- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Even the tall, bushy trees beyond the left field wall seem disinterested, allowing the breeze to cut through them without so much as a twist or wave. It's a warm Saturday afternoon in mid-April and the sun dangles just above the horizon, casting a shadow across the University of Alabama campus.
There's only one show in town as the Crimson Tide baseball team hosts the Vanderbilt Commodores at Sewell-Thomas Stadium, and hundreds of fans have come out to crowd the drab 64-year-old ballpark. Dozens will swipe their reward cards and be on their way before the concession stand hot dogs turn leather and the nacho cheese hardens into a yellow plastic.
With the Tide down a run in the ninth against Vanderbilt and the game-winning run on base, not a single fan rose to their feet in anticipation. When Austen Smith hit a walk-off home run for a rare moment of necessary jubilation it was as if a shock went through the seats, forcing the crowd up against their will to applaud the first baseman's effort.
Golf clap. On to the next hole.
Over the last decade, UA baseball has experienced a drop in enthusiasm that defies its surroundings. Drive fraternity row or dip into any bar and you'll see hoards of baseball fans. In the South, spring and summer are devoted to the sport. (The fall, or course, is devoted to the gridiron).
But at Alabama, filling the bleachers has become something of an issue. In 2001, UA pulled in a healthy 6,216 fans a game. This year the reported average hovers around 3,500. Compare that number to the average attendance at away games: 5,556. (Understand that the reported attendance never comes close to the actual number of fans that come through the turnstiles.)
In 2012, the baseball team has done little to inspire a loyal following, though. After dropping another series to Mississippi State on Saturday, the Tide are in the cellar of the SEC, more than a dozen games below .500. Teams with Alphabet Soup acronyms like MVSU, ECU, ORU, FAU and USA have beaten the state's flagship university. Mississippi Valley State beat UA on April 18, the first time the school has beaten an SEC men's team in its history.
An Alabama baseball team hasn't finished the season below .500 in 17 years, with only five teams accomplishing that level of ineptitude since the end of World War II. Coach Mitch Gaspard and the 2012 squad will have the honor of joining that not-so-distinguished group in a few weeks.
The blogosphere has taken notice. On message boards and Twitter, fans have vented their frustrations with the team, calling for a new coach at times, completely disbanding the program in other instances. For a fan base grown accustomed to success in all sports, failure of this magnitude is difficult to swallow and even more difficult to comprehend.
But understanding why is important because when the facts are laid bare, it becomes painfully clear that the program is built to lose more than it is to win. The cards are, as they say, stacked against the Tide. Here are the top two reasons why, along with two possible solutions:
1: A stale cup of Joe: Sewell-Thomas Stadium, better known as the Joe, is a double-edged sword -- both sides rusty and dull. The stadium hasn't gotten much of a facelift since opening in 1948. The seats are sore, the angles unsightly and the atmosphere bordering on comatose. And that's just the exterior. The rest of the facility is not much better. It leaks in meeting rooms and has no space for the modern amenities that attract recruits. While the rest of the league has pored money into updating existing facilities or building new ones entirely, UA has sat idly by, leaving Sewell-Thomas among the worst ballparks in the SEC, if not the worst.
The solution: Don't landscape. Don't renovate. Don't fix it in phases. Tear the Joe down and start again, preferably somewhere along the river. It's time for Alabama to have a new baseball stadium. It needs one. Could you imagine Nick Saban putting up with a football stadium that looked like Sewell-Thomas? It's no coincidence that major renovations to Bryant-Denny happened after Saban came to Tuscaloosa. Football, basketball, tennis and women's basketball have all received upgrades in recent years. It's time for baseball to move to the front of the line. If the administration is truly committed to excellence in all things, then it's time they show it. There are plans for a new stadium in place. They're beautiful. They would revitalize the program like nothing else can. They'd bring in new forms of revenue and excite recruits looking for a reason to come to Alabama.
2. No Hope in recruiting: Simply put, Alabama is losing the recruiting battle on all fronts. Not only can't they sell athletes on their facilities, they can't sell them a scholarship. Unlike football and basketball, baseball relies on partial scholarships. And without state assistance like the Georgia Hope Scholarship, the coaching staff is put in a bind where they must rely on local talent because the money to give out-of-state athletes just isn't there. Just look at the roster. More than half the roster is from Alabama and another 10 players went to junior colleges. With only 11.7 scholarships to work with, the staff can't afford to go into Texas, Florida and California to recruit. They must rely on Alabama talent, which is erratic at best.
The solution: The lottery is not coming to the state of Alabama anytime soon. Any chance of a Hope-like scholarship system appears slim. So, what does one do to fix the problem? Open up the borders, for a start. Allow students from neighboring states to participate in a tuition exchange program. That would give the coaching staff a deeper pool of resources, as well as talent, bringing Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida into the fold without having to suffer the expense of out-of-state tuition.
Until something is done to level the playing field, the Alabama baseball program will continue to fight an uphill battle. Fans will continue to fall away and the talent on the field will continue to suffer.
This is the University of Alabama. This is the South. Baseball can grow here.
35mSam Khan Jr.
17hK. Lee Davis