Sunday, Feb. 1, marks the universal start date for Division I baseball preseason practice. Baylor's first practice will be at 1 p.m. CST. That's early enough for fans to catch the first day of drills and still get home in time to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers win their NFL-record sixth Super Bowl. Go Curtain! ... Anyway, practice (as always) is open to the public.
Preliminary weather forecasts call for highs near 65, cloudy skies and winds from the south-southwest at 20-25 mph. Sounds like a typical late-winter, early spring day at Baylor Ballpark. The ball might carry a bit. That's also a far cry from the 20-degree, freezing-rain weather that blanketed Waco earlier this week. Brrrrrrrrr.
In further news, there are two time changes to discuss in regard to Baylor's schedule. The Sunday game of the Pacific series (Feb. 22) has been moved from 1:30 p.m. to noon in order to accomodate UOP's travel schedule. This may have been mentioned before, but it never hurts to brush up. Also, the Saturday game of the Oklahoma series (April 25) has been moved from 6:30 p.m. to 1 p.m. The game has been picked up for telecast on FSN as part of the Big 12's television (ahem) package.
Back to the grind. Sic 'Em!
Talk about a bull's eye. Baseball America unveiled its preseason rankings Tuesday, and the Bears came in at No. 8. As is the case with the Collegiate Baseball and NCBWA preseason rankings, Baylor is the highest-ranked team that did not participate in the NCAA Tournament last season. Furthermore, defending national champion Fresno State is ranked ... eh ... well ... the Bulldogs aren't ranked. Cinderella: meet midnight; it's called a new season.
As many of you know, The Pen really only puts stock in two rankings: Baseball America and the coaches' poll. That being said, even The Pen will admit that BA is sticking its neck out a bit with its preseason Top 25 this year ... and it really has only a little to do with Baylor's preseason perch at No. 8.
BA has four Big 12 teams in the preseason top 10. Four. Four. FOUR ... which, coincidentally, is how long in years its been since a Big 12 team has reached the College World Series. (TANGENT: Isn't that the hidden beauty of these past few years? Sure, the Bears haven't made it past the regional round since the 2005 season, but only three Big 12 schools have -- Texas A&M last year, Oklahoma State in 2007 and Missouri in 2006 -- and no one else has made it to Omaha since 2005 either.).
Still, that's heavy stock in a conference without much of a postseason resume in the past four years. Texas A&M opens the season at No. 1, and it would be difficult to make an argument against the Aggies as the league's best team. However, the publication is rolling the dice in anticipation of Baylor and Texas returning to the elite level in 2009 (here's hoping they're half-right).
Four teams in the top 10. That's twice as many as any other conference (the SEC placed two teams with No. 2 LSU and No. 6 Ole Miss ... Baylor baseball strength coach Robbie Little is all smiles about that one).
Another thing that caught The Pen's eye was Oklahoma at No. 16, and it caught the eye for two reasons. 1) It's about time someone noticed Oklahoma. Perhaps The Pen will be proved wrong for the millionth time, but the Sooners are a sleeping giant, especially with the return of Stephen Porlier. 2) Did the gang at BA mean to put Oklahoma STATE instead of Oklahoma? The Cowboys return two of the top arms in the nation (Andrew Oliver and Tyler Lyons) pending the outcome of Oliver's NCAA-advisor fiasco, and OSU always has a dangerous lineup. Hmmmmmm...
Three other 2009 Baylor opponents are in the BA preseason ranking: No. 7 Rice, No. 9 UC Irvine and No. 12 UCLA. We'll know just how good the Bears are by the middle of March. Consider the Bears' 16-day stretch from Feb. 28 through March 15:
Feb. 28 vs. No. 12 UCLA (at Houston College Classic)
And TCU could just as easily be ranked as any of the teams in the bottom fifth of BA's ranking.
We're one month away from opening day. Let the countdown begin.
That's how long college baseball fans have to wait ... less than two months in strict calendar terms. There's a lot to be done between now and then (just ask The Pen about the status of the media guide ... sheeesh!). But opening day (Feb. 20) is not far away.
Collegiate Baseball announced its preseason Top 40 today. Baylor landed at No. 15. As many of you already know, The Pen does not put much stock into the CB rankings for sundry reasons. The main reason is the routine and drastic fluxation of the publication's rankings throughout the season.
Case in point was the March 1, 2004, rankings. The previous weekend, third-ranked and 6-0 Georgia Tech went 0-3 in a tournament at Cal State Fullerton. The Yellow Jackets lost to Southern California, 20th-ranked Cal State Fullerton and 28th-ranked Oklahoma. CB dropped GT from No. 3 to No. 17 and bumped Oklahoma, which was 3-0 at the tournament, from No. 28 to No. 16.
It's not to say that the Jackets should not have dropped or that Oklahoma should not have climbed, but such drastic changes say one of two things (or both): a) "We didn't know what we were doing last week," or b) "We have a better understanding of these teams now." In both cases, the drastic change in ranking invalidates the ranking itself. To quote former Baseball America college beat writer Will Kimmey, "Things don't happen in a vacuum, and rankings should reflect such."
Nonetheless, the CB rankings have been around the longest (since 1959), so The Pen feels as if the Pavlovich family deserves some merit. However, when referring to what the Bears are ranked, we still will refer to BA and the coaches' poll (both of which will be unveiled in January). FYI - Baylor's Steve Smith has a ballot on the coaches' poll for the third consecutive year.
