Despite challenges, Big Ten baseball ‘on the rise’
The last time the Big Ten won a national baseball championship, the conference actually had 10 schools.
Yeah, it's been a minute since Ohio State hoisted the trophy way back in 1966.
How close is the Big Ten to actually getting back on top?
"Not far at all," said Big Ten Network analyst Danan Hughes, a former baseball and football player at Iowa. "If you were to ask me that question six, eight years ago, I would've wondered if it would ever happen.
"But after the recent success in these past couple years, I don't see teams that are that far ahead of us."
The Big Ten, don't mistake this, isn't yet on par with other power conferences, especially the SEC and ACC. But progress, nonetheless, has been made, and in a hurry.
Last season, the Big Ten sent a conference-record five teams to the NCAA tournament -- and Michigan State, just outside the bubble, easily could've been No. 6 -- and had a record 53 players taken in the Major League Baseball amateur draft, more than the previous two years combined.
The No. 6 overall pick last year was left-handed reliever out of Illinois, Tyler Jay, who was drafted by the Minnesota Twins.
As the Big Ten tournament kicks off Wednesday in Omaha, Nebraska, there's a sense of pride swelling around the Big Ten.
Indiana getting to the College World Series in 2013 -- consider, Michigan hasn't been since 1984, and Michigan State since 1954 -- might've been the turning point, at least in terms of national recognition.
"That run really kind of, I guess for lack of a better term, put the Big Ten into the eyes and ears of a lot of people across the country and made people aware of the brand of baseball we play here," said Michigan State coach Jake Boss Jr., in his eighth season. "It was great for the league. We've all kind of fed off that."
The Big Ten long has been the red-headed stepchild when it came to college baseball, because there are built-in disadvantages.
For starters, baseball is a warm-weather sport, and the Midwest doesn't guarantee warm weather until late April and, in some cases, even into May.
Big Ten teams begin their seasons in February with road trips every weekend to the south or west.
As for practicing outdoors, again, nothing's guaranteed.
"You can get a lot of work indoors," said Hughes, "but not enough quality work."
Then there's the biggest of issues: recruiting.
The Big Ten has always been a tougher sell for the bluest of blue-chip baseball prospects, who do their homework and know the history. Guys from marquee programs in the South and West -- where they can play year-round, and thus play more games -- have a better chance to make it at the next level.
Plus, from a simpler standpoint for 19- and 20-year-olds, California in January beats the heck out of Michigan.
Earlier this season, after a game against Eastern Michigan in East Lansing, Boss acknowledged weather isn't something they like to stress when recruiting.
"This is a conference that saw a little bit of a paradigm shift last year," said Michigan coach Erik Bakich, in his fourth year. "Instead of being a banner year, we're trying to make this the new norm, where Big Ten baseball is producing a much more competitive level of college baseball.
"The Big Ten doesn't compare quite yet with the SEC and ACC, but it does compare with the Pac-12 and Big 12.
"It's growing. It's getting there. It's certainly on the rise."
Hughes would tend to agree, saying in the not-to-distant past, Big Ten No. 1 weekend starters might have compared to midweek No. 4s in other power conferences.
The No. 1s are much more comparable these days, even if the depth remains better in the South and West.
One reason for the Big Ten's ascension: Schools are taking advantage of the financial windfall from an expanded conference -- with Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers joining in recent years -- and the successful Big Ten Network, and reinvesting a lot of that money into the non-revenue sports like baseball, in hopes of actually making them revenue sports, as they are in other parts of the country.
Some reports say Big Ten schools will get $40 million or more from TV deals in coming years, and that's already leading to facility upgrades and more for many sports, including baseball. There's also this, Hughes said: With the BTN, which launched in 2007, more teams are playing on TV, and nobody likes a bad product on TV.
"I think you've seen it in all schools, all 13 schools (Wisconsin doesn’t have a baseball program). With slides and power points, we show all the recruits, we talk about all the other schools that are making facility upgrades -- reasons why recruits don't have to go south," Bakich said. "You're seeing that increased financial commitment."
Michigan was ahead of the curve here, getting its renovated baseball stadium, part of the Wilpon Complex, in 2008, thanks to heavy support from New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon, a Michigan alum. More recently, Michigan installed synthetic turf on the baseball and softball fields.
In 2009, Michigan State dedicated McLane Baseball Stadium at Kobs Field, with upgrades courtesy of a donation from former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr., a Michigan State alum. More recently, Michigan State installed heating systems under its baseball and softball fields, to help melt snow and ice so that the teams can practice and play more outdoors during cold-weather months.
Michigan and Michigan State both were ranked, multiple times, in the weekly Baseball America top 25 this season, before late-season swoons knocked them out of the final regular-season polls. In the final top 25, no Big Ten teams were ranked, with regular-season champion Minnesota getting the boot, too.
So there's still a ways to go to gain the respect of everybody, but Rome wasn't built in a day.
"After the last couple years," said Boss, "we've proven there's good baseball in this league."
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
At TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.
All games on BTN; all times are Eastern.
Format is double-elimination.
Game 1: No. 3 Indiana vs. No. 6 Maryland at 10 a.m.
Game 2: No. 2 Nebraska vs. No. 7 Michigan State at 2 p.m.
Game 3: No. 1 Minnesota vs. No. 8 Iowa at 6 p.m.
Game 4: No. 4 Ohio State vs. No. 5 Michigan at 10 p.m.
Game 5: Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2 at 10 a.m.
Game 6: Loser Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4 at 2 p.m.
Game 7: Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2 at 6 p.m.
Game 8: Winner Game 3 vs. Winner Game 4 at 10 p.m.
Game 9: Winner Game 5 vs. Loser Game 7 at 4:30 p.m.
Game 10: Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 8 at 8:30 p.m.
Game 11: Winner Game 8 vs. Winner Game 9 at 10 a.m.
Game 12: Winner Game 7 vs. Winner Game 10 at 2 p.m.
Game 13: Winner Game 11 vs. Loser Game 11 at 6 p.m. (if necessary)
Game 14: Winner Game 12 vs. Loser Game 12 at 10 p.m. (if necessary; moves to 6 p.m. if Game 13 does not take place)
Game 15: Championship, Winner Game 12/14 vs. Winner Game 11/13, 2 p.m.