They Ought To Be Ashamed

Columnist Phillip Marshall has some less than kind words for some college administrators.

It sounds good, like the NCAA is going out of its way to consider the welfare of college baseball players.

Too bad it's bogus.

The Division I baseball committee got instructions in March that this year's regionals were to put geography first. If at all possible, the directive said, keep teams within 400 miles of home so they could bus instead of fly.

The result was a lot of regional pairings that shouldn't have happened. Auburn's trip to Alabama this weekend being the most glaring. There is no competitive balance among the regions, but at least the poor players won't be exposed to the risk of flying. Well, at least most of them won't. Maine is flying to Los Angeles. Figure that one out.

The reason given for all this, of course, was that it was in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. That defies logic. Basketball players were flown all over the country for NCAA regionals. Were they somehow less at risk? Golf teams, tennis teams, football teams, you name it, have flown from coast to coast since Sept. 11. But suddenly baseball teams need protecting? Yeah, right.

Like most NCAA decisions, this one is all about money. It's about saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel expenses and about bigger crowds and more gate receipts. That's it. Maybe money is getting a little short and some NCAA committees were worried they might have to meet at a Holiday Inn somewhere instead of the fanciest beach resort they could find. Sept. 11 is an excuse, and a shoddy one at that. It's a sham, and whoever was behind it ought to be ashamed.

Once again, baseball is getting second-class treatment. Putting geography ahead of competitive balance would not be tolerated in any other major NCAA sport. People who should know say Auburn was actually headed for the regional at Georgia Tech until the final minutes of the committee's deliberations. That is when Georgia squeezed into the field. It was then decided to send Georgia to Atlanta and Auburn to Tuscaloosa. Auburn could have been sent to Tallahassee, Atlanta or Clemson and been within the geographic guidelines. It could have even been sent to Gainesville or Baton Rouge.

LSU athletic director Skip Bertman knows about the Alabama-Auburn rivalry. He should have known better than to have let this happen. A regional should be more than just sending one team on up the bracket. It should be a reward, something fun to be a part of. For Auburn and Alabama, it's never about fun. It's about winning. The pressure on the coaches and players was turned up several notches.

No one on either side has publicly complained, but Alabama has to be unhappy about this turn of events. The Tide won the SEC Tournament and is the No. 3 seed in the nation, yet it is the only SEC team that must deal with a fellow league team as the No. 2 seed. It swept Auburn in Tuscaloosa earlier this season but trailed big in the first two games.

From Auburn's perspective, it is an opportunity to do something special, to make amends for the worst weekend of the regular season. But it is also a chance to lose four or five straight to Alabama, and that's not something any coach or player wants to be a part of.

Could Auburn win? Sure it could, but Alabama's remarkable 32-2 record at home this season says it probably won't. As head coach Steve Renfroe has cautioned, the Tigers must first focus on Friday's game with Florida Atlantic.

Auburn's chances of making a run rest on the shoulders of its puzzling pitching staff. All of the starters have been outstanding at times. All have been awful at times. Levale Speigner was terrific in the final regular-season series at Arkansas, then got hit hard by the Razorbacks in the SEC Tournament. Colby Paxton pitched the game of his life in the tournament against LSU five days after not getting out of the first inning at Arkansas. So it has been all season.

If the starters can string together some solid performances, who knows what might happen? If they don't, Auburn might find it difficult to deal with No. 3 seed Florida Atlantic or even No. 4 seed Southeast Missouri State.

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