By Lee Davis
Journal Sports Writer
I have always believed that baseball and softball– through no fault of their own – are sort of the stepchildren of high school athletics in Alabama.
First of all, the season starts in February, when most high school fans are following the basketball playoffs. Baseball and softball are warm weather sports, meant to be played in the spring and summer months. That’s why Major League Baseball teams spend millions of dollars for winter training facilities in Florida and Arizona.
Also, the baseball and softball playoffs are in mid- to late May, when most high school students are thinking about the prom or eagerly anticipating graduation or summer vacation.
In between, high school baseball and softball teams in Alabama are playing a long schedule of games in which only a few count in their region standings. With only three or four schools in each region, most of the regular season slate amounts to being a series of non-league exhibition games.
To get an idea how long the baseball regular season is, consider this fact: In the 1970s, the first game usually wasn’t played until AFTER spring break. Now it’s not uncommon for a team to have played more than 20 games before the break begins. And many teams spend their spring breaks playing in local or out-of-town tournaments.
Some fans of high school track and field say their sport is the stepchild, and they may have a point. But at least track athletes aren’t competing in February weather, and they wrap up their season well before the end of the school year. Even soccer season ends before baseball and softball.
Part of the problem is the overlap between the basketball and the baseball and softball seasons. For example, the baseball season opens Feb. 21, just as the basketball regionals are going on. That makes it more difficult for dual-sport athletes to make an easy transition from basketball to baseball or softball.
And like football and basketball, the opening game of the baseball and softball season should be a big deal for the team and the student body. Instead, there are too many occasions when a baseball team’s home opener is played in bone-chilling temperatures in front of a small crowd consisting mainly of parents and girlfriends or boyfriends.
One proposed solution is to push the season start back a few weeks and extend the playoffs into the summer, after graduation.
This is a bad idea. The playoffs are supposed to be the most exciting time of the year for any team. But if they hold playoffs after the end of the school year, the crowds will dwindle again. The student fan base will take off to the beach, summer jobs or college fraternity rush parties.
Post-graduation playoffs could cause team morale problems as well. Suppose a team reaches the state championship baseball series, which is scheduled two days after the senior class’ Caribbean cruise leaves port? How many seniors who aren’t going to play baseball at the next level would abandon their team to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip? Who knows?
For adults, it’s probably easy to forget how much that early summer trip means to a just-graduated 17- or 18-year-old. I remember a couple of decades ago when an ace pitcher for an Over the Mountain school signed with Mississippi State, which was coached at the time by the legendary Ron Polk. Polk wanted the young man to pitch in the East-West All-Star Classic in early June. The young man wanted to go to Florida with his friends.
The pitcher’s high school coach strongly urged him to follow Polk’s “suggestion” and play in the East-West game. The young man ignored the advice and headed for the beach.
The pitcher still went to Mississippi State but started out in Polk’s doghouse and never really got out of it. I wonder if, in retrospect, he thinks going to Florida was worth starting off on the bad side of one of college baseball’s all-time great coaches. But at the time, he obviously thought the beach trip was more important.
A more practical answer is simply to shorten the regular season. The team that wins the state 6A baseball championship will probably play nearly 60 games. The team that wins the state 6A softball title may play even more games. Most regular seasons for either sport entail more than 40 games.
Do we really need that many? Wouldn’t a 30-35 game regular season be enough? (In the 1970s, Alabama high schools played about 25 games.)
Some coaches will claim they need the gate receipts that the longer season brings, but is it really that much more money, when you consider that a shorter season would lessen expenses like travel costs? In fact, a shorter season played in more fan-friendly temperatures might actually boost overall attendance over the long term, as fewer games might mean more student interest, particularly in contests against traditional or area rivals.
Another idea would be, in addition to playing fewer overall games, is to play more area games. Presently, the area teams play a home-and-home round robin with each opponent.
In Class 6A’s Area 12, for example, Spain Park will play rivals Mountain Brook, Homewood and Vestavia twice each. That’s a total of six area games. Why not play a double round robin against area schools that would total 12 games?
Plus, toss in a pair of battles with cross-town rival Hoover, and you’ve got the meat of a challenging and appealing schedule that would be far shorter than 42 games. And there would still be plenty of time to complete the post-season playoffs before the end of the school year.
There might be reasons why my thoughts about baseball and softball could be wrong, silly or impractical. But if the Alabama High School Athletic Association really wants to do right for the coaches and young men and women who play baseball and softball, it might be worth giving them a look.
Hoover Soccer Club
Plans Two Events
The Hoover Soccer Club will host the ninth annual Hoover Havoc Soccer Tournament April 15-17.
The tournament offers competitive and recreational divisions for both boys’ and girls’ teams in U9-U13 divisions.
For more information, visit www.hooverhavoc.com.
The club also will sponsor the second annual Phantoms Golf Scramble April 20 at Timberline Golf Course in Calera.
Participants receive 18 holes of golf (including cart), lunch, pre-round range balls, the chance to win door prizes and a voucher for a free round of golf at Timberline.
The event includes two longest drive contests, closest to the pin contests on par 3 holes and a $10,000 hole-in-one shootout.
Registration begins at 12:30 p.m. followed by tee-off at 1:30 p.m. For more information, call 978-8663.