The long eight months that make up the college baseball offseason has concluded. The party has begun once again. Swayze Field beer showers are back! As is a program that has outsold the Miami Marlins. Maybe we’ll even see another pitcher smack a double in his first collegiate at-bat after lying to his coach. More amazing stories will be written, and more legends will be made. I was fortunate enough to witness one such legend on a warm June night in Baton Rouge.
The humidity stuck to me and the other 11,712 fans in attendance. None of us cared at that moment, though. All of our eyes were glued to the pitcher’s mound, as LSU reliever Devin Fontenot dug his cleats into the dirt, ready to throw yet another pitch. I didn’t believe what I was seeing. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one.
Game 2 of the 2019 Baton Rouge Super Regional reaches a fever pitch. Eleventh inning. Two strikes. Two outs. A season on the line for the LSU Tigers. In the other dugout, the Florida State Seminoles have the chance to keep their Cinderella run alive and send one of the game’s most legendary coaches to the College World Series in his final season.
All of that slipped from my mind, however, as Fontenot dialed in. His windup sent the ball hurling toward the plate. I looked on from down the right-field line, my heart racing and my mind scared of what could happen next. A sea of tension built up within me. The ball reached the plate and was greeted with a swing … and a miss! The floodgates opened. I let out a frantic, elated rush of screams and fist pumps knowing that the Tigers would live to see another inning.
What might seem like just a strikeout was the defining moment of the greatest pitching performance I have ever witnessed live. In the biggest game of his life, Fontenot did more than anyone thought possible. That strikeout finished his sixth inning of work. Throughout that time, he did not give up a single hit. Watching from down the right-field line of Alex Box Stadium, I was in disbelief. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one.
Heartbreak for me and the thousands of other LSU fans soon followed as Florida State won in the bottom of the twelfth. But looking back on that moment now gives me a great appreciation for it. A middle-of-the-pack reliever leaving everything he had on the mound. Two of the game’s most historic programs going at each other in an absolute dogfight. Mike Martin, the winningest coach in college baseball history, getting the chance to lead the Seminoles into Omaha one last time. You can’t find these moments anywhere else, which is what makes college baseball so amazing.
Unfortunately, professional baseball has been much less impressive over the past few months. The MLB and MLBPA are still in a lockout. The same headlines about new meetings and potential deals have been floating around. And yet, no solution has been found, leaving the fans on the losing end.
Perhaps the only way I can make you care about college baseball is to tell you the truth. CBA talks are moving at a snail’s pace, and the professional season is not going to start on time. For the foreseeable future, college baseball is the only baseball. But with players not concerned about salaries, coaches not being subjected to overbearing front offices, and every team striving to win, fans are presented with a simpler form of the game that lacks the politics found at the professional level.
And for anyone concerned about not being able to watch college games, ESPN just announced their college baseball coverage for the upcoming season. The verdict? 2,200 college games, either televised or streamed, from February to June. Every weekend, from now until May, will have a 3 game series televised, and ESPN will once again cover the College World Series in its entirety.
Those 2,200 games allow you to watch many future superstars shine. Many of the greats in the pros today made names for themselves by dominating at the college level. Before Alex Bregman was locking down the hot corner in Houston, he was turning heads and making unbelievable plays as a shortstop at LSU. Before Trevor Bauer and Gerrit Cole pitched at elite levels, they terrorized opponents as teammates on UCLA. Before leaving America in awe at the 2017 Home Run Derby, Aaron Judge smacked dingers left and right at T.D. Ameritrade Park en route to a College Home Run Derby Title.
These stars all have paths that took them through the college ranks. As do so many other MLB players. According to Baseball America, nearly 200 players on the MLB Opening Day roster last year played in college. College baseball is still very relevant to the professional game, and this season is no exception. Many future stars will suit up for the weekends this spring. Some names you should know to include Cal Poly SS Brooks Lee, Texas Tech 2B Jace Jung, LSU Infielder Jacob Berry, and Mississippi State RHP Landon Sims. These guys have dominated college baseball before and are poised to do so again. However, there are plenty of other big-name college prospects, as well as some players who will come out of nowhere and play out of their minds. The whole point is, fans have an amazing opportunity to watch amazing players right now.
You should watch college baseball because it’s baseball. You should watch college baseball because you get to watch great players and superstars, both present and future. But you should also watch college baseball because it can produce amazing memories that nothing else can. I’ve already told you about one of my most cherished baseball memories. Sure, we can talk about how that moment was only one strikeout. But we can also talk about the 17 inning game I watched three weeks earlier. Or the walk-off two-run wild pitch the day after that. We can talk about all the other amazing stories and experiences I have watching college baseball, and we can talk about the thousands of other fans who also have thousands of other stories.
Like the 2016 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers. The program had been around for a while, but the players never felt they got the respect they deserved. So, when the postseason came, the Chanticleers and their ultimate underdog mentality went into Raleigh and upset the hosting NC State Wolfpack. They didn’t stop there. They then went into one of the most feared venues in the entire sport. Facing one of the most historic and successful programs in college baseball, Coastal Carolina swept LSU in the Baton Rouge Super Regional on their way to the College World Series.
The Chants had their eyes set on a title and would not be denied. They staved off elimination three times in Omaha before finding themselves in a winner-take-all championship series finale. After being up 4-0 in the sixth, Coastal Carolina surrendered three runs to the Arizona Wildcats and found themselves in dangerous waters. Things looked even worse when a ball was belted into left field that would tie the game. Or so everyone thought.
Jon Nyatawa of Omaha World-Herald encapsulates the situation beautifully. As the ball hit the ground near the line in left field, Arizona head coach Jay Johnson sent Cody Ramer home. “But out of nowhere, Coastal Carolina’s senior leader came charging. This former walk-on, a hard worker no major league teams wanted to draft, essentially epitomized his under-regarded, grit-filled program with one extraordinary moment of hustle and poise. Left fielder Anthony Marks ran to the right spot, handled the carom off the wall with ease, and fired a strike to the relay man.” Ramer never made it across home plate. An underdog player saved the day for the underdog team. They captured the hearts of thousands of fans across the country. And they were champs.
You can’t find stories, experiences, or moments like these anywhere else. The wild passion of fans is unmatched. The new heroes made every year are legendary. The amazing stories are written each season stay in the hearts of fans for years to come. The college brand of baseball is incredibly special, and there has never been a more perfect time to realize it.