OMAHA, Neb. — The TD Ameritrade Park first-timers among the Big Ten’s coaches and even some that have played there before tried to downplay the possible effect of the park’s size. They had heard that it’s extremely difficult to hit the ball out of the home of the College World Series and of this week’s Big Ten Tournament, but they weren’t interested in looking for explanations for losses before they happen.
“I’m not one for speculating or making excuses about the ballpark,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said Tuesday in the Big Ten’s pre-tournament press conference. “… For us it’s really a non-factor. Whether’ it’s 408 or 398, I don’t think we’ve hit a home run to center field all year. It doesn’t matter. That’s just something, I think it’s an uncontrollable. It’s not like they’re gonna move the fences in this week. It’s an uncontrollable, it’s not worth worrying about it whether you’re a coach or a player.”
But Indiana coach Tracy Smith, of course, has been here before in last year’s College World Series. When his Hoosiers arrived in Omaha last year, he had a similar attitude, though he also had a team that was more reliant on the power than Bakich’s team or any of the other teams in the Big Ten this year. His ideas chanced after the potent Hoosiers offense scored just six runs in three games. It wasn’t just the the balls that could have cleared the fence that concerned Smith — though Kyle Schwarber had at least one very deep fly out that would likely have been out of Bart Kaufman Field — it was the fact that the effect of the wind was so strong that oufielders could play in without being concerned about the ball being hit over their heads, and therefore shrinking the gaps between them.
“I remember this conversation quite a bit last June,” Smith said. “My attitude going into it was very cavalier. It was, ‘Ah, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. We’ve played in big ball parks before. My attitude was much different after a few days into the tournament.”
Smith didn’t blame the ballpark for Indiana’s exit after three College World Series games last June and he didn’t do that Tuesday. However, he did again say that he hoped the fences would be moved in at some point for the sake of the College World Series.
“The greatest stage of college baseball is the national championship,” Smith said. “You have a game that is played differently. I’m speaking away from the Big Ten Tournament. But when you get it to that point, when you bring those teams in for the national championship, it is a different game than everybody has played all year. I don’t see that in any other championship series across college athletics. … As far as the park in general, this is the most magnificent facility I think I’ve ever been in. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a disastrous place. It’s unbelievable, but I do think the fences need to be in a little bit, and that’s my personal opinion.”
Iowa’s Rick Heller agreed, even though his team hasn’t played in Omaha yet. Creighton uses the facility, and he’s had some experience coaching against the Blue Jays in stints with Indiana State and Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“For the future, I’ve always believed that if a kid hits a ball as hard as he can and is like Schwarber, if it’s a home run, it should be a home run,” Heller said. “Unfortunately, playing here a lot, that doesn’t happen here. I’ve seen guys hit balls as hard as they can possibly hit them, some of the best power hitters in our region and fall 15 feet short of the fence. That there’s never been a home run between the gaps in the history of the ballpark tells you that something needs to change. It’s a part of the game and it’s a big part of the game for some teams. It’s kind of taken away when you come here.”
Longtime Minnesota coach John Anderson, who is in his 33rd year as head of the program, provided perspective to the debate because he was part of the committee that helped design the ballpark. One of the criticisms of Rosenblatt Stadium, he pointed out, was that the wind was often blowing out and the facility played extremely small. Home runs were easy to come by and especially in the late 90s, games that included 20-plus runs were typical.
But of course the game changed in 2011 when the NCAA adopted the .50 BBCOR bat standard, reducing the rebound effect on bats and making them much less potent. With the bats less juiced, runs are down throughout college baseball. The College World Series and all games played at TD Ameritrade are simply an extreme example of that.
“When this ballpark was designed and bat, we had the old bat standard,” Anderson said. “… Then the change was made with the bat. If they would’ve known at the time that this is where we were going to end up with the bat, I think they would’ve designed it differently. I’m sure they would have. … It’s unfortunate that the ballpark got built at a time that there was some changes they couldn’t prepare for.”
Anderson said it’s simply incumbent on teams and coaches to deal with that, pointing out that many ballparks were built with the old bats in mind to begin with.
“It’s not something that’s going to change (this week),” Anderson said. “… It’s a part of college baseball. I think you have to adapt and learn how to generate some offense in ballparks like this.”
Though Smith’s long-term hope is that the ballpark is changed, he does realize that even if a decision was made to alter TD Ameritrade, it wouldn’t happen this week or in time for the College World Series in June. His No. 1 seed Hoosiers are small-ball capable and will use those skills when possible, but he also said he wouldn’t try to get his power hitters to change their approaches in their second time in Omaha.
“It’s tough to change on the fly,” Smith said. “You’re going to be who you are. Apparently last year, being who we are was not good enough. I don’t think I can go up and now tell Kyle Schwarber to try to poke balls through the middle. I think he’s going to be who he is. So we just gotta maybe be a little bit better on the pitching side of it, which I think we are this year. Am I going to go ask my guys to change offensively? I don’t think that I can or will. That goes back to what I was saying earlier. Here we are talking about that type of strategy going into a championship series. … I don’t think that stuff should even be in consideration in dialogue when you’re talking about playing for a championship. To ask your team to do something than they’ve done all year. Isn’t that a problem?”