1. LSU, 2. North Carolina, 3. Rice, 4. Georgia, 5. Stanford, 6. Arizona State, 7. Florida State, 8. Louisville, 9. Texas A&M, 10. Texas, 11. Ole Miss, 12. Georgia Tech, 13. Cal State Fullerton, 14. Oklahoma State, 15. Baylor, 16. Fresno State, 17. San Diego, 18. Miami-FL, 19. Kentucky, 20. UC Irvine, 21. UCLA, 22. Missouri, 23. Pepperdine, 24. Southern California, 25. Florida, 26. Clemson, 27. Notre Dame, 28. Coastal Carolina, 29. Michigan, 30. UC Santa Barbara, 31. East Carolina, 32. Missouri State, 33. Southern Mississippi, 34. Tulane, 35. Arizona, 36. Wichita State, 37. TCU, 38. Oregon State, 39. California, 40. Alabama.
Two things immediately jumped out at The Pen regarding Baylor's ranking. First, CB put Baylor, a team that did not participate in the NCAA Tournament last year, one spot ahead of the defending national champion (Fresno State). Interesting. (And The Pen is going to bite his tongue ... er, uh, nib ... as to why he finds this to be interesting). Second, Baylor was the highest-ranked team that did not participate in the NCAA Tournament last year. Interesting (Again: nib bitten).
Another thing immediately jumped out at The Pen about the rankings. Only two teams in CB's preseason top 10 have won national titles this decade: No. 3 Rice (2003) and No. 10 Texas (2002, 2005) ... obviously, both are from the Lone Star state. The other title holders this decade are ranked 13th (Cal State Fullerton, 2004), 16th (Fresno State, 2008), 18th (Miami-FL, 2001) and 38th (Oregon State, 2006, 2007). The Pen would like to remind people that 2000 actually was last decade, which is why top-ranked LSU, which won titles in 1991, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 2000, was not in this list.
Which brings to light another point to ponder: Only six programs from east of the banks of the Mississippi River have ever won an NCAA baseball national title and only one has accomplished the feat in the last 18 years. Minnesota (1956, 1960, 1964) is on the left bank of the River, and LSU is on the right bank of the River. Can you name the six schools east of the River?
Holy Cross (1952), Michigan (1953, 1962), Wake Forest (1955), Ohio State (1966), Georgia (1990) and Miami-FL (1985, 1999, 2001). That's right: 62 years of titles and only nine from back east (and only four in the last 40 years). The SEC and ACC collectively have 24 programs; only three have titles. The Big 12 has 10 programs; four have titles (Missouri, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas).
Nonetheless, the pressure still is on the Big 12 to produce this year. Since three Big 12 schools reached Omaha in 2005, the conference has been bone dry. The league received seven regional bids in 2006; only one team reached the super regional round. Ouch.
Texas A&M appears to have weathered its mid-decade period of turmoil. Though down a bit last year, Texas should be good again this year. Oklahoma State, Baylor and Missouri feature some of the nation's top arms in their rotations. Oklahoma could surprise a lot of people this year. Nebraska? Well, everyone thought that program was on the decline going into last year; all the Huskers did was win 41 games, finish third in the Big 12 and host a regional. Texas Tech can't stay down forever, right? And Kansas and Kansas State haven't been sure wins in years.
Here's to 2009. And, for the record, The Pen will celebrate New Year's Eve the night of Feb. 19.
Yeah, it's been a while. But as long as it has taken The Pen to dip back into the ink well, the NCAA took even longer to compile the attendance figures. Seriously, every year we go through this. The national champion is crowned in late June. We get final statistics in early October and attendance figures sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Who's in charge of this? Tim Conway's "Pops"?
Anyway, Baylor was once again among the national attendance leaders, ranking 18th in average attendance and 21st in total attendance. However, the numbers were down a bit over the past few years. The 18th-place average ranking was down two spots from each of the past two years, while the Bears failed to finish in the top 20 in total attendance for the first time since Baylor Ballpark opened in 1999.
The dip in total attendance (still over 90,000 for the fifth consecutive season) simply could be because the Bears had its smallest number of home dates (31) since playing 28 home dates in 2003. Nonetheless, the average attendance still was the second best in school history.
That brings up the simple fact that college baseball attendance is up nationally. Consider: in 2001, only six schools averaged at least 3,000 fans per game; in 2008, 19 schools accomplished that feat. Here is a look at the progression of national attendance since Baylor Ballpark opened in 1999:
YEAR LEADER (TOTAL) LEADER (AVG.) SCHOOLS 90,000-PLUS SCHOOLS 3,000-PLUS
Baylor joins Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas, Texas A&M and Wichita State as the only schools to average at least 2,700 per game each year since 2000. However, 14 schools have accomplished that feat each year since 2001 and 18 schools each year since 2004.
The Baylor Athletics family was saddened to learn of Thornton Sterling's death, especially those involved with the Baylor baseball program. Sterling's devotion to his alma mater and the program for which he played three seasons in the 1930s was evident throughout his life.
However, Sterling was more than just Baylor's most devoted fan and oldest living letterwinner: he was an icon in many ways. Here are some tidbits about Sterling courtesy of his close friend and administrative coordinator for Baylor's Paul L. Foster Success Center, Don Riley.
After the list of tidbits is a story Baylor baseball head coach Steve Smith wrote about Sterling in March, 1999.
- His father was a Waco aviation pioneer with a grass airstrip at their home on the Old Dallas Highway and gave sight-seeing plane rides over Waco; he later was a United Airlines pilot.
- In 1925, Sterling scored all the points in a basketball game while playing for Oak Grove School against Pecan Grove High School. The schools later combined and subsequently became Waco's La Vega High School.
- He moved to Dearborn, Mich., in 1927 and saw his first Major League Baseball game in Detroit with his father the following year. The Tigers played the Chicago White Sox, for whom former Baylor great