By Bill Johnson
Well, that was certainly fun. At least for the years that it lasted. Unless circumstances change, the University of California’s baseball team, descendants of the squad that captured the first College World Series (CWS) 76 years ago in 1947, and then again in 1957, could become a program without a conference in 2025. An institution that has made it to Omaha six times, most recently in 2011, will no longer be a member of the same conference as USC, UCLA, or the universities in Arizona.
If this occurred in, say, Alaska, aka baseball Siberia, when the game is only accessible half the year, this would be less unreasonable. That it is happening in California, where the baseball development culture mirrors that of the basketball mania in the midwest, is tough to explain.
But not impossible. In 2023, with the acceptance of the NIL compensation construct for athletes, the old-guard NCAA Division 1 leadership has effectively been neutered. As military planners often observe, there is opportunity within a leadership vacuum. In this case, that leadership has come in the shape and form of major college football and the associated revenue, and presented the largest colleges and universities with enrichment opportunities that rival or exceed those in many of the smaller professional sports.
Cal’s is not the only baseball program so affected. Oregon State, a program that has won three College World Series since 2000 (2006, 2007, and most recently in 2018), and has made it to Omaha seven times, is also orphaned. Baseball thrives in Corvallis, and in the 21st century the school has qualified for the NCAA tournament 16 times. Washington State is not as big a player on the diamond, but Cal’s cross-bay rival Stanford, which has made 18 NCAA appearances (seven of those since 2000) and has two CWS titles, is homeless as well.
The football merger, if unchecked, threatens the gamut of non-revenue (read: football and basketball) sports opportunities for students. Not only at the four remaining PAC-?? Schools, but at every institution that has opted to change conference addresses.
Imagine, for a moment, the attraction for the University of Oregon’s gymnastics squad traveling across the country to compete at Rutgers in a B1G showdown. Or the Penn State softball squad spending seven hours in airports and on aircraft just to play a regular weekend series in Eugene. The costs of team travel, both financial and the opportunity costs of less study time for students, will be difficult to quantify, but they will almost certainly be large. Even if the ACC grew to encompass Stanford, Cal and Southern Methodist, that whole “Atlantic” part of “ACC” will create inordinate travel and time burdens on all concerned.
Yes, new conference alignments will create fresh rivalry opportunities, albeit at the cost of some older ones, and will ensure a brutally competitive slate of football games every weekend. Still, at some point, football might be better served by divorcing itself from the rest of the athletic department (except as bill-payers, of course) and allow the regional conferences to carry on in service of the larger student body.
Circling back to the California Golden Bears, realignment also raises an existential threat to the great baseball tradition on campus. In 2011, the school’s administration announced that it was cutting baseball in a cost-saving measure. Only through the immediate and generous intervention of the University’s baseball fraternity – most visibly MLB alum Jeff Kent – was the program spared.
Baseball has continued to exist in large part because of non-University fundraising, but a school without a conference, or relegation to a smaller league, could provoke another round of internal restructuring that could close Evans Diamond at Stu Gordon Stadium forever. There are ongoing vibrations about adoption into the ACC or the Big 12, but those will come at a cost in terms of travel and regional rivalry. The old days are gone.
To be clear, this is in no way a condemnation or repudiation of Division 1 college football. Not only is that sport equally ensconced in American sports culture, but its popularity and television-friendly structure has created a revenue generation machine benefitting all the less profitable sports within each university.
But restructuring the alignment of baseball, a sport that only offers 11.7 total scholarships per school each year, will create strain on students, parents, and athletic departments. Over time, the game may become less sustainable to some schools, further eroding opportunities for student-athletes.
To paraphrase W.P. Kinsella, baseball will carry on. The proven, affordable, and competitive Division 2 and 3 alignments, along with those in the NAIA and the various junior college tiers, will remain unchanged. Those levels will continue to produce top-level baseball for players, parents and fans, and may even prosper if Division 1 schools like Cal begin to attrite their respective programs. That’s a glass-half-full, rose-colored-glasses perspective, but that may be the only hopeful one available.
IBWAA member W.H. “Bill” Johnson has contributed to SABR’s Biography Project, written extensively on baseball history, and presented papers at related conferences. Bill and his wife Chris currently reside in Georgia. He can be contacted on Twitter: @BaseballStoic.