By Randy York
Forgive me for letting my mind ramble in the midst of quick trips to Omaha to watch Nebraska play in the Big Ten Conference Tournament and still make sure there’s a TV nearby so I can watch the Huskers go toe-to-toe with Alabama when there’s a Women’s College World Series invitation on the line. I check the brackets, the pairings, the pitching stats and which teams have the hottest bats that can give them a magic carpet ride to the NCAA postseason.
I interrupt this observation, however, to make a comment coming completely from left field. In the midst of what I’ve chosen to read, I’m accumulating evidence that baseball really is what documentarian Ken Burns claims it to be – America’s Pastime. I know I appreciate following college baseball now more than ever, but not just because Darin Erstad is building the foundation to open a door that can lead to a conference championship, an NCAA Tournament bid, and even a 50-mile trip down I-80 to Omaha, the home of college baseball.
Before I go on, please allow me to credit Ohio State Baseball Coach Greg Beals, whose Buckeyes lost back-to-back one-run heart-breakers – 7-6 to Nebraska and 6-5 to Illinois – in the first Big Ten Tournament ever played at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park. The intensity of Nebraska fans’ cheering on the Huskers in the bottom of the ninth inning influenced the four-run, ninth-inning explosion. As I witnessed Nebraska’s comeback, I wondered how I would feel if I were an opposing coach experiencing such energy on the other side.
Who Wouldn’t Be Interested in Coming Back?
“We have fans and donors and administrators and all that,” Beals told The Omaha-World-World. “Nebraska does baseball really well – and that’s good for all of us in our conference.” An honest answer, to be sure, for a legitimate question that asked a Big Ten head coach if he would support the conference returning to Omaha. “It’s the mecca of college baseball, I would say,” Beals said. “It’s hard to say you wouldn’t be interested in coming back here.”
The Big Ten Conference has four of the top 64 NCAA Baseball RPI teams – Indiana (3), Nebraska (27), Maryland (28), and Illinois (52). Sixty-four is a benchmark number because that’s how many schools participate in the NCAA Tournament. As of May 19, Rutgers (77) and Minnesota (100) also were ranked ahead of the remaining 202 NCAA Division I baseball-playing schools. Michigan (104), Michigan State (106), Iowa (115) and Ohio State (119) give the Big Ten a total of 10 teams in the top 120. We include Maryland and Rutgers on that list, of course, because both will become official Big Ten members on July 1.
Clearly, Northern-based schools know why they need to take advantage of every opportunity to narrow the gap and to multiply the advantages against warm-weather schools. In my opinion, the day Nebraska joined the Big Ten, we had every intent to return our own baseball program to national prominence, and part of that goal is directly tied to having a stronger conference that can strengthen that same possibility for every league member. With TD Ameritrade Park being the ultimate destination for every Division I baseball program, it follows that playing in that same ball park a couple of weeks earlier could be a significant strategic advantage for a Big Ten school that experiences a five-day stay there. Wasn’t the stadium, after all, built to accommodate and host the next 50 years of the NCAA College World Series?
Big Ten Improving Its College Baseball Brand
Hawks Field is one of college baseball’s finest fields, and three fellow Big Ten schools – Indiana, Purdue, and Minnesota – opened new stadiums last year, four years after Michigan State moved into its new home. Budgets have broadened and “everybody is trying to keep up with the Joneses,” Minnesota Coach John Anderson told the AP. In his 33rd year at Minnesota, Anderson sees Big Ten schools showing incremental improvement. That, in turn, causes Anderson to pause and predict that the Big Ten “will have a big impact on the national stage.”
Big Ten coaches seem to know and understand that they need more national oomph, and Anderson told the media Thursday that Indiana deserved more credit for making an NCAA run into the College World Series last year. “The better our league is, the better prepared the teams are that advance,” he said. “You saw it out here the last few days. It’s a competitive league, and that’s going to make us better and give us more opportunities.”
Day One Became Nebraska Tournament Record
Here’s a fundamental fact that supports our case. Nebraska drew more fans on the first day of this year’s Big Ten Tournament than Minneapolis lured in the entire 2013 conference championship at Target Field, which again will host the conference tournament next year.
So here’s the B1G Question: Should Omaha become a regular home for the Big Ten Conference Tournament? The Big Q is, in a word, legitimate, and when Greg Sharpe asked Shawn Eichorst a similar question on his recent monthly Talk to the Director of Athletics Radio Show, Nebraska’s second-year leader embraced the idea.
One thing is certain. If Husker fans keep buying tickets and taking family and friends with them through the TD Ameritrade Park gates, the Big Ten Tournament has a legitimate chance to share the same NCAA home as the rest of college baseball.
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