It was more than a month after classes ended, two weeks after commencement and well past the time most Virginia undergraduates had vacated their dorms to launch into summer jobs.
But the bats were as lively as the crowd at Davenport Field last weekend, as Virginia opened play in the NCAA baseball tournament with a three-game sweep, outscoring opponents, 15-4, to earn a spot in this weekend’s super regionals.
Though college baseball is technically a spring sport, players practice and compete in the fall, too. And those whose teams advance to the NCAA tournament’s final eight become bona fide Boys of Summer, with this year’s College World Series not concluding until June 25 or June 26.
The sport’s calendar reflects the kudzu-like creep of the playing and practice seasons in Division I. Baseball is hardly alone. College softball crowned its champion just last Tuesday. The postseasons of rowing, golf and outdoor track and field weren’t settled until June. And football players, who wrapped up a month’s worth of spring workouts in mid-April, report for preseason practice the first week of August then launch into a bruising competitive season that, for the elite, extends past New Year’s Day.
Throughout Division I, student-athletes aren’t only committing to the equivalent of a full-time job during their playing seasons. They’re increasingly making a year-round commitment, as well.
The reform-minded Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has twice sounded an alarm, calling in 2001 and 2010 for a reduction in the number of games and length of seasons in general, singling out fall baseball as an add-on that should be dropped.
“Ever-lengthening sports seasons have a corrosive effect on student-athletes’ ability to focus on academics, and also drive up costs substantially,” the panel wrote in 2010. “Yet the pressure to extend the competitive season continues unabated.”
In the case of Division I baseball, it’s difficult to find a player, past or present, who favors fewer games.
“I don’t think it’s an unreasonable amount of games,” says former Baltimore Oriole B.J. Surhoff, 48, who played three seasons at North Carolina before being selected with the first pick in Major League Baseball’s 1985 draft.
The parent of two Division I swimmers, with a third enrolling this fall, Surhoff adds: “It doesn’t matter the sport now: They’re pretty much all basically year-round, with a fall season and a spring season.”
In the view of Virginia first baseman Jared King, playing into May and June, after exams are over, is a relief rather than a hardship.
“It’s really nice to be able to just focus on baseball,” says King, a senior who’ll travel to Omaha for the third College World Series of his career if Virginia can rally to beat Mississippi State in this weekend’s best-of-three game super regional. “The rigors of being a student-athlete at a place like this really take a toll — especially playing 60 games. So now, just being able to focus on baseball is really nice.”
Coaches aren’t lobbying for fewer games, either.
“Every now and then, people will say, ‘Gee, this seems to be a long season,’ ” said Dave Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association. “But it’s not as long as what basketball is and many other sports. Oftentimes people look at the number of games. But baseball is much different than football and basketball because you don’t need the same recovery time.”
Still, the time commitment is far beyond the maximum 20-hour week permitted by NCAA rules. In fact, it’s more than twice that, if players’ accounting is correct.
Asked in a 2010 NCAA survey to tally time spent per week on required and voluntary activities associated with their sport, baseball players reported spending a little more than 42 hours on baseball and less than 32 hours on academics. Basketball players, by contrast, reported spending slightly more than 39 hours on their sport and just more than 37 on schoolwork.
Those findings came on the heels of concern about baseball players’ ability to keep up with their academic work, highlighted by data that showed their progress toward graduation was below par, akin to that of football and men’s basketball players.
An NCAA panel charged with finding out why discovered a pattern of baseball players getting into academic trouble each spring semester, when they typically played three or four games each week, then loading up on courses to salvage their grade-point averages to preserve their eligibility each fall.
As a result, it recommended reducing the number of regular season games from 56 to 52. But the idea was abandoned after baseball’s academic performance improved as a result of new rules that evened out players’ course loads and reduced the high rate of transfers from one school to another.
“From an academic point of view, the number of games doesn’t seem to matter,” said Hartford President Walt Harrison, who led the NCAA academic-reform initiative, played Division III baseball and wrote his doctoral dissertation about the sport. “The real question is in terms of student-athlete welfare: How much time are they putting in?”
In the view of former Maryland pitcher Eric Milton, 37, who played 11 seasons in the major leagues and now coaches at Severna Park, a 56-game season is excellent preparation for professional baseball. Milton estimates that 75 percent of Division I players aspire to professional careers.
“If they can’t play 56, how are they going to play 140 at the minor league level?” Milton asks. “And if they go to the major leagues, it’s not 162; it’s closer to 200 because you’re playing 30-some games in spring training.”
All this baseball has been fortuitous for broadcasters such as ESPN, which is airing the entire Division I championship (up to 153 games) on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPN3 for the first time this year.
It has also been a boon for Omaha, which has hosted what it promotes as the city’s “biggest summer party” for the past 54 years. The eight-team College World Series draws roughly 320,000 fans each year and generates an economic impact estimated at $41 million, according to Creighton economist Ernie Goss.
But for the teams that don’t make it, there’s something odd about playing out the season after the school year ends.
Says Radford second baseman Josh Gardiner, a rising junior from Culpeper: “We played a whole month when school was let out, and there were no fans — no one there! Just older folks. I don’t know why they do it. On Senior Night, no one comes because all the kids are gone. The campus is basically closed. There’s no food or anything.”
That was not the case at Davenport Field on May 31, as No. 6 Virginia opened play in the NCAA Charlottesville Regional against Army. It was 1 p.m. on a sweltering Friday, yet the stands were nearly full. College students were scarce, but retirees, townspeople and faithful alumni with the afternoon off turned out in droves.
Seated behind home plate and a dozen rows up was longtime Cavalier supporter David Witt, 60, of Petersburg, Va., who attends 30 to 40 Virginia baseball games each year. The long season hadn’t taken a toll on Witt, who was rapt in the action and dressed in orange sneakers, a Virginia tracksuit and cap.
Witt had no gripe with the length of the season — even if it meant shivering in the stands each February. The concession stands sell hot chocolate, he noted. “If it’s below 45 degrees, they give it to you free!” he added. “As much as you want!”
That’s good because for the foreseeable future, college baseball will remain a game for all seasons.
“Why do they play so many games?” mused Harrison, the Hartford president. “In my view, players want to play, and coaches want to coach. Would a 52-game season or a 48-game season make an appreciable difference to a baseball player’s development? I don’t think so. Players want to play. And I’ve learned there’s some wisdom in listening to them.”