Foul Shots: An unseen drama

Baseball is America’s pastime. It’s the sport of Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Derek Jeter and hundreds of other superstars. For much of the 20th century, baseball was king. It made the most money, attracted the most news coverage and created the heroes that fathers tell their sons about.

Professional baseball has since been supplanted by football as America’s sports cash cow. This is understandable as football is such a rabble-pleasing game, full of high-speed collisions and acrobatic plays. Baseball, on the other hand, is a thinking man’s pleasure. The pitcher engages in a chess match of sorts with each batter, hoping to outsmart and overpower him.

College football has likewise overshadowed college baseball. But this phenomenon has carried on further, to the point that college baseball is essentially a forgotten sport in the market, trailing both football and basketball in viewership, popularity and revenue. Why is that?

Like I said, it is easy to understand why baseball has fallen behind football at the college level. But college baseball is largely ignored, a fact that as a college baseball fan I find hard to stomach. It makes logical sense that schools promote heaviest the teams that make them the most money. At Ohio State University, you’re much more likely to see an advertisement for Buckeye football games than you are to see an ad for a baseball game. Similarly, at the University of Kentucky, you’re more likely to see a basketball ad than for something about the Wildcat baseball squad.

One reason for college baseball’s decline is relatively simple. As ESPN’s Skip Bayless wrote in a 2006 column, even the best college baseball players take several seasons to reach the Major Leagues. A stud pitcher you see playing for the University of North Carolina in 2014 is a guy you might see pitching for the Red Sox in 2018, if he develops as he should. In fact, he might not reach the majors at all. He might get injured, or not be able to make the adjustment from college to pro ball.

In basketball and football, top draft picks are immediately thrown into the fray, with mixed results. (Anthony Bennett, anyone?) As a result, fans tend to lose interest in players who they won’t soon see at the professional level. Look at the media frenzy around freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. They’ll be in the NBA next year, so fans care about them much more than comparable baseball talents. Basically, fans don’t have the patience to follow the individual talents playing college baseball. And that’s a shame. But children are also a factor. Kids that start playing baseball at a young age tend to view the sport as one of two extremes: a wonderful, challenging sport steeped in history, or a boring, old-fashioned waste of time that caused their father yell and scream at them when they were 11 years old. I’m not trying to shoehorn everyone who’s ever played baseball into these two points of view. But it’s a disturbing trend among young people: they just don’t have the time for the game, despite the fact that time is the one thing a kid has in abundance. And they don’t have the patience for it because the action isn’t nearly as constant and bone-jarring as football or as explosive and aesthetically pleasing as basketball.

Another thing is that many fans in the northern part of the country just aren’t exposed to as much college baseball coverage as fans down south, partly due to weather conditions. Southern schools have already started playing this season, whereas schools up north are still buried by snow and frost. So northern fans, and the northern media, which still wields significant influence over national opinion, rely on football and basketball to fill their winter months.

The College World Series, played each year in Omaha, Neb., is one of the most exciting sports tournaments that I’ve ever seen. Do you want drama? Check. Do you want talent? Check. Do you want a Cinderella team to root for? There seems to be one every year. Want to see baseballs jump off of aluminum bats like rabbits leaping out of a hole? You’ll see it.

There’s really nothing not to like about college baseball, which is why it’s so frustrating when no one cares about it. If you ask a major university about baseball, they’ll say all the right things. Of course we care about baseball! We promote our baseball team just as much as we promote other sports. We just made upgrades to our field!

But it won’t be the truth. Of course there are exceptions. California State-Fullerton, Rice University and certain other schools in the country focus their athletic budget on baseball the way they should. But they’re the exception rather than the rule. Our national pastime deserves better.

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