Marshall: SEC Needs Change in Baseball Format

Columnist Phillip Marshall looks at the way the Southeastern Conference handles baseball and is not impressed.

The Southeastern Conference office loves to brag about the quality of baseball in the league, about how SEC games draw larger crowds than any others in the college game.

Yet the league officials and athletics directors continue to treat baseball like an unwanted stepchild.

As the race enters the home stretch, a rainout between Mississippi State and Tennessee back on the first weekend of conference play could be pivotal. Auburn sits in ninth place after losing two of three at Alabama, a half game behind Mississippi State. Tennessee is a game and a half behind Auburn. That's because Mississippi State and Tennessee have played one less game.

There is no way to know, of course, which team or teams the missing game hurts. If Mississippi State had played and won, it would be a full game ahead of Auburn. Had Mississippi State played and lost, the Tigers and Bulldogs would be tied for eighth and Auburn would own the tiebreaker.

The bottom line is that only in baseball are games simply wiped off the schedule because of weather. Only in baseball are Sunday games shortened because a team has a flight to catch.

Why can't teams have flexible travel plans and leave when the game is over, staying one more night if necessary? Why can't teams stay an extra day and play rained-out Sunday games on Monday?

Officials fall back on tried and true reasons. Players would, gasp!, have to miss classes on Monday. And, they mumble, it would cost money.

It's OK for baseball players to miss classes to travel to midweek games, OK for basketball players to miss classes, OK for golfers to miss lots of classes. It's OK for softball teams to play midweek SEC series, for crying out loud. It's not OK for baseball players to, possibly, miss a day or two of classes because of rainouts over the course of a season.

After it rained for most of the day Sunday in Tuscaloosa, Auburn and Alabama had to agree to seek a waiver from the SEC office to start the game at 7. Rules state Sunday games can't start after 4. As it turns out, after a 9-1 loss, the Tigers would have been better off to pack up and go home. If they had done that, they would be tied for eighth with the tiebreaker in their favor.

Should rain and whether or not one team agrees to seek a waiver really have an impact on who plays for a championship and who doesn't? Can you imagine such a situation in any other sport? Can you imagine an announcement at a football game saying the quarters in the second half will be cut to 12 minutes because one team has a plane to catch, the second half of a basketball game being cut to 15 minutes?

Of course, the athletics directors and the league office could resolve a lot of this by listening to the men who coach the game. They want everybody in the SEC Tournament, instead of the top eight, or to do away with the tournament altogether and play 11 league series. Their pleas fall annually on deaf ears.

Oh, well. The system is what it is, and the Tigers go toward the final nine games of their regular-season schedule with work to do if they are to make the field for the SEC Tournament at the Hoover Met. Their destiny is in their own hands, which seemed quite unlikely back when they were 1-5 after two weeks of SEC play.

The next two series--both at home--could well tell the tale.

Next weekend, LSU comes to town. The Bayou Bengals have staggered and stumbled through their season, but they won two of three from Arkansas at home and are but one game behind Auburn. The following weekend brings the Georgia Bulldogs to town. They are one game ahead of Auburn after sweeping the rapidly collapsing Florida Gators on the road.

If the Tigers can go 4-2 in those two series, that might be enough to get them to Hoover. If they can go 4-2 in those two and win at least one at Arkansas in the regular-season finale, it will almost certainly be enough.

One can only hope that it won't come down to a half game between Auburn and Mississippi State or Tennessee. On the other hand, if it does, maybe someone will raise enough of a stink to get someone to pay attention.

Wishful thinking, probably.

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