shockers coach Gene Stephenson inquired as to where he, and his players, might relieve themselves, if the need arose.

He was directed to a porta-pottie down the right field line.

When Lopez took the Wildcats to Wichita State in 2007, a sellout crowd of 7,851 attended at Eck Stadium. He was knocked out by the facilities: restrooms and showers connected to the dugouts, loge boxes and suites for corporate and high-end guests, a terrace to protect fans from the sun, and a berm in the outfield for picnics, social interaction and prime viewing.

Imagine what Stephenson and the Shockers thought when a team with a nationally elite reputation such as Arizona drew just 918 and 1,090 for the two-game series in Tucson.

Given new direction at the Pac-10 level, and with the aggressive approach of first-year athletic director Greg Byrne, Arizona is likely to change the way it markets baseball. Lopez's team is loaded, projected to be a strong contender for the 2011 College World Series, and it wouldn't be a shock in coming years if the Wildcats play some games at Hi Corbett Field or Tucson Electric Park, find a way to give their customers some shade, and maybe even build a field-level restroom for the players and coaches.

"Year in and year out, Pac-10 baseball is probably the strongest in the country," said Lopez. "We get more of our people drafted and put more of our players in the big leagues than anyone. It's a shame that it's almost a secret."

Unfortunately at Cal, baseball is no longer a secret. It's past tense.


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