These are the good old days for college baseball.
Everywhere that the principal actors in this year's College World Series turn they find themselves being shaken by the hand and congratulated on the upright, healthy and growing state of the game.
Their subsist-on-a-shoestring sport, so long consigned to the status of intramural hopscotch, has come of age; on the horizon, the pioneers of today's high-quality college baseball can even begin to see a prosperous maturity.
The day has finally arrived when the low minor leagues--long the underpaying, youth-eating, career-killing disgrace of the pro game--no longer are a necessary evil for the teen-ager who dreams of playing in the major leagues.
"It kills me to see a young man, just out of high school, go into that pro jungle," said John Winkin, coach of the Maine Black Bears, who finished tied for third here. "It's not necessary anymore."
"We're proud that the colleges can now make a very convincing case to the top high school players--except, perhaps, to the first- or-second-round draft choice who gets a bonus of $100,000 to $150,000," said Dick Bergquist, chairman of the NCAA baseball committee and coach at Massachusetts.
"It's reached the point where I'm surprised when a promising young player, provided he had any academic ability at all, decides not to play in college," said Miami Coach Ron Fraser, whose Hurricanes won the championship this year, beating Wichita State, 9-3. It was Miami's first title although it has been here the last five years. "Yet it still happens. We had six recruits signed away from us by the pros in the last year."
"Minor league baseball is the most unsupervisable, begging-for-trouble situation I can imagine for an 18- 19-year-old," said another prominent coach in the final eight. "As a parent, don't you have to wonder, 'What are they doing with all those empty hours?' "
It's old news that the overwhelming majority of big leaguers have played at the college level. At the moment, more than 70 percent of all American-born major leaguers have played in college. And that figure keeps rising every season.
For instance, of the players signed from last summer's pro draft, more than 80 percent were college, rather than only high school, players. That's not a trend; it's an established, irreversible fact of baseball life.
Once, the route to the majors was to quit school after high school, accept a signing bonus and head to the bus rides and bad hops of the bush leagues for a five-year-or-more education in the school of hard knocks. Too often, the player got a few thousand dollars, a new car and 50 years of remorse.
Now, the majority of high schoolers good enough to get a pro offer are forgoing the minors for at least one year of junior college ball, and, more likely, three or four years of major college baseball.
Throughout the '60s and deep into the '70s, one of baseball's recurrent knee-jerk laments was the sorry state of the shrinking, dying minor leagues. Now, it's become apparent that the decline, though not the demise, of the minors was, in the long view, perhaps a bonanza for the game.
Why? Because as the minors--especially leagues below AAA--have receded, college baseball has come to flood tide as baseball's prime source of future major league players.
"The better college teams, like the ones here, could compete with AA pro teams in a short series," said Fraser, whose Hurricanes beat the Baltimore Orioles in a spring training game. "In a 10-game series, however, I think their deeper pitching would prevail. Most of the younger players who turn pro are the promising pitchers. We (colleges) only have one or two 'pro quality' pitchers.
"In general, I think the good college teams would be winners in A-ball," continued Fraser, a modest appraisal with which few pro scouts would disagree. "Many of our players are, of course, not professional prospects because many lack one or two conspicuous skills. They aren't signed because it's obvious they lack something that would keep them out of the majors. But they're still excellent athletes.
"Also, I think the college game stresses proper instruction, individualized teaching, weight training, fundamentals . . . There's more emphasis on team play, smart play, hustle and winning in college. In the minors, individual stats are very important."
The list of current pros who not only starred in college, but also played in this World Series, runs to the dozens, but among them are: Mike Schmidt, Dave Kingman, Steve Kemp, Dave Winfield, Fred Lynn, Willie Wilson, Rich Dauer, Rick Cerone, Ken Landreaux, Bump Wills, Roy Smalley, Paul Molitor, Keith Moreland, Tom Paciorek, Craig Swan, Steve Rogers, Larry Gura, Burt Hooton and Bob Horner.
From the first clank of aluminum bat against ball, it's obvious that the college game is geared toward offense and brains. Because the two most difficult skill positions in baseball--pitcher and catcher--are spread thin in college, many clubs wisely emphasize long-ball hitting lineups and speed.
