Pete Hughes can’t think of a single reason college baseball shouldn’t adopt a recent proposal to start the season later in the calendar year. Hughes, who was in the middle of his second year as Kansas State’s head coach when the coronavirus pandemic forced a premature end to the 2020 season, said that “for every criticism that’s out there” about the proposal, the model provides an answer.
A group of Power 5 coaches came up with the proposal, spearheaded by Michigan’s Erik Bakich. The 35-page proposal, titled “New Baseball Model” would change the face of the sport. If approved, there would be nine weeks of preseason practice (up from five now), the regular season wouldn’t begin until the third week of March (it traditionally starts in the middle of February) and the College World Series would conclude the last week of July (it now ends the final week of June).
The proposal aims to trim expenses in a post-coronavirus landscape, as well as making it more appealing to fans and safer for players.
“I think it’s something we have to do, so I’m behind it 100%,” Hughes told The Mercury in a phone interview Wednesday. “It’s always healthy to try new avenues to improve the game, to improve the product. I think this does that.”
That’s why Hughes hopes the proposal soon will become a reality.
Player safety paramount
If pared down to one factor, Hughes said player safety is the proposal’s most salient point.
“Right now, the way the NCAA has it set up for college baseball, we have two weeks of supervision of building our pitchers’ arm strength up to the level where we can go out and compete,” he said. “They have to do it on their own before they come to see us. If you’ve got a kid who’s going to start throwing live out of the gates and his arm is not built up yet — hasn’t done the right things or doesn’t have the facilities at home to do it — then the kid is going to get hurt. So with this new model, I love it, because we’ll have six weeks with these guys. That’s safe.”
Or put another way: “It’s more than a sufficient amount of time” to build up a pitcher’s arm strength, Hughes said.
Ideally, a coaching staff would have at least a month to work with its hurlers, starting with 30 pitches a week off a live mound, increasing at increments of 15 pitches per outing.
“Anything inside of a month is a little bit reckless,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it. ... You just don’t know if these kids have the facilities to do that when they’re home over break before they come to campus and start practicing in January. You just don’t know. So every single time a kid throws a ball in our program, it’s supervised — except when they go home and they have to do work on their own. The schedule doesn’t permit them to come back to school and have it supervised in a practice situation. This new model would allow us to do that.”
That extra care, Hughes believes, will help teams keep their players healthier over time.
“There will be (fewer) injuries,” he said. “Your team will be more prepared.”
While Hughes wasn’t part of the group sponsoring the proposal — along with Bakich, that included Louisville’s Dan McDonnell, TCU’s Jim Schlossnagle, Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin and UCLA’s John Savage — he said he participated in a few Zoom calls. One call consisted of Division I schools in the Midwest. The other was a national call.
On that latter call, the proposal’s safety component received a seal of approval from one of the nation’s most well-known surgeons.
“We had Dr. (James) Andrews, who is the foremost authority on baseball arm care,” Hughes said. “He pioneered the Tommy John surgery. So he’s the best in the country. He spoke to the group about student-athlete welfare, the health of the arm and the new model really benefiting it. And he quantified it, too, so it was pretty insightful.”
'It takes a lot of burden off these guys academically'
Players' bodies won't be the only thing well-served by a later start to the season. Hughes said it would be equally beneficial for players' minds.
"It takes a lot of burden off these guys academically," he said. "There's no other sport that really has the academic pressures of college baseball right now. The way we have it set up, playing 56 games in three months, those kids are playing four or five times a week. So it solves that problem."
With teams from colder-weather areas — don't just think about K-State here; schools in the Big Ten and the Northeast are examples, too — not having to travel all over the country in February, Hughes noted that it gives student-athletes an opportunity to "get settled in academically" before the season kicked off in March.
"It just makes too much sense," he said.
Baseball could become a revenue-generating sport?
Pushing the college baseball season back a month won’t just give players more time to prepare. It could do the same for fans. In the middle of February, college sports’ fans attention — the smattering of baseball hotbeds notwithstanding, most of which someone could count on one hand, and most of which reside in the SEC (LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi State fit this description) — are focused on basketball.
Hughes said less conflict with college hoops would benefit baseball, particularly at K-State.
“It can’t hurt it,” he said. “We’d be center stage.”
Starting the season later also would save K-State money. (The proposal said it could save schools located in colder climates nearly $200,000 in travel costs. There also would be more regional scheduling.)
That's not the only reason it works in the Wildcats' favor: Instead of heading south or west for the first two weeks of a season in search of better baseball weather, a middle-of-March start date means K-State might be able to have opening day at Tointon Family Stadium. Hughes could hardly contain his excitement at the prospect.
“It’d be awesome for the community,” he said. “This community, they’re as loyal and supportive as it gets.”
It’s a subject supporters bring up constantly.
“I can’t tell you how many people, even in the short time I’ve been here at Kansas State, who come up to me afterward and say, ‘Coach, can you schedule more games at the end of April and (into) May?’” Hughes said. “It’s just not pleasant to go out there sometimes when it’s 20 degrees out and watch a game for three hours.”
Hughes said an uptick in attendance would only become more noticeable as the weather became nicer. That’s partially because of developments elsewhere: Major League Baseball cut hundreds of minor league players Thursday. Hundreds more are expected to suffer that same fate soon, as it is expected the minor league season will be canceled in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Yet even before the pandemic reached the United States, rumors circulated that MLB planned to eliminate 42 minor league clubs before the 2021 season began.
Minor league baseball’s loss could be college baseball’s gain.
