Big Ten backs proposal to shift portion of baseball season to fall
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
'The Michigan baseball team had played 20 games. It had put together both a four-game winning streak and five-game losing streak. It had lost its shortstop and No. 2 starting pitcher to injury.
It had traveled thousands of miles to Florida and Louisiana and South Carolina.
And it had yet to play a single game in Ann Arbor.
Such is the life of a Big Ten baseball team -- but maybe, not for long.
The league, which faces immense hardship in competing with southern and West Coast schools due to unforgiving early season travel schedules, appears to be on the precipice of demanding change.
The Big Ten's athletic directors, as well as commissioner Jim Delany, met last week in Chicago to discuss a wide range of topics. Among them: A proposal to shift a portion of the baseball season to the fall.
"I think it would be incredibly smart in the northern schools to play a partial season in the fall," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said in Chicago.
"For weather-related reasons, we’re going have a better quality experience for those student-athletes if we do in those beautiful months of August, September and October play some baseball -- so we’re not starting the season in February and March when we’re scraping snow off the field.”
The Big Ten has retreated into national irrelevancy since 1984, when Michigan made the College World Series. No league team has made it back since.
Only four Big ten teams have advanced to the round of 16 since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1999.
Much of those struggles have to do with the geography -- more specifically, the climate -- of the league. Cold temperatures, even snow, persist throughout much of the spring, which drives away many of the best recruits.
It also forces teams to travel thousands of miles to open their seasons, often playing schools that have practiced outdoors for weeks. That is a grueling stretch for most Big Ten teams.
Michigan went 9-11 to open the season -- each game played on the road -- then scuffled to a 22-34 finish. Coach Rich Maloney, who guided the Wolverines to three league championships during his 10-year stint with the school, did not have his contract renewed after the season.
In an interview before the announcement of his departure, Maloney said he would "strongly support" the initiative because it could help curb many of the most significant hardships facing Big Ten teams.
"We have to create some positive changes somehow," Maloney said. "It's such a battle with southern schools, for recruiting and all that. One opportunity to level the playing field a little bit would be to move to the fall.
"I'm not sure how much parity it would create between the North and South. Our challenges are so significant, I'm not sure how much effect this would have. But it's something, and something needs to be done."
Maloney said the idea has been kicked around for at least three years, when Stanford baseball coach Mark Marquess first broached it.
Purdue coach Doug Schreiber is spearheading this initiative, with a 16-game fall season currently on the table.
The Big Ten is strongly behind it.
“My understanding is it’s a great consensus around our coaches, a great consensus around our athletic directors, but we haven’t done as great a job as we need to of selling the other conference leaders and coaches to buy into that," Brandon said. "And we’re not totally sure why that is."
Maloney said although it wouldn't balance the weights between North and South, it would make the schedule more navigable for northern teams.
The Wolverines played 35 games away from Ann Arbor this past season, and only 23 at home. That's a significant disadvantage, considering home teams win about 62 percent of the time, Maloney said.
Compounding the issue is the current formula used to determine the NCAA field -- the Ratings Percentage Index, more commonly known as the RPI -- does not distinguish between home and away games.
That makes the road to the tournament much more difficult for a team such as Michigan, which plays 60 percent of its games away from home.
The RPI is being tweaked this offseason, with home/away taken into account, but will it be enough to help the Big Ten's competitiveness?
"It seems like, right now, no (Big Ten) team can get in unless they win the (league) tournament," Maloney said. "If we're serious about making the Big Ten a competitive conference in this sport, we've got to get to the point where we're getting three representatives in the tournament every year.
"Then you might see things happen -- might see us competitive again on a national scale."
Maloney said the biggest impact of adding a fall schedule would be finally luring intriguing non-conference opponents to Big Ten country. He speculated the Big Ten could partner with the Pac-12 (a heavyweight in the sport), as the two leagues have in other sports.
He said he also envisions the Wolverines packaging weekend fall series around home football games, which could bolster attendance, exposure -- and revenue, in a sport that has become a big-time drain on athletic budgets.
"I'm not sure how much parity it would create between North and South, but it would be an opportunity to draw some fans," Maloney said. "It would help spread out our games, and we wouldn't have to play so many in a row on the road in the spring.
"We'd save some money on travel, the kids could play closer to home and I imagine we'd be a little more competitive. Sounds like a win-win to me."