OMAHA — The first home run of the 2014 College World Series rocketed off the bat of Texas shortstop C.J. Hinojosa and didn’t come to a stop until it ricocheted off the back of the left field bullpen at TD Ameritrade Park on Wednesday night. It had been 115 innings and more than 3,400 pitches since a player hit a ball out of the park in college baseball’s championship event, and no one involved was quite sure how to react.
“Four players fainted,” Texas Coach Augie Garrido joked after the Longhorns had emerged with a 1-0 victory over UC Irvine. “. . . I had a mild heart attack.”
But the power outage is no laughing matter for those within college baseball. This year, the sport’s marquee event has turned into a referendum on the lack of offense and the dearth of home runs in the college game.
Ask three people here what the problem is and you get three different answers. Some say it’s the bats, others claim it’s the design of Omaha’s new downtown stadium and the NCAA thinks it could be the structure of the balls being used.
Regardless, teams are averaging a combined 5.5 runs per game at this year’s College World Series , well below the previous nadir of 6.2 runs set just last year. Attendance is also down about 2,000 fans per game during this year’s event, and there are concerns over how many others are tuning out nationwide.
“When you talk to coaches who’ve been around the game a long time and been to Omaha many times, many of them, they’re not even watching the games anymore. They think it’s boring,” Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt said. “If those guys that love baseball — that eat, sleep and breathe baseball — if it’s boring to them, what’s it going to be like for the normal baseball fan?
“You shouldn’t have to be Babe Ruth to hit a home run.”
Scoring has decreased throughout the college baseball regular season since the NCAA, out of concern for safety, instituted less-potent BBCOR-standard metal bats — it stands for Bat-Ball Coefficient of Restitution — in 2011 that more closely simulate the effect of wooden bats used in Major League Baseball.
But the most drastic effects have been seen at the College World Series, where a steady stream of sacrifice bunts are now the norm.
“We went too far the other way. Everybody knows that, and everybody agrees with that,” said UC Irvine Coach Mike Gillespie, who was at Southern California when it won the 1998 College World Series with a 21-14 win over Arizona State. “Now we’re stuck with it because the manufacturers have made these bats and they have a large inventory. It’s a nightmare.”
Another variable has been the construction of TD Ameritrade Park, whose opening coincided with the deadened bats. Though its dimensions are nearly the same as the event’s previous home, Rosenblatt Stadium, the orientation changed to provide fans a view of Omaha’s downtown skyline.
The new stadium faces southeast, and on most June nights, the summer wind off the Missouri River, with gusts of up to 30 mph this year, blows in from right field or directly toward home plate. There were 32 home runs hit during the 2010 College World Series, the final year it was held at Rosenblatt. Just 24 have been hit in the three-plus years since the event moved to TD Ameritrade Park.
Teams also play their outfielders closer to the infield than during the regular season, a strategy that often turns line drives into routine outs.
TCU Coach Jim Schlossnagle said it’s “a travesty what we’ve done to college baseball” after Virginia defeated his Horned Frogs, 3-2, in a 15-inning marathon Tuesday night. Even Virginia Coach Brian O’Connor, who has benefited from the field conditions this year with a pitching staff that ranks among the top five in the country, is concerned.
“The game is just so different than what we’re used to in the regular season,” O’Connor said. The Cavaliers face either Mississippi on Friday night needing just one win to reach the championship series.
HDR Architecture Inc. senior vice president Bruce Carpenter, part of the team that designed TD Ameritrade Park, said plans were drawn up back in 2008 and “there wasn’t really any discussion in our design meetings about changing the bat.” He noted pulling in the outfield fences would come at a “significant cost” at this point and altering equipment is likely the best option to increase offense going forward.
To that end, the NCAA will adopt a new baseball with lowered seams beginning next season. The organization’s research suggests the ball will travel up to 20 percent further with less drag and it will take some of the bite off a pitcher’s breaking ball. If that doesn’t work, they also could change the core of the ball, which is softer than those used in the minor leagues and MLB.
“We don’t have our head in the sand on this,” said Damani Leech, the NCAA’s managing director for championships and alliances. “We hope [new baseballs] will have an impact, and if it doesn’t, we’ll talk about other things.”
But until any changes result in more home runs and scoring, those within the sport will remain skeptical.
“I just wish they had used more foresight when they dramatically altered the way the game is played,” Fitt said. “They just didn’t think it through enough.”