An Unlikely Baseball Year

As Jim Wells spoke to a small group of reporters late Sunday afternoon, the home dugout inside Sewell-Thomas Stadium was nearly deserted. Behind Wells sat junior pitcher T.J. Large, crimson baseball cap pulled down over his head, which lay enveloped in his hands. At the far left end of the dugout sat junior second baseman Allen Rice and junior first baseman Zac Welch, waiting to offer a few post-mortem comments to sportswriters.

And that was it. Otherwise, the Alabama baseball team's dugout was empty, devoid of life or any sort of emotion.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The calendar said it was May 23, but the Crimson Tide's season was already over. Had been for three days, in fact.

The official end–which came Sunday in the form of a 4-1 loss to Mississippi State in the regular-season finale–was less disappointment than mercy killing.

Saying goodbye to Alabama's 2004 baseball season was like taking a loved, tottering old pet to the veterinarian's office for a final sendoff. You didn't want to watch, but you had to–just to make sure it wasn't suffering any longer than it had to.

That's how ugly Wells' 10th season at the helm of the Alabama baseball program was. At 29-26 overall, 10-20 in Southeastern Conference play, it was by far his worst year in Tuscaloosa and the program's worst since 1994–former coach Barry Schollenberger's last year.

From start to finish, the Tide limped along as if Dr. Jack Kevorkian himself was watching from the press box.

They were consistently inconsistent. Alabama sported one of the nation's best pitching staffs, led by freshman sensation Wade LeBlanc and likely high MLB draft pick Taylor Tankersley. The staff finished the year with one of the nation's 10 best earned run averages, in fact.

But for the first 45 games, they got miniscule run support and the win-loss record suffered mightily.

Over the last three weeks of the season, the bats finally came around. But the pitching stunk, giving up 38 runs and 38 hits over a four-game stretch that eliminated the Tide from the SEC Tournament.

"It seemed like for the first 80 per cent of the year we pitched well enough and didn't score," Wells said. "Then the last couple weeks we started swinging (but couldn't pitch).

"If you look at the 16-week season, if you're looking for the main (flaw), that was it. We were never able to put it together."

This season continued a disturbing trend: in five years, the program has slipped from College World Series contender to near the bottom of the SEC.

Five years ago, Wells led Alabama to its third College World Series appearance in four years.

Since then, the program has hosted only one NCAA regional and missed the SEC Tournament twice.

How has the rest of the league caught up with and passed Alabama?

For starters, SEC baseball has grown exponentially in popularity over the past 10 years; 122,000 fans attended a water-logged SEC Tournament last year.

That translates into increased commitment to baseball from all 12 league schools (OK, well, maybe not Kentucky) and greater competition.

An uneven playing field fueled by lottery-based scholarships offered in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and, soon, Tennessee hurts, too. State-grant scholarships give schools in those states more scholarship money to play with and force Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt (a private school) to compete with only the 11.7 scholarships the NCAA allows baseball programs to offer.

Together, those circumstances have brought Alabama baseball back down to the ground level.

Can Wells push the program above the maddening herd again?

Absolutely. He's done it before at two places–Alabama and Northwestern (Louisiana) State–which gives him a built-in track record of success.

Plus, he has his best recruiter back–Assistant Todd Butler, who returned to Alabama last summer after three years as head coach at McNeese State University.

Wells is very competitive, and he has a solid nucleus returning led by LeBlanc, starting pitcher Brent Carter, starter Brandon Belcher, second baseman Allen Rice, third baseman Evan Bush and first baseman Zac Welch.

If he can dredge some power from the recruiting ranks and return Carter to the form that earned him preseason All-America honors as a junior, Alabama could easily return to the NCAA Tournament and SEC prominence in 2005, even without junior pitcher Taylor Tankersley, expected to be a high draft pick in the upcoming Major League Baseball amateur draft.

The best part about the process is that it's already begun; Wells spent all of Monday in individual meetings with his players and coaching staff.

It'll be a long off-season. Hopefully they'll remember that empty, desultory dugout on a hot May Sunday afternoon–and resolve to never, ever feel that way again.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Greg Wallace is the Alabama beat writer for the Birmingham Post-Herald and writes a weekly column for

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