State of the Hogs: This Is Baseball!

The brand of Razorback baseball has grown at a big rate. Chuck Barrett gives credit to some big, strong towers in two areas of the state.

We all like to stretch numbers. There are times I doubt crowd numbers. They can't be right.

But for some reason, I haven't thought the numbers that come from Baum Stadium are stretched even a tad bit.

I didn't question those numbers for the weekend NCAA Fayetteville Regional, now revealed as No. 1 in the nation of the 16 sites. Don't you love it. Texas was second.

This isn't a commentary on attendance, but on the brand that is Arkansas baseball has just blown up. It didn't just happen this weekend, either. It's been building over the last decade. Credit Norm DeBriyn, Dave Van Horn and give a little bit of a thumbs up to the UA baseball radio network. What?

That's right. They've gotten it right for a long time. Some of that has to do with the broadcaster. Chuck Barrett is as good as it gets in college baseball.

Not sure? Listen to some of the other college broadcasts. None are close to what Arkansas provides with Barrett.

But that's not the key part of why UA broadcasts have helped the baseball brand. It was the behind the scenes work done by UA marketing director Matt Shanklin to build that network. They are on the right stations around the state.

I can remember a time when they weren't on the right stations. The signals weren't strong enough at night. Not anymore.

It starts with the two flame-throwers in the network, 103.7 The Buzz in Little Rock and 96.3 ESPN in Ft. Smith. Those are big sticks, 100,000 watt FM signals that cover about two thirds of the state.

"I think that's the key," Barrett said. "When those two stations began to carry our network, we turned the corner. And when we were on The Buzz, they started talking about Arkansas baseball on Drive Time. If they are talking about you on the talk shows that are carried by those two stations, then people start following you a little closer and they began to listen to our games."

It was also nice that the Hogs were good and had a beautiful park, perhaps the best in the country. There is not a better brand of baseball than the SEC, too. It's the best of the best every weekend.

"It's become part of the every day conversation," Barrett said of Arkansas baseball. "Frankly, I didn't think it would ever happen. Us being on the big stations in Ft. Smith and Little Rock has made an enormous difference. It cannot be over stated.

"Because the stations that carry it also have daily talk shows, Arkansas baseball has become part of the daily discussions. That's been the most critical thing to the spreading of Razorback baseball.

"Obviously, you have to be good and have a brand that people like. It has become what people talk about. There is not a doubt in my mind if we were not on 100,000-watt station in Little Rock, there would have not been 9,000-plus at that game at Dickey-Stephens Park earlier this season.

"Being on the right stations has had a lot to do with the success of the brand. There was a day stations just wouldn't carry it. Now when they don't, they have to deal with irate listeners who missed it. It's not been a statewide brand until lately."

Barrett said there were significant moments that built the brand. The Brady Toops home run that beat Wichita State in the 2004 NCAA tournament was a big event. So was the Brett Eibner home run that gave the Hogs life in a marathon victory over Virginia in the College World Series last year.

"The win over Virginia sealed the deal," Barrett said. "It was the last step to becoming something that spurred interest in Razorback baseball.

"I have talked to so many people who said they couldn't even get up to go to work the next day. I was tired the next day at work because of that game.

"That game, that moment was one that made it more of a statewide brand. Being on the shows, the stations in Little Rock -- all of it has come together."

Barrett remembers the move to the SEC. It wasn't easy for the Hogs.

"That first year, we were overmatched in baseball," he said. "They just were -- just not of the same caliber as the teams we were playing in the SEC.

"What Coach DeBriyn did over the course of the 1990s was -- and it was a slow process -- just piece by piece make it a program that belonged. I want to say the 1995 Western Division tournament at LSU where we beat Alabama a couple of times and hung with LSU to the end. It was the first time I left the ball park thinking we belong in the SEC.

"Then they won it in ‘99 and it didn't go too well the next couple of years. But the last few years of the ‘90s, the program was elevated to where it belonged. It was not a championship program every year, but he got it little by little where it was an SEC program."

Barrett enjoys the conversations he hears about Arkansas baseball when he is in enemy territory around the SEC.

"You hear them say well coached first," Barrett said. "They don't always know about Baum Stadium so they aren't talking about that. They make comments about the way the team plays and the coaching. They see our team and like the way they carry themselves.

"They don't pop off and they don't talk. They go play. You don't have guys who are hot dogging to the crowd, because Dave Van Horn doesn't put up with that. They respect the game.

"I think that's Coach Van Horn's greatest attribute. He respects the game and his teams reflect that. Fans notice that."

There are questions about the crowds at Baum.

"That is first out of their mouths," Barrett said. "They want to know if they are legit numbers because they know some of the numbers are not legit that get tossed around in college baseball. That's what ask about. Are they inflating the crowd?"

The word around the league is that LSU does just that.

"Some do it badly," Barrett said. "We generally don't. I'd say from the places I've been this is probably THE most accurate around the SEC as far as actual crowd count.

"It's just respect, not just for the team but for the overall program."

Baum Stadium is a showcase, but Barrett sees other grand venues around the SEC, too. "They all have fine parks now," Barrett said and there is a key common denominator.

At almost every stop, they have chairback seating. A few like the new park at LSU have stuck a bunch of bleachers in their parks, but that's a mistake.

"It's pretty nice every place," Barrett said. "When you go to the Pac-10 schools or the Big 12, you talk to their baseball people and there is a hint of envy about what they have around the SEC as far as facilities and crowds. They also have a really healthy respect for it.

"I think chair back seating has changed college baseball more than anything. I'll tell you why. Nobody can be comfortable for nine innings in a bleacher seat. You got to be a rabid fan to sit on a bleacher for nine innings. When you added chair backs, wives started coming and kids, too. You went from having one fan to a whole family. You went from having one fan who might be there to four who will be there.

"Comfort is the key. We are a society that demands comfort. You look around the SEC and the parks and where attendance has skyrocketed, it's chair back seats. South Carolina is a case in point. They have been one of the best programs in the last 10 years. We'd go and they draw 4,000. Now they routinely draw 7,000. There's one difference. They have chair backs.

"I'll put it to you this way; if they had expanded Baum down the line with bleachers, I don't think we would have ever smelled 10,000 in that ball park, or maybe 8,000. Now you can sell those seats.

"You look around the SEC, the renovations around the league have been with chair backs. The exception is LSU and about half of their seats are still bleachers. That's the only place it's worked without chair backs."

Barrett mentioned two of the big moments over the last decade -- the home runs by Toops and Eibner. So are his radio calls of those two circuit clouts his personal favorites? Nope.

"It would have to be when Andrew Darr doubled and Zack Cox scored from first in the Florida State victory to go to Omaha last year," Barrett said. "You couldn't script that one. The best calls are always spontaneous and dictated by the play.

"If it was a lazy fly ball to center field to end the game, it might have given you time to set it up. And it might not have come out right.

"This play unfolded. Cox was at first and it was a gap shot to left center. There were two on and one run scored from first, a great play to call. "To be honest, the Toops call wasn't very good. I didn't expect it to go out. I didn't think it was going out and I didn't do a very good job."

That can't be right.

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