Unless you decided to go on a long, twitterless vacation at the start of February, you’ll have noticed some things. It’s snowing. A lot. On top of that, we’ve gotten frost, sleet, freezing rain, wind, wind chill, ice, falling ice, black ice, slush, and even some subzero temperatures for good measure. You’ll also have noticed that you can’t exactly play college baseball in this weather. Teams around the country have had to practice indoors, cancel games, move to far-flung neutral sites, change game times, and play on frozen fields (assuming the weather didn’t prevent them from getting to the park in the first place). There’s no other way to put it: this sucks.
If you’re part of a program from the Northeast or Midwest, this sounds all too familiar. More years than not, snow and cold wreak havoc on fields, schedules, and coaches’ hairlines. This year, though, things are different. We’re not the only ones. From Kentucky to Florida and Virginia to Texas, the South has gotten hit hard with snow and cold this winter. For perfectly legitimate reasons, they’re not happy about it. Besides all the extra travel costs, field maintenance, lost games, and shredded schedules, they lose a lot of gameday revenue, something we don’t have to worry about up north. I’ve sometimes been harsh to them on twitter, but that’s completely uncalled for, and I’m sorry for that. It sucks for them just as much as it does for us.
In the uproar over the weather, however, people have proposed a solution that hurts more than it helps: a summer season from April to August. Its supporters include people I have immense respect for. Like West Virginia’s head coach Randy Mazey, who’s been advocating for years for this sort of change. He’s a cold-weather coach with a brand new ballpark to fill up, so playing games in the cold isn’t ideal. Some of the national media have picked up on the idea, too, most notably Aaron Fitt, the brilliant former Baseball America beat writer who’s part of the star-studded team at the new D1Baseball.com. Among fans, sentiment on twitter has grown more strident with every cancellation and snow-covered field that floats across a timeline. These are all great college baseball people who have the game’s best interests in mind when they say we should push the season back to April. But I sincerely believe that switching to a summer season would be an overreaction that harms the game.
Because here’s the good news. This is a once-in-a-lifetime winter. Annual snowfall records are being broken from Boston to Denver, and a whole lot of places in between. It’s been especially bad in New England, but that’s not the only place getting hit. It was 32 below in Kentucky! That’s as cold as it’s been there since 1951. In Lynchburg, Virginia, it got down to 11 below. That’s lower than it’s ever gotten there. (They’ve been keeping records since 1893.) Even Florida’s getting down to record lows in the teens and twenties. These numbers are mind-boggling to think about, but the reason they’re records is that it’s been decades (and often even longer) since we’ve seen anything like this, and it’ll be decades more before we do again.
Is it impossible that we could see another winter like this next year? Within the next 5-10? No. But it’s astronomically unlikely. You could get 100 to 1 odds in Vegas that this generation of college baseball will never see another winter as bad as this one. Yeah, there’ll be cold opening weekends. Some snowouts here, travel delays there. But nothing changes the fact that after a couple weeks of cold, the biggest games that attract the biggest crowds will be played in 80-degree sunshine come May and June. College baseball has opened well before the first day of spring for decades without a problem. The first couple weeks of 2015 are the rare exception to a rule that has served the game well.
Given how extremely unlikely it is we’ll see another winter this bad anytime soon, the only way moving the season makes sense is if we’re not losing much by doing so. After all, if there’s no drawback to pushing the season back, why not do something that saves us grief in the year or two out of every fifty that we get an apocalyptic winter?
But the fact is, our game would be losing a lot. For starters, you could kiss summer ball goodbye. Even if you could somehow squeeze a one-month season into this new calendar, you’d be asking organizations that barely get by on two and a half months of gameday revenue to make do with four weeks’ worth. Leagues would fold left and right. Maybe you could ask them to get by with Division I redshirts and lower-division players (assuming this new schedule applied only to Division I), but they’d be shells of their former selves. They wouldn’t attract the attention from fans and scouts that helps them succeed.
Losing these leagues would be bad for college baseball, plain and simple. They allow players to develop their skills in a more relaxed environment, somewhere they can get a reprieve from a grueling, overscheduled nine months of life as a college athlete. They give the guy who went away from home to play the chance to spend summers near home and still play high-level baseball. They give the Division I walk-on a chance to get the innings and at-bats he needs to work his way towards a scholarship. They give D2, D3, JuCo, and NAIA guys a chance to test their skills against Division I competition. They give up-and-coming assistant coaches a chance to run their own teams and get better at teaching the game. They expand the game’s footprint to places where the NCAA game doesn’t have much reach. (I, for one, wouldn’t be writing this column if an NECBL team hadn’t moved into town when I was a kid.) They attract thousands of people to watch college players in places like Madison, Wisconsin, and Montpelier, Vermont, where Division I baseball is extinct. Make no mistake, college baseball will lose a key ingredient in its success if it lets these leagues die out.
On top of that, we’d be losing one of the things that lets college baseball truly mean college baseball. The summer. One of the few times players can get away from the never-ending merry-go-round of classes, practices, “voluntary” lifts, road trips, and everything else that fills up a player’s life at school. Yeah, a lot of guys use this choice to play more baseball anyways, but they’ve got some say in where they play, how long they spend there, what level they play at, and who they play for. And if summer ball isn’t for you, you’ve got the opportunity to do other things. Travel, get an internship, go on a mission, try out for the football team, work a summer job, spend time with your family. Whatever. It’s practically the only time in their four years where they can shape their lives outside the daily grind of academics and school sports. With all that the college sports industry demands of athletes these days, it’s not a choice we should take out of their hands, even if they choose to keep playing the game they love anyways. Asking these guys to commit to being at school to practice and play year-round for four years is grossly unfair to them, and it’s not in the best interest of our sport.
I’ve gone on for awhile, but a small request before I wrap things up. If you agree with me or (more importantly) if you disagree with me, let me know what you think about this. It’s a complex issue, and as strongly as I feel about it right now, there’s undoubtedly things I’m overlooking, misconstruing, or just plain getting wrong. Player, parent, coach, fan, whatever, give me your take about things here, over on twitter, or through the email. A special thank you to everyone who already has (Sean, Josh, Kelli, Derek, Dean, Dave, and everybody else), your insight and criticism helped me put this column together.
To sum things up, I think that sincere people who love the game have proposed a solution that’s too drastic for the problem at hand. The snow and cold are awful, but it’s very, very rare for them to affect the sport as much as they have in 2015. Come this June, we’ll be basking in 80-degree sunshine and chuckling about how a couple weeks of cancellations during the worst winter of our lifetimes ever seemed like such a big deal. I know things seem dire right now, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the long-term health of college baseball. Summer ball and true summers for our athletes will be a big part of our game’s success for decades to come. All the shivering, shoveling, and shuttling to different states to play “home” games isn’t going to get any more enjoyable, but gritting our teeth and grinding through it is what’s best for the game.