Every few years or so, someone will throw out the idea of bringing a baseball program back at the University of Wisconsin.
My response is always, “What’s the use?”
Wisconsin dropped the sport after the 1991 season due to a $2.1-million deficit in the athletic budget.
I remember Pat Richter, the then UW athletic director, talking about the budget problems when he spoke at the Janesville Rotary Gardens a few years after that. He added that the cold spring weather made baseball almost a non-sport in Big Ten country.
He was correct. Players don’t like to play in 40-degree drizzling conditions, and fans don’t want to sit and watch with blankets and winter coats.
And the Big Ten’s showing in NCAA baseball since that time has reinforced what Richter said.
It has been 55 years since a Big Ten school made it to the College World Series final. Ohio State last did it in 1966—and won the title.
Woody Hayes was coaching the Buckeyes’ football team in 1966. That is a long time ago.
But the University of Michigan is proving that it is possible for a cold-weather team to compete with SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 teams.
The Wolverines are now in the best-of-three championship series, and no one is prouder than the Wolverines head coach Erik Bakich.
“It’s great for the conference,” Bakich said after the Wolverines defeated and eliminated Texas Tech 15-3 on Friday afternoon.
“The conference has grown in baseball. In 2015, it was a coming out party. We had five teams go to the postseason for the first time ever. We had 53 drafted players, which tied the Pac-12.”
Janesville Craig graduate Jack Blomgren is part of this resurgent Wolverines squad. The sophomore is the starting shortstop and is hitting .304, including a 2-for-5 game Friday when he reached base three times, scored twice and stole a base.
Wisconsin hasn’t had a baseball program in Blomgren’s lifetime.
And as rare as the run to Omaha has been, the Wolverines plan to make this an annual event.
“We don’t want 35 years to go by before we get back here,” Bakich said, referring to the Big Ten’s overall College World Series drought. “But we don’t recruit that way. We recruit more on par with all the conferences at the top of college baseball.”
That could be true. But the fact is Michigan looked like it wouldn’t even make the college playoffs a month ago. They finished second in the regular season to Indiana.
The Wolverines then didn’t even make it to the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament. Ohio State beat Nebraska in the championship game.
The Wolverines did enough to receive an at-large NCAA bid. The team made the most of their opportunity.
Much like a No. 15 or 16 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, the selection committee made it as difficult as possible for Michigan.
The Wolverines won a regional hosted by defending NCAA champion Oregon State. The Wolverines then defeated No. 1-seeded UCLA at the Bruins’ home field in the super regionals.
And the team from Ann Arbor is 3-0 in Omaha.
“Hopefully this experience has moved the needle enough to where our program now is consistently competing to have these types of runs,” Bakich said.
Is the Wolverines’ success enough to convince people that Wisconsin should bring back the program?
If UW did bring back baseball, it likely would have to add a women’s sport with comparable scholarships—but not necessarily. The Title IX regulations regarding equality among men and women are vague, and Wisconsin might be able to add baseball without adding a women’s sport.
But it doesn’t seem the UW athletic hierarchy has any plans to put a Badger team on the diamond.
Justin Doherty, the senior associated athletic director, summarized the school’s position on the matter last year.
“Our goal currently is to remain as competitive as we can in the sports we currently sponsor,” Doherty told the Badger Herald 16 months ago. “In addition, the uncertainties facing college athletics in the coming years is another reason we are not looking to add sports.”
So, good luck, Wolverines. You are as close to a rooting interest Wisconsin baseball fans have this time of year.
Tom Miller is a sports writer/page designer for The Gazette.