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There’s often an illusion that professional and college baseball simply can’t work together for the betterment of baseball. Of course, pro baseball would love to see drafted players head to the professional ranks right away in many cases, while college baseball would love to see the opposite occur. But beyond that difference, Major League Baseball has a vested interest in helping further and promote college baseball. That much was evident last week in New York as MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and other high-ranking officials met with ABCA executive director Craig Keilitz and a trio of premier college coaches — Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin, Louisville’s Dan McDonnell and TCU’s Jim Schlossnagle.
A window of discussion between MLB and college baseball has always been open with Manfred leading the way, and this was yet another example of that. While some of the discussion between pro and college brain trusts included pace of play, which certainly has become a hot topic at every level of baseball, the group also discussed hot button issues in college baseball, including scholarships or the lack thereof, the MLB draft, the addition of more MLB-college related events and more ways to promote the sport’s most important event, the College World Series.
“We want to appear with MLB as much as we can if it’s something that’s beneficial to us and both parties, and better for the game of baseball in general,” Keilitz said. “We have some commonality in pace of play and ways we can pair up. We think we can help tremendously in that regard with some of the things we’ve done at the collegiate level.
“We’re looking at every avenue we can when it comes to improving baseball, whether it’s the number of coaches, scholarships, whatever. We’re looking under every rock for an acceptable way to make some progress,” he continued. “With that said, MLB is a natural partner in all of us — and there are some things we can do jointly to help the game. We’re still in the infancy stages on a lot of things, but the willingness of Rob Manfred and his team to discuss ways to we can mutually benefit one another is extremely encouraging. Rob is first class and I think his team really cares about making sure we grow baseball in this country.”
Growing scholarships in college baseball
Though the college baseball postseason is the biggest money-making event for the NCAA outside of football and men’s basketball, the sport continues to be held back form a scholarship standpoint. The sport is still at 11.7 scholarships and an educated estimate suggests that 25-35 percent of college baseball programs still aren’t even at 11.7.
The fact that 25-35 percent of programs aren’t at 11.7 shouldn’t hold the sport back, though. Just like college football and basketball, respectively, baseball needs to be proactive, and they need to make sure they lean on the powers and those that care most about the sport, thus forcing other schools/programs to either spend money to get to a least 11.7, or risk getting further behind.
That’s another discussion to be had, but where does MLB fit into the scholarship equation? As it stands, there are obvious roadblocks when it comes to funding more scholarships in college baseball. Title IX is one biggie, though MLB also could decide to fund some softball scholarships to make up for the difference. But again, this all costs money and there’s also an organization called the NCAA that could stand in the way.
With all that said, there’s sincere interest on MLB’s part to get involved in college baseball, scholarships and making sure more players — specifically minority players — have an opportunity to play amateur baseball, thus leading to more growth and opportunities in pro ball.
“The biggest discussion we had is just finding a way to get the best athletes to play baseball. Right now, there are plenty of guys who either feel forced to sign for a low bonus, or go play another sport in college because baseball lacks necessary scholarships,” Schlossnagle said. “There is a possibility of MLB helping fund full scholarships for some schools in the future, but it’s still in the early stages. I thought Manfred was very blunt and forthcoming about the scholarship issues facing the sport.”
Keilitz also weighed in on scholarships in college baseball.
“There are situations where you have a kid starting in the College World Series, and when he leaves school, he owes $100K in student loans and such,” he said. “How tragic is that? We all talk about it, but I think both MLB and college baseball and to make some actual progress happen.”
We’ll have more on what this structure could look like soon.
An MLB Game … to Omaha?
Though MLB has strong interest in moving the draft to Omaha at some point, there are still some roadblocks in the way. More news could come on that in the near future, but MLB also has strong interest in promoting the College World Series. Last summer, MLB teamed up with ESPN to televise a game between the Pirates and Cardinals at the Little League World Series. It was a huge hit and did a terrific job of promoting the LLWS, while also engaging MLB’s brand with a younger audience. Ideally, MLB would like to do the same thing for the CWS and Omaha. While having a game in Omaha a couple of days before the CWS in 2018 seems like a long shot for now, 2019 looks more doable, assuming MLB, the City of Omaha, ESPN and others can work out the logistics. It’s something we’re hearing MLB definitely wants to do, sooner rather than later.
“I think MLB wants that type of event to be a celebration of baseball, just like it was at the LLWS,” Schlossnagle said. “They did some different things with college baseball on the MLB Network last year, will again this year, and this would be one of many things they want to do to get further involved with the college game.”
Timing and location of the MLB draft
One of the hotter button pro vs. college topics centers around the timing of the MLB draft. Currently, the draft occurs during the college postseason. While many coaches and administrators understand why it’s when it is, others believe it would be best suited right before the College World Series, or even after the CWS. While the latter sounds great in theory, it’s not the most convenient in practice so close to the signing deadline and with a vast majority of college players already done with their respective seasons and ready to move on to the professional ranks.
