OMAHA, Neb. — The array of teams set for the College World Series beginning this week could leave the impression that college baseball has become an equal-opportunity sport.
Whether it has evolved or devolved is a matter of opinion.
“I played in Omaha in 1960 and 1961 (for USC), and you could name on both hands all the schools in the country that were playing good baseball,” UC Irvine coach Mike Gillespie said. “You couldn’t name all the schools playing good baseball now if you had 10 sets of hands. I think that’s good.”
Skip Bertman, who retired as LSU’s coach in 2001 after winning five national titles, isn’t so sure.
“The product now is the poster sport for parity,” he said. “That may make some people happy. In my opinion, it’s watered down.”
People in the game say scholarship reductions, roster limits and bats lacking punch account for the competitive balance. They also point to a growing number of schools, including some in cold-weather areas, spending more money on baseball.
Texas, which will be in Omaha a record 35th time, offers a nod to the days when only a handful of teams had a legitimate chance to win the national championship. The seven other teams represent relative newcomers to the college game’s biggest stage.
Texas Tech will be here for the first time; Vanderbilt, UC Irvine and TCU for the second time; Louisville and Virginia for the third time; and Ole Miss for the fifth time but first since 1972.
Of the eight national seeds that started the 64-team tournament two weeks ago, only No. 3 Virginia and No. 7 TCU are left. That’s the fewest to advance to the CWS since the tournament went to its current format in 1999.
“You don’t let a team in just because of a name. You have to earn it,” said Dennis Poppe, the NCAA’s top administrator for the CWS from 1987-2013. “You still like to see the old standbys, the traditional teams. But you get a little mix of everything here. That’s what makes it cool.”
A major breakthrough came in 2008 when Fresno State won the national title as a No. 4 regional seed, the equivalent of a No. 13 seed in college basketball. Another came in 2012, with Stony Brook and Kent State crashing the party. Last year, Indiana made its first CWS appearance.
Now consider that teams like Kennesaw State and College of Charleston made it through regionals this year while the top two national seeds, Oregon State and Florida, did not.
Key events in the move toward parity: the NCAA’s capping baseball scholarships at 11.7 per team in 1991 and limiting rosters to 35 players in 2008. Talent once hoarded by the big baseball schools in the South and West began to spread out.
Another factor was the change in bats stemming from concern beginning in the late 1990s that the game had become too offensive. The bats were redesigned to reduce power, making dominant teams less so.
Since current bat standards went into effect in 2011, offensive numbers have hit lows not seen since the wooden-bat era. Next year, in hopes of goosing the offense, the raised-seam ball will be replaced by the flat-seam ball. Research has shown that the flat-seam ball travels farther and faster because wind resistance is decreased.
“I’m not one that has gotten as exercised as some and lament the lack of offense,” UC Irvine’s Gillespie said. “I don’t perceive that people are running away from the game.”
ESPN’s family of networks carried more than 200 regular-season games this season — most through its broadband ESPN3 network — and for the second straight year is televising every game of the NCAA tournament.
Bertman said he worries for the future of the college game because fans can no longer relate to year-in, year-out power programs like they can in football and basketball. Plus, he said, the style of play isn’t as appealing as it once was.
“A bunch of bunting and singles and dribblers,” Bertman called it.
“The base hit with a man on second and two outs should still be a big part of our game, and so should the ability to score four runs in one inning,” he said. “Those things are taken away from us by this weak bat and the parity we have.”