With the 2017 K-State baseball season over, a disappointing season following several disappointing seasons, it’s time for a look back at the history of Wildcat baseball, as well as the type of program that K-State is. We’ll break this up in to two parts, part one will focus on the history of baseball at K-State, while part two will dive into the aspects of the internal and external factors that make K-State baseball the way it is.
Anyone who has lived in Kansas in February knows two things. One, it is usually dastardly cold, and two, there is a possibility that it could be 60 degrees for eight straight days. Welcome to Kansas.
Either way, February in Kansas is not ideal for baseball. So much so that, due to the early start of the collegiate baseball season — in February, when MLB teams like the Kansas City Royals are doing their spring training in Arizona — the K-State baseball team always opens the season on the road. Usually Florida or California, sometimes the Carolinas or Hawaii. Regardless, it means the boys in purple often don’t play a home game for two or three weeks after the season has started.
Climate and location is one of the big factors affecting K-State baseball. Others include money and department commitment, fan support, and program history. There are others, but those are the ones we will focus on here.
Location, Location, Location
Baseball is a summer sport. Always has been, always will be. No one wants to play baseball when it’s 50 degrees outside, or when a bitterly cold wind is blowing out of the north at 30mph. Location is easily the biggest factor affecting K-State, and similar schools like KU (who has been just as awful as K-State the last few years).
The biggest and clearest example of this is in the title list. The last team located north of the 37th parallel, and not in a coastal state, to win a College World Series title? Wichita State, in 1989. The last one before that? 1966, Ohio State, the last of a string of Big Ten wins that saw Minnesota, Michigan, and Ohio State pick up six titles between them in 13 years. Minnesota hasn’t returned to the CWS, the finals of the NCAA Baseball Tournament, since 1977; Michigan hasn’t been back since 1984, and Ohio State hasn’t been back since 1967. The last “northern” school to even make the CWS was Nebraska back in 2005, back when some kid named Alex Gordon was playing third base for the Cornhuskers (no, Louisville doesn’t count, they are in a historic baseball hotbed, and Kentucky isn’t all that “north”).
Kids from Texas, Arizona, California, and Florida, the baseball recruiting hotbeds, don’t usually want to come to Kansas to play baseball, when outdoor play is basically non-existent from October to March. K-State has done well under Brad Hill in mining those areas for looked-over talent, just like with Bill Snyder and the K-State football team. But that means there is often something about those kids that the big programs, or the MLB, didn’t want or didn’t see and so they may require more coaching and more development time — and usually come in with a chip on their shoulder.
On the flip side, kids from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota find a perfect home in Manhattan, KS. Hill has also done well in those areas mining talent, and the mining is a bit easier. Some of the bigger names in the last decade, like Ross Kivett, Nick Martini, and the King brothers, have come out of the Rust Belt. Current Second Team All-Big 12 selection Jake Scudder hails from Illinois. And don’t forget, there are also a good number of Kansas kids available, and still usually constitute the bulk of the Wildcat roster (10 of the 34 guys on the 2017 roster hail from Kansas, the most of any state).
And, taking another page from Bill Snyder, Hill hits the junior colleges hard. Often where a good number of California kids have come from, these guys are looking for a chance to prove themselves at the next level. Hill has found quite a few good Wildcats out of the junior college ranks, like 2017 starting pitchers Justin Heskett and Parker Rigler.
All About the Benjamins
What does Nebraska have that K-State doesn’t? The Huskers are further north, have just as many challenges to overcome with getting guys to come in from the fertile grounds. What makes them different?
Money, and athletic department support.
K-State, all aspects of the school, has never been known as a place with money — even the cash-cow football program spends frugally. For K-State baseball, this means it is consistently one of, if not the lowest funded program in the Big 12. There are famous stories out of the Mike Clark era where guys had to mow the grass and paint the bleachers in the off-season because athletics couldn’t or wouldn’t afford to do it. Hill makes less in five years than Bruce Weber makes in one, and that’s after a big raise Hill garnered after leading the Cats to a Big 12 title in 2013. And assistants get less, and sometimes nothing as there are often at least one “volunteer” assistant coach on staff — usually a former player getting some experience before heading off for a paying gig.
The baseball team also plays in the smallest facility in the Big 12, at least by stadium capacity. And while Tointon is nice, the fact that it took until 2002 before there was a permanent stadium at Frank Meyers Field also speaks volumes. And only minor changes have happened since then. Since 2002 the football stadium has gone through two fields, three scoreboards, and $150 million in major renovations (thanks solely to Wildcat Nation and generous donors), while Tointon has gotten an upgraded strength center, one new field (as part of the other facilities master plan), the addition of some “temporary” bleachers on the right field line, and is still using the same “new” scoreboard from the 2002 renovation (again, thank you donors). Money talks, and there isn’t much talking happening for the baseball team, even after building the program to a championship level team.
This isn’t unique to K-State either. Football and basketball drive major college athletics, that is without question. Few baseball teams are lucky enough to break even, let alone draw enough weight to be a force themselves. K-State is one of the majority of schools where baseball is a net-negative to the athletic department fiscally, it’s just the way it is. If the Wildcats sold out every seat, every game, every year...well then it would be a different story.
Fans and Program History
The K-State fanbase is supportive, loyal, and spirited. But hasn’t always been for baseball in Manhattan. Peak crowds were only reached when Wichita State or KU was in town, even between the significant rise in prominence and quality between 2009 and 2013. The most recent crowd records, both single game and for a season, were actually set in 2014, drawing heavy interest after the championship season. And while crowds are still better now than they were in 2007, or 2004 when Brad Hill took over, they are still under capacity. Some of that is weather — fans don’t like to sit out in the wind in early March or in an April drizzle — and some of that is the baseball. When the team is losing, fans don’t want to show up.
Here at Bring on the Cats, we covered baseball religiously in 2014 — I joined the staff that year specifically to write about baseball — but started having trouble keeping up when wins became few and far between. And we’ve only gotten stories up when the Cats made the Big 12 tournament in 2015 and ‘16, and when big wins, like K-State beating South Carolina in Columbia this year, have happened.
And historically, as was pointed out in part one of this story, K-State has only been mediocre at best in baseball. There have been some high points prior to 2013, there were racial barriers broken (Earl Woods), there were stars found (Craig Wilson), and plenty of guys left here and played professionally. But as a team, K-State has historically been a below-average squad. So, historically, it means fans, especially casual K-State fans, haven’t had a compelling reason to get to the park to support the BatCats. It’s not the team’s fault, it’s not the fan’s fault, it’s just the nature of sports in general. The Royals struggled to fill Kauffman Stadium during the 90’s, 2000’s, and 2010’s. Until the team started winning, then people showed up. People want to see a winner, or at least a contender.
Those guys down the river in Lawrence have many of the same issues. They play in the second smallest stadium, have all the same location hurdles, and have also only won one Big 12 title, a tournament title not a regular season title, way back in 2006. Last year K-State just scraped into the Big 12 tournament in eighth place, in ninth was KU. In fact, the last time before this year that KU made the tournament was 2014, also the last time K-State failed to make the tournament. Iowa State, with more challenges than the Kansas schools, shuttered their program in 2001. And the Cyclones had four conference titles and two CWS appearances. Though the last title for the Cyclones was 1971.
It’s easy to point to location or money as reason’s why K-State baseball has not been able to sustain success. Roster turnover in the last four years has also played a part. But overall, K-State baseball has a lot of hurdles to overcome.
More on that later...