The College World Series, now under way at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., may be exciting for players and fans of the eight participating schools, but in terms of mass appeal, it hardly compares to the major-league World Series. Even the pro scouts don't necessarily pay much attention.
If big-league teams show a surprising lack of interest, it may be for one reason: metal bats. "College baseball isn't much of a test for an aspiring professional," says Phil Anger, who once served as a commission scout for the Cleveland Indians. Anger, who has also been an American Legion Baseball official in eastern Connecticut for more than a quarter of a century, points out two major flaws in the college game, both a direct result of the cost-cutting measure of replacing wooden bats with metal ones.
One impacts the development of hitters, the other the development of pitchers.
"Even a handle hit can be a rocket," Anger says of balls struck near a hitter's hands. "This causes a hitter to develop bad habits and an unrealistic assessment of his own power, because even careless swings can result in long balls.
"Because a metal bat is one long 'sweet spot,' pitchers are reluctant to throw inside, and that's a must in pro ball." Still, Anger believes that most players offered a college baseball scholarship are well advised to take it.
"The odds are so great against actually succeeding in the professional ranks, that the opportunity to get your schooling paid for is a valuable one," Anger says. "Unless he's going to be one of the top draft picks, where the big money is guaranteed, a kid's better off going to college and playing in a wooden-bat league during the summer. That way, he'll get an education and still be able to test his potential as a player."
This week, with the College World Series heading toward Saturday's championship game, major league general managers will be engaged in drafting the players whom they consider to be the best prospects. Many of the top baseball players are high school seniors and junior college students not in Omaha. The college players with pro potential have already been scouted and cross-checked, so what they do on the field this week will have little impact on when their names will be called during the three-day amateur draft.
Still, making it to the College World Series puts one in the company of some of the nation's finest student-athletes. This year's World Series field included Stanford, UCLA, Auburn, Rice, Miami, Alabama, Mississippi State, and Louisiana State, the defending champion and three-time winner in the past six years. As of press time, UCLA and Rice hadbeen eliminated.
A team needs a lot of cash to compete at the college Division I level. Jet travel and other related expenses take a hefty chunk out of a school's budget.
Even for teams that don't make it to the World Series, the investment is considerable. The United States Air Force Academy, for example, must incur sizeable travel expenses as the result of Western Athletic Conference guidelines, which steer member schools to play 52 Division I games and no more than four Division II contests. "Instead of taking an hour's bus trip to Denver for a game," says Air Force head coach Eric Campbell, "we have to spend $15,000 to fly to Arizona. This not only costs more money, but it keeps our kids out of school for a longer time. We'd like to play more Division II opponents who are closer to home, but doing so lowers our power rating and that of our conference, so we have to get on a plane."
In a given season, a nearby Division II team might actually be tougher than many Division I opponents, but power ratings, which help to determine seeding for qualifying games for the College World Series, take precedence over budgetary and scholastic considerations.
All of this has proved to be too much for one school to handle. The University of Denver, which is about to move into Division I competition in other sports, has dropped its 128-year-old baseball program and relegated baseball to a club activity.
Late springs and the absence of football revenue preclude their being able to play full home schedules and to afford flying to many of their games.
Coach Jack Rose, who has been at the college for 36 years, says, "Our being forced to drop the program is particularly hard on our juniors." One of them, third baseman Greg Krom, knows that this may be the end of the line. "I'm so close to graduating," he says, "that I can't really go anywhere else. I only hope that a year from now I'll be able to catch on somewhere, because I really love this game and I'm not ready to give it up."