Baseball, softball struggle for respect

It is nearly impossible to hit, throw or field a ball in the middle of a driving snowstorm. There is also very little joy in having two home fields or playing in a different Southern city every weekend.
But that is the cold reality for Gophers baseball coach John Anderson and softball coach Lisa Bernstein-O’Brien. Their teams begin playing in the middle of February — a time when Minnesota is better suited for a quiet game of checkers.
While those two are begging for a thaw and sending their players to shag balls in a cave, teams in warm-weather climates are frolicking amid sunny skies. The only concern for Miami and USC is finding enough humanpower to mow all the lush grass in their emerald green outfields.
The disparity in weather leaves Northern schools at a disadvantage in a couple of respects.
First, it short-changes cold-weather teams in terms of preparation for the season. Many times a young ballclub from the Big Ten won’t hit its stride until it’s too late because of early-season climate calamities.
Second, it fuels a lack of respect when a school like Minnesota enjoys a successful year. Schools from California, Florida and Texas assume they can defeat cold-weather schools on reputation alone.
Anderson, known for being more spirited and long-winded than a mall preacher, has been wrestling with issues of shifting the college baseball schedule and earning respect from Southern schools for nearly two decades.
A four-year synopsis of his plight, culled from the Daily archives, is representative of what the Gophers baseball and softball teams must endure.
1995: “Of course (Southern schools) don’t want to change it. They have the advantage.”
1996: “We’ve played seven home games and 12 road games. The home games weren’t outside. A lot of the teams we’re playing are a month-and-a-half ahead of us.”
1997: “It’s been the history here that if you have good spring weather, you have good teams. It’s how you deal with all the adjustments, the outdoors to indoors, all the things you can’t control.”
1998: “I will be disappointed if two (Big Ten) teams don’t get in (the NCAA tournament). Let’s hope for our league that we don’t get overlooked again because of the part of the country we are in.”
The Big Ten did place two teams in the 48-team NCAA tournament this year. Minnesota (Big Ten champ) and Illinois (best regular season record) both earned relatively low No. 5 seeds in their respective six-team regional tourneys.
The Gophers softball team also earned an NCAA regional bid as a No. 4 seed in Fresno, Calif. Two of the three California schools seeded ahead of Minnesota had lesser records.
Bernstein-O’Brien and her players came out of California having beaten two higher seeds and almost knocking off another. They knew what the perception of Minnesota was going in, and they did everything in their power to alter it.
Nonetheless, the Gophers left the Golden State with a hint of frostbite, knowing that even after they outplayed two teams, many people would dismiss it as a fluke.
Minnesota’s baseball team has another chance to “win one for the little guys” this weekend when it travels to Stanford for its regional tournament. After compiling a 45-13 record and winning their conference tournament, the Gophers will have to face Alabama, a team that finished as the NCAA runner-up last season, in the first round.
Situations like that show a slanted playing field. It makes it easy to understand why Anderson has been lobbying for a later start and finish to the college baseball season. When one team starts ahead of another one, it has a better chance to finish ahead, no matter what happens in between.
It starts with the weather, but it ends with perception. A win should be a win, without anything more to prove.
It’s a shame teams that have overcome obstacles beyond their control don’t get to fully enter the circle of their peers. That shouldn’t be the Gophers baseball or softball team’s reward for success.

— Michael Rand is the sports editor at the Daily. He welcomes comment [email protected]