Manfred, MLB and the college power brokers continue to make good progress on the draft timing. There already has been some flexibility from MLB from a draft standpoint. And even more flexibility toward the college game could be made in the near future. Most recently, the timing of the draft took center stage in 2015 when Vanderbilt shortstop Dansby Swanson, who was the top pick of the draft that year, was forced to watch his selection on an iPhone on the field immediately following his team’s super regional-clinching win over Illinois to advance to the CWS. Before that, Miami’s Yasmani Grandal was told where he got drafted through the backstop net while he was in the on-deck circle during an NCAA regional. There’s no such thing as perfect timing.
“We’re looking to do what’s best for college baseball, but also asking MLB to work with us so there’s as little interference as possible with our postseason,” Keilitz said. “They’ve been absolutely tremendous when it comes to that. I can’t stress anymore how hard they are working to try to make things work on their end, while also considering the coaches and players we have competing in our postseason tournament. I don’t think many of our coaches understand just how much they bend over backwards to help us out at times on the issue of the draft.
“There’s no great time to have the draft, but 75-80 percent of our teams are done after conference tournaments, so that makes sense,” he continued. “But, we have a bulk of programs who would like to see it happen after when it does now. I think the teams still competing at that time still want to make the postseason as enjoyable of an athletic experience as possible without worrying about 10-15 different things as it relates to the draft.”
For now, I’d look for the draft to take place the Monday before the CWS, with a chance the date moves around as well. Something else to keep an eye on is the potential for the draft to move to Omaha, at least temporarily, in the future. Both the City of Omaha and MLB are very interested in having the event in college baseball’s Mecca, but there are still roadblocks the parties must find a way to navigate around.
MLB, coaches discuss scheduling, partnerships
MLB would like to get more involved with college baseball events, particularly early in the season. TCU, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Cal State Fullerton were slated to head to Puerto Rico early next season for a tournament in San Juan. However, the schedule had to be altered because of Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island. The coaches haven’t come up with a scheduling solution or site just yet, but Schlossnagle and Corbin discussed with Manfred the potential for MLB to be somewhat involved, and MLB is helping the coaches find a site. Hosting the tourney at a big league ballpark is an option, but no further details are available.
More important is MLB’s interest in being involved in more early-season tournaments moving forward. Sources said MLB would like to feature some of college baseball’s premier programs early in the season, potentially televising a tournament on the MLB Network. One idea that was floated around at the meeting was taking the top 6-10 college baseball teams and bringing them together for a tournament. The Shriners College Classic in Houston is a tournament that already has star-studded names on an annual basis, but this idea would even take a tourney of that caliber to another level.
There is nothing concrete in terms of events already being scheduled, but Schlossnagle, Keilitz and others feel it’s only a matter of time before these strategic partnerships occur.
“They’re wanting to get involved with some events in our sport. We were all just throwing out ideas of what they could be involved in. There are, I think, some unique opportunities to try some things out,” Schlossnagle said. “I think what was eye opening for me is how much they truly care about college baseball and how much they want to see it grow. They want the sport to become more of a part of the developmental system for professional baseball. I feel like Manfred and his team want a relationship with us the same way the NBA has a relationship with college basketball and the NFL has a relationship with college football. For whatever reason, it hasn’t been like that in the past.”
• I briefly spoke with Keilitz about any traction since the ABCA convention in regard to adding an additional assistant coach in Division I Baseball. He said that there could be more traction on the topic later in the season when more coaches talk to their athletic directors and the ABCA can have substantive discussions with conferences. Though Keilitz couldn’t predict what ultimately will tip the scales on this potential legislative agenda item, the overwhelming feeling is that the SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac 12 will need to lead the charge. It’s then that an additional assistant coach could become a reality for the sport. Personally, I see this addition happening within the next two years. Stay tuned.
• Early in January, it surfaced that the NCAA Transfer Working Group was considering proposing legislation that would allow a student-athlete in all sports to transfer immediately, one time, and with no constraints other than the fact they had to be a freshman or sophomore. As Keilitz says below, the ABCA and many coaches in college baseball would be no fan of that. However, it will be interesting to see if a Big 12 proposal gains traction and eventually leads to a successful vote. That proposal includes a few prongs:
1) The graduate transfer rule, which allows a graduate to transfer and immediately play, would be unchanged.
2) Coaches and athletic directors would no longer be able to block an athlete from transferring on scholarship to a specific school.
3) An undergraduate transfer would still have to sit out for a year unless the student-athlete has one of three exceptions:
* If the player’s head coach leaves the school or get fired. The player, however, could not follow the coach to the new school without sitting out a year. Any other school? Fair game.
* A player could transfer immediately and not sit out if the player’s program is sanctioned for infractions by the NCAA.
* An undergraduate could transfer and play immediately if that player is a walk-on.
“Our position remains the same. We’re definitely against the one-time transfer if that rule applies to anyone with no conditions. We don’t think it’s in the best interest of the student-athlete and I think what we have right now is pretty good,” Keilitz said. “In baseball, graduation rates and APR have never been higher, along with the popularity of our game. I think rescinding the transfer rule at any point would be a very bad mistake for college athletics, and certainly our sport.”