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.”
Many happy customers
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.”