Baseball, we need to talk.
This has been a brutal, brutal start to your season across high schools in the Midwest and Northeast. There are places two months into a season where teams had only been on a field seven times. That’s games and practices. In some, they hadn’t even played a single game.
As much as that’s bad news, there’s good news, too. This has nothing to do with you, baseball. You’re still a terrific sport and the absolute best way to spend a spring day (or evening). The issue is spring, and its delayed arrival and all-too-brief window to play your games.
The bottom line is this: If spring is only going to be one month long, it’s going to be hard to hold a full baseball season. That’s what coaches and players in 11 states are finding out right now. Elongated winter has given way to truncated spring and desperate scrambles to find any available, dry, playable space on which to host and compete in games. It’s been stressful, uncomfortable and generally unpleasant. Coaches are struggling to schedule pitching in a way that won’t leave players up against pitch count limits or injuries. No one is happy about any of it.
Luckily, there’s a solution here, and like many other solutions (or, perhaps, predictions) before, it comes express from Iowa: Move high school baseball to the summer.
Cue the caterwauling from traditionalists, but summer baseball — as played in the Hawkeye state and Wisconsin (though Wisconsin will be nearly all-spring baseball programs in 2019) would present a genuine solution to precisely what has ailed it in 2018 across the Midwest and Northeast. There would be no weather issues, or at least none bar the occasional rainstorm (which can be adjusted for much more easily than a blizzard). There would be no academic conflicts exacerbated by suddenly overloaded schedules chock full of doubleheaders.
There would just be baseball, as it should be. Here’s how it might work:
— As in Iowa, the season would begin in late May (Iowa’s 2018 opening day can be no earlier than May 21).
— The regular season will run through June 29. That’s about a week after most schools will let out in New England, and likely similar across much of the Midwest after winter snow days.
— Following the end of the season will be a break for the Fourth of July holiday week, with District playoffs beginning Saturday, July 7. Subsequent rounds of the playoffs will continue until champions are crowned by the weekend of July 27-29, at the latest.
Is that extended calendar an imposition on athletes and coaches who would otherwise be roughly a month into their summer break? Sure it is. At the same time, would baseball coaches rather have an unfettered summer schedule or a genuine season in which their state’s baseball competition unfolded as it should, not as it is forced to in a concentrated box?
At the end of the day, that’s what high school baseball comes down to at this point. It’s a debate between playing a heavily weighted season condensed into little more than a month, or sacrificing some of the freedoms of summer to play a sport that they love.
Obviously, there are additional complicating factors, but none that couldn’t be addressed. The national showcase events — All-American games and recruiting showcases hosted by Perfect Game and others — could still be catered to, with individual players missing one-off games to attend. In that way, they’re no more significant a distraction than academic events or other extracurricular conflicts that emerge during the traditional spring season.
American Legion baseball is a virtually universal presence, though its impact is more significant in some areas (the Dakotas and parts of New England) than others. Extending or shifting the high school season into summer would create scarcity of baseball diamonds, but American Legion games could either shift earlier or later in the year, potentially shrinking the season but maintaining its footprint.
Predictably, there is pushback, initially from coaches for whom this would represent a change in life, and perhaps even part-time career.
“As teachers we’re off in the summer, and some teachers are working other jobs,” Braintree (Mass.) baseball coach Bill O’Connell said. “And some players are working jobs to pay for their college tuition. It’s a different world than it used to be.”
Some coaches would have obligations to other school sports, too.
“I think there’s probably too many bridges to cross to play in summer because all the other sports are in summer camps,” said Matt Chandler, the softball coach (and a former baseball coach) at Thompson (N.D.). “Football practice and volleyball practice start so early in August and you worry about kids having to make decisions about what sports to play.”
Certainly shifting the baseball season into the summer months will push high school athletes from one sport into the next. While that might not be ideal on paper, it’s also likely not far from the reality they already experience, with travel programs taking up chunks of the summer and eliminating perceived rest periods.
So, what will it be, America? Playing baseball through the snow, sleet, and rain, or playing when others are free to roam? It’s a decision worth making, and only one choice can preserve the vitality and integrity of the sport at the high school level.