why college baseball matters

baseball: gardner-webb @ carolina

Today is college baseball’s opening day.

This is a post that I’ve been trying to write, in a variety of formats, for at least three years now; since the summer of 2008, when I bristled at Red Sox fans bandwagoning on to the Carolina train in the College World Series, calling our I-hate-your-feelings-just-shut-up-and-pitch catcher by a team nickname, acting like he was theirs before he’d even signed a contract, just because Boston had drafted him the week before. That post was too angry; the posts I tried to write about seeing Dustin Ackley in Zebulon last year were pleading, and grasping, and too we-loved-him-first. (Even though we did. The Alpha Site loves Dustin Ackley better than anybody else does, except his mama, and maybe Kyle Seager.)

(Also, because I am tired of having flame wars with Mariners fans about this on the internet: Dustin Ackley did not start in the outfield for two years at Carolina. He amassed, over three years, maybe 24 appearances in the outfield, mostly in left field after Reid Fronk or Kyle Shelton had brained themselves on outfield walls. He started at first base for three years. This is not negotiable and you are all idiots. I know these things because I was there.)

College baseball matters, though, and not just for saw-them-first bragging rights; especially not for that, really. Not just because I got tired during last year’s World Series of answering the same questions over and over again, like they were actually news: yes, I know his real name is Gerald; yes, I know he pitched in college; yes, I’ve seen the low-quality Fox Sports South footage of him playing all nine positions in one game a million times. I have photos of Buster Posey behind the plate for Florida State, grainy and slightly blurred film photos of him skinnier but still baby-faced, losing a series to Carolina at the USA National Baseball Training Center in Cary. On a walk-off walk, no less, that series loss.

College baseball matters because if you are only a Major League Baseball fan, you see it as another set of minor leagues. It is where your players come from; it is endless stories about Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard reuniting in Boston (and I’d wear a Bard jersey with pride, if he played anywhere else; Andrew Miller still needs to eat a sandwich but he was sweet as pie to me last summer when we saw him in Zebulon), as if Carolina fans didn’t already know that they were teammates for one of the best Carolina teams ever, the only-two-more-outs collapse of 2006, the team that spawned the Dirty Southern Girl (it’s pink and it’s sweet and it’ll fuck you up good) to get me and shep. through our first CWS. But it is not just another set of minor leagues; it is not just a place for your teams to cherry pick my favorites out and send them to places like Billings, Montana.

College baseball is its own beast. Dismiss aluminum bats and frown at pitch counts without getting the whole story, and you are dismissing a sport that’s gorgeous and pure in ways that college basketball and college football aren’t and never will be. There are radar guns and scouts in the stands during Regionals, sure; otherwise, in February and March, even the top projected draft picks are left to do nothing but play for their teams — their teams then, in that moment, not their maybe-teams from a draft in four months. Scouts and idiot bloggers questioned Matt Harvey’s pitch counts all season last year, and why UNC was over-using him; but I was there, and I saw Matt Harvey on the mound, stubborn, knowing his bullpen was unreliable and young and prone to blowing saves, refusing to come out of games. Shaking his head and refusing to turn over the ball to Coach Fox. It is not reckless abandon with young arms by uncaring coaches; it is the stubborness of 20 year old boys who are still playing a game for fun, and not for money. It is the starting shortstop, three years starting, who was not drafted and who is getting a graduate degree in sociology.

It is all the things you do not know, if you only pay attention to watch your draft picks in the CWS in June.

It has its own mythology. It has Robin Ventura’s hitting streak; it has LSU building a new stadium that seats 11,000, eleven thousand seats for college baseball, and filling them. It has people who wonder what LSU football fans do in the spring, and the answer being that they tailgate for baseball as hard as they tailgate for football. It has the Big East and the Big Ten as mid-majors, and the Big West as a powerhouse. It is everyone who played in Rosenblatt; all the future Hall of Famers who went to college and took their teams all the way down the Road to Omaha. It is Fresno State in 2008, underdogs like Butler last year in basketball, winning it all, and almost taking Erin Andrews down in their dogpile. It is Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot as a double play combination on a championship LSU team, and the way it staggered me a tiny bit when the Cubs broke them up and traded them both — they’d played together, they’d turned double plays together since they were 11 years old.

And it is Rosenblatt, the beast on the edges of Omaha, home to 60 years of College World Series games, cramped and too small for what the CWS has become, but legend, because it is the ‘Blatt, and it is the only venue in college sports that has hosted that many consecutive championships for one sport. It is the statue out front, where one of the players was modeled on UVa head coach Brian O’Connor, who grew up in Omaha and pitched for Creighton in the CWS in ’91 and took his Virginia team as a coach in ’09. The CWS stays in Omaha, moves to a new and modern stadium with a corporate name, this year — it will still be the Road to Omaha, but it isn’t the ‘Blatt anymore, the rows of LSU fans tailgating in the zoo parking lot even when LSU isn’t there, because they just love the College World Series itself that much.

I didn’t make it to a CWS in Rosenblatt, and that breaks my heart. But it took me a few years to fall completely and totally for college baseball, for the ping instead of the crack, for lazy spring Wednesday afternoons with our flip-flopped feet up on the wall beyond third base, App State shortstops chasing down foul balls and stopping to flirt with shep.

College baseball matters. It matters to me not because of the future first round draft picks I get to watch, but because I love college baseball for itself. For small ball, for hit and running, for the teams that slug and the teams that rely on pitching and defense (and stories about how Wayne Graham once coached Roger Clemens in junior college), for never remembering that Joe Savery is in Philly’s organization and Luke Putkonen is with Detroit, for the boys who flame out of the minor leagues and come back to coach. For Jim Morris and Mike Martin and Augie Garrido’s margaritas, for George Horton coming out of retirement to revive the Oregon program, for the old guard who are still coaching. For Mike Fox who played against the Yankees in ’79 at the Bosh, and in the CWS the year before. For Brian O’Connor and the new guard.

Watch the College World Series this year, when it happens in June. It’ll be great; it always is. But watch it respectfully, please, because there are those of us out there who love college baseball for itself, from the first pitch in February to the final dogpile, and acting like you’ve been there since the beginning rankles. We watch it to celebrate, but also to grieve — it’s the end of our season, and sometimes it is the only chance college baseball fans have to say goodbye to players they have loved.

My college baseball team is not your farm club; they are my college baseball team, and I love them for what they are, not what they could or can or will be. Watch the College World Series. Enjoy it. But don’t walk over the things I love without trying to understand why I love them, first.

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