Monday, January 22, 2007

Now Taking the Field, Your Local College 9!, by DaSkeeza

I can’t believe it. Baseball season is just around the corner.

No, not major league baseball, college baseball!

Somehow I don’t think you’re real excited at that statement.

Maybe I can convince you otherwise.

With the college football and pro football seasons wrapping up and basketball season reaching mid-season form, a lot is going on in the sports fan’s head. Surely, with the explosion of punditry over the past five or so years, there is no shortage of opinion as to who is number one, who belongs, and who doesn’t belong.

Which is why college baseball may be an interesting way to clear a fan’s mind.

For one more year, the college baseball season will begin in late January. Since only western and southern schools can host games this yearly, the NCAA will move to a universal start date in the middle of February next season. Even then so, the early part of the college baseball season offers intriguing match-ups for fans.

Last season, the defending national champions Texas Longhorns opened their season with a three-game tilt against the University of San Diego . On paper, it seemed like a giant mismatch. The defending national champion up against a team from the dinky West Coast Conference that didn’t make it into the previous year’s tournament, why even bother? After USD swept the series, it was no joke.

Texas has its chance for redemption when the Toreros come to town to open the 2007 campaign. A couple of weeks later, they have a series with perennial power Long Beach State, who proudly boasts MVP 07 NCAA Baseball coverboy Jered Weaver as on of its alums (among others, like Jason Giambi).

College world series contender the pre-season #8 Vanderbilt also receives an early test, when they face both Rice and Arizona State in its opening weekend of play. And what of the defending national champions Oregon State ? A three-game series with Georgia in Athens in the second week of the season should have the Diamond Dogs out in full force.

But enough about the high-profile match-ups. Why college baseball, of all things?

With skyrocketing ticket prices, drug scandals, and greater distance from the fans, some baseball fans may feel a little alienated by the whole major league experience. Taking the family to a ballgame these days costs a lot of money. And once you’re in the ballpark, access to special areas is usually limited. That’s a tough reality especially if you have kids, who, as you probably know, can’t sit still for a nine inning game.

In college parks, however, the prices are a lot cheaper. Most tickets don’t exceed $15. Some parks have lawn seating on the baselines or in the outfield, perfect for picnics and children who want to run around the park. The stadiums are small and cozy, and the seats are close to the action (better chance for catching foul balls). With many schools opening brand new parks in recent years, seats that go for top dollar in major league yards are easily obtained in college stadiums.

And the players? The experience varies, but I find that most of them are willing to sign autographs and mingle with fans. After all, with their parents at just about every game, the players would be wise to.

So what about the aluminum bats? They’re not really such a bad thing, as most people who have played baseball (or softball) use aluminum for much of their careers. Only the small, elite group that makes it to college semi-pro leagues on up use wood. Furthermore, it makes offense livelier and solid pitching that much more difficult to accomplish.

I’ve come to find that no matter where you watch baseball, each ballpark has its own personality. The fans behave a certain way. The outfields have varying dimensions and different skylines in the background. The regulars cover the entire spectrum of personalities. But when you look into college baseball, you find that there are hundreds of places you can experience the game. And with the cozy and collegial atmosphere, the experiences of baseball as an institution are felt more in a college ballpark than in a major league ballpark.

While these early season match-ups are great, the postseason is a completely different beast worthy of its own, exclusive description. Where tickets to the NCAA’s basketball tournament and college bowl games are hard to come by, tickets to the NCAA baseball regionals and super regionals are usually easily obtained. This is when you see the college baseball experience at its best. You see the same passion and energy in the fans as you do in the MLB playoffs, but here you get to see it at point-blank range.

It all ends in Omaha in June, at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, where the eight super regional winners battle it out in the Men’s College World Series. This site is so ideal that for over 50 years, the NCAA has never moved the series. What better place to contest college baseball’s championship than a minor league ballpark in America ’s Breadbasket? (Granted, the minor league team that plays there takes a road warrior trip for the three or four weeks the NCAA needs the stadium. Since no major league team would consider doing that, the CWS probably can’t be held in a major league park). Home runs have always been plentiful at the series, and they have been a proving ground for several players that have on gone on to major league success. Of recent note, Oakland closer Huston Street , who, in his time at Texas , was the Mariano Rivera of college baseball, and had the stamina to even come in at the tail end of the seventh or beginning of the eighth to slam the door on Longhorn opponents. Those familiar with his exploits do not find it surprising that he claimed AL Rookie of the Year honors two years ago.

So if you love baseball as an institution and want to experience it in a significant yet inexpensive form, visit your local college ballpark this year. It’s cheap, fun, and perhaps a solid reminder of the real reasons behind America ’s fascination with its national pastime.

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