Baseball officials address state of sport on eve of College World Series

OMAHA, Neb. -- The folks about to put on college baseball's marquee event here for the 58th year get curveball knees when someone like Mississippi State's 28-year coach Ron Polk talks of their "stadium on the hill" as being the epitome of his sport.

They also want to keep the College World Series for another 58 years. Thus, it's no surprise that recent proposals made to the NCAA call for $26 million in improvement changes to Rosenblatt Stadium, or even spending more than $50 million to build a new ballpark a few miles away near downtown.

Pehaps it's fitting, then, that the rules college teams play by are also about to undergo some significant changes in the next two years.

Recent legislation approved by the NCAA calls for all Division I programs to be bound by uniform starting dates for practice and competition beginning in 2008.

A lack of uniform dates gave schools in warmer climates the obvious benefit of being able to go outdoors earlier. Now, spring practice cannot begin before Feb. 1, while season-opening games won't be held until the 13th Friday before Memorial Day weekend. Next season, that's Feb. 22.

Schools located where the climate is colder also will benefit from a new fall practice schedule in which teams receive a 45-day window to conduct 33 workouts.

"I think this will be a good practice for everyone," Dave Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association, said Thursday.

But with the NCAA also requiring its baseball programs, beginning in the 2008-09 academic year, to abide by stricter academic standards, some believe that condensing a 56-game regular season will put even greater stress on the student-athletes already under the microscope.

Teams will now face the likelihood of having to travel more and play a greater number of midweek games.

"There is somewhat of a concern," Keilitz said, "but probably 60 to 65 percent [of programs] have been living with that short season forever … and have handled it well.

"Personally, I'd like to go a week longer [into the season], because it gives programs another week of good weather. However, there are many things that have to be worked out."

Those concerns relate to academics, finances and even securing the stadium in Omaha nearer to the Fourth of July.

But for many coaches, those issues will take a backseat to ones arising from four rule changes the NCAA board of directors passed in April that will go into effect in the 2008-09 school year.

Under the emergency legislation approved on the recommendation of the NCAA's baseball academic enhancement working group:

• Players will have to meet eligibility requirements entering fall semester to compete in the spring.

• Those who transfer between schools will now have to sit out one year, just like football and basketball players.

• Team roster sizes will be limited to 35, with only 27 of the athletes eligible for athletic scholarship aid.

• Each player who is on athletic scholarship must receive at least 33 percent of a full scholarship.

That last change is the one that has baseball coaches who feel handcuffed by the NCAA's funding limit of 11.7 scholarships most concerned.

Polk, an outspoken critic of NCAA policy, was rankled Thursday when he heard an NCAA official point out that between football, basketball and baseball players, the last have the highest percentage of academic ineligibility coming into a fall semester.

"I say always, 'Well, duh,'" Polk said. "How dumb a statement is that when our kids are on book scholarship [4 percent], or 10 percent or 15 percent [scholarships], and they've got to pay the balance of the fee to go [to school], and all football and basketball and girls' sports are on full scholarships and they can go to summer school.

"In regard to what the state of baseball is, I know I have the support of all the baseball coaches, all the kids in this country, their parents and friends that what the NCAA does to college baseball is criminal."

The impetus behind the changes stemmed from a concern about college baseball's shortcomings when measured by the NCAA's Academic Performance Rate. That formula tracks how well programs retain and graduate their athletes, and penalizes those that fall short by stripping them of scholarships.

Programs failing to reach an APR score of 925 -- which the NCAA equates to a 50 percent graduation rate -- are subject to penalty. The score is achieved through points for eligibility and retention. Each athlete can retain two points during a school year, one for being eligible and one for staying in the program.

Some programs have had difficulty meeting the minimum because of the current transfer rule and because of losing underclassmen to the major league draft.

Keilitz, one of 27 members of a committee that spent a year to study the issue and recommended the April rules changes, agreed Thursday that the scholarship issue is the one he struggles with the most. Keilitz noted that many institutions are allotted fewer than maximum 11.7 scholarships allowed by the NCAA.

"We are the lowest-funded of all NCAA programs for scholarship and numbers of student-athletes in the program," he said. "It's something we will pursue, we just have to find the right time to do that.

What will give us the greatest clout is if we show considerable improvement in the APR. That's when the timing's going to be best. How long that takes, no one knows."

Curt McKeever is a reporter for the Lincoln Journal Star.