“Those attendance numbers every summer are through the roof,” Hughes said. “People love baseball in the summertime, in the warm weather. They’re not going to have so many venues to go to now with a cut of (minor league baseball teams), so it’s going to be college baseball in the summertime. It’ll be exciting.”
More fans in the stands also might be a financial boon to K-State Athletics’ bottom line: Hughes said he thinks baseball could become a revenue-generating sport at K-State. It circles back to a later start to the season.
“I don’t blame (fans) if they don’t want to come out and watch us play in early March. I don’t blame them,” he said. “But if it’s 50 degrees or warmer, people around here are going to show up. It would be phenomenal for our program to have that new model. I think we would have a chance at making some money, too, which is tough to do in college baseball. But this new model would give us a chance to do that, and I think we would around here.”
In a phone interview with The Mercury on Thursday, K-State athletics director Gene Taylor said he hadn’t had a chance to crunch the numbers just yet.
“I would say that with the kind of program we think Pete can build, and with a season where you don’t have to worry about 30-degree weather — you’re still going to have rainy days — and will have more warm weather to play in, I think our fans would fill up the stadium on a pretty regular basis,” Taylor said. “Now does that become a revenue-generating sport? It’s going to produce more revenue than it does now. Whether it’s a positive net or not, I haven’t done those numbers.”
Knocking down criticisms
Hughes concedes the proposal isn't devoid of potential naysayers.
One thread Hughes believes detractors might pick up is the alterations to athletics budgets across the country to account for playing into the summer.
"Well take Kansas State," he said. "Our guys, they're paying for their housing through August, anyway. Their leases go until August. So a part of it's paid for over the summertime. There's no cost for housing. We have anywhere from 13 to 18 guys who stay here over the summer, anyway, guys that we shut down and don't send out to summer ball, so it's just a matter of meals that would be a new budget line. But we can make that up through attendance and home games when the weather's good. That won't be a budget line; that'll be a revenue source."
One of the "summer ball" leagues Hughes alluded to is near and dear to his heart: the Cape Cod.
A native of Brockton, Mass., Hughes is well versed in the Cape Cod League's illustrious history. The same goes for his coaching staff, most notably volunteer assistant Scott Englert, who joined K-State after serving as the head coach of the Cape Cod League's Harwich Mariners since 2003.
College baseball beginning later would run into the Cape Cod League, which starts in the middle of June.
Hughes didn't see that as an issue, though, saying he still believes the Cape Cod League can thrive. He pointed to the proposal: The Fourth of July would mark the first weekend of NCAA regional play; there's plenty of teams out there, Hughes said, that won't be one of the 64 squads in the event. After the first weekend, that number shrinks to 32.
"So the rest of those guys could go to the Cape Cod League (then)," Hughes said. "They can have a very productive season for a month and a half. I think you open it up, the best junior college players can go to the Cape as well. So it doesn't have to dissolve a league. That league can still be one of the top leagues in the country, and as soon as these guys get eliminated from the tournament, they can head to the Cape."
Hughes hoping for immediate implementation
Hughes said he's always been a proponent of beginning college baseball in March. He's not the only person in K-State's athletics department who feels that way, either.
"I've been at North Dakota State with a baseball coach, Iowa with a baseball coach and now here, and all three of those coaches have been pushing for this with me for a long time," Taylor said. "As a Northern program, you're just at such a disadvantage from a recruiting perspective, a preseason and practice perspective and (early-season) games. At North Dakota State — at least here we don't have quite this problem — but we were on the road for a majority of the season, because they could not get games in, much less the practices, because for the longest time, we didn't have an indoor bubble or anything like that. So I've always been an advocate for this. I'd love to see it happen."
If Hughes gets his way, it'll happen sooner rather than later. He said he sees no reason to wait until the 2022 season, outlined in the proposal as the first year of implementation. Given how much the pandemic has changed the landscape of college sports, Hughes said the time is now.
"I really do think this is the year to do it with how crazy this year has been. Our athletics directors and our commissioners and the decision makers, time is so valuable to those guys right now to figure out what the heck to do and what the next move is," he said. "They all need time to make decisions on what's going to be adjusted. With this new model, we're giving them time. Look, we're going to start six weeks later. So that's why I think this is the year to do it. Throw the model out there and see if it works. If it doesn't work, we go back to (the old model)."
Ultimately, Hughes said the proposal's success (or failure) will hinge upon three factors, which he laid out in the form of questions: How much will it cost? How does it affect academics? And does it help (or hinder) the welfare of student-athletes?
"This checks all those boxes, really," he said. "So other than tradition, there's no reason not to move forward with this model, in my opinion."
There's only one rationale Hughes could see that would force an immediate vote on the proposal being tabled.
"It's such a big change, people kind of tippy toe around it. They think they're being rushed if it's going to be that drastic of a change," he said. "That's the feeling I've got and what I've heard. I'd like to say I know (for certain), but we're changing on the fly every day. We don't even know when football is going to start. Think if everything gets bumped. What if football gets bumped a little bit? It's going to bump every sport (back), so it's the perfect time to bump baseball and say, 'Let's check out this new model.'"
Yet Hughes said he sees a way his scheduling dream comes true: It has widespread support across the country.
"Especially from the major conferences like ours, the Big Ten, and specifically, the SEC," he said. "The SEC usually drives things in college baseball, and they are in full support of it."
The backing of a certain television network doesn't hurt, either.
"ESPN is all for it, I can tell you that," Hughes said. "That's one of their slowest times of the year: the end of July. I think Omaha (home of the College World Series) with the new deal would be July 19, and when that was broached to the powers that be at ESPN, they were elated. It's one of their slowest times, that little pocket in July. So they're all for it. It would be good for our game and good for our product in every area."