This year's runner-up, Wichita State, is a good example. When Coach Gene Stephenson arrived in 1978, the Shockers didn't have a baseball team. "There hadn't been a bat or glove on campus in eight years," he said.
Now, the Shockers are a club of staggering stats that epitomize the college game. In 87 games (the most ever played in a spring season by an NCAA team), they outscored their foes, 858-274. Wichita State hit 101 home runs and stole (gulp) 333 bases. Their murderers' row of Phil Stephenson, Russ Mormon and Charlie O'Brien had RBI totals of 115, 130 and 116.
Like many other college teams, the Shockers relied on three pitchers--Bryan Oelkers (18-2 and the fourth player selected in this month's draft), Don Heinkel (16-5) and Erik Sonberg (17-3 and probably a future big leaguer).
It's a mark of the depth and increasing balance of power in college baseball that the best major league prospects no longer are bunched on a couple of teams, like 11-time NCAA champ Southern California (which had an 8-22 Pac-10 record this season) or five-time champ Arizona State. In fact, for the first time in 28 years, no California or Arizona team reached the final four.
Many of the nation's best players, like Jeff Ledbetter of Florida State who hit an NCAA record 42 homers (in 74 games), Jim Paciorek of Michigan who hit .454, shortstop Augie Schmidt of New Orleans and slugger Franklin Stubbs of Virginia Tech, did not even reach this eight-team College World Series.
Others did make it here, but not to the final four, like Baltimore's No. 1 draft pick Joe Kucharski (11-2) of South Carolina, 6-foot-4 fast-baller Brian Mignano from Stanford and first baseman Jim Traber of Oklahoma State. In fact, only two players from the last four teams were taken this week as No. 1 major league picks: nimble, switch-hitting, baby-faced shortstop Spike Owen of Texas by Seattle and southpaw Oelkers of Wichita State by Minnesota. Frankly, neither looks like a future all-star.
Final proof of college baseball's balance of talent is the fact that finalist Miami doesn't even have a star; its best player--pitcher-catcher Sam Sorce, who played all nine positions in one game this season--wasn't taken until the draft's 24th round by Texas. Sorce is hoping that having helped his team to the national title, he can talk the Rangers out of a bonus of "maybe $3,000."
Each year, the popularity of this game of metal bats and bright double-knits is increasing, although all guesstimates of national crowd figures--about 5 million in '79, 7 million in '80, 8 million in '81 and more in '82--are unofficial because the NCAA doesn't keep official attendance stats.
"Even though Miami's drawn 160,000 people each of the last two seasons, we still only have about seven to 10 schools that average 1,000 people a game," said Jim Wright, series publicity director. "The rest draw in the hundreds."
So, for the time being, college baseball is in a comfortable, but perhaps unstable, middle ground.
Its quality of play is respected and its relationship with the major leagues is cordial, thanks largely to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, whom Fraser calls "the college game's best friend. None of us will forget his work in getting the (annual) January draft abolished. That saved us by bringing some stability to the game. Now we at least know we'll have our players for three years, even though I'm sure most coaches wish it were all four years."
On one hand, college baseball programs, since they aren't revenue producers, get only a paltry 13 scholarships and are run on skimpy budgets. On the other, both cable and national TV deals have arrived in the last couple of years--the first whiff of potential local and national cash.
"I hope that with the pressure of the battle with pro ball for the good players, and with the increased pressure to win now that we're starting to get media recognition, we don't reach the level of recruiting ills that fester in college football and basketball," said Maine's Winkin. "Frankly, I feel that's a world of animals."
For the present, college baseball, the breeding ground of future major leaguers though it is, still is very much a world of people.
After his Black Bears were eliminated here Friday night, Winkin, 62, was troubled. "They were all crying. I was at a loss for words. I don't know if I handled it well or not," he said. "I told 'em, 'Boys, the coach had a bad night. Everything I tried backfired on us. I'm sorry I let you down.' Then, I handed each one his plaque, shook his hand and thanked him for helping us have such a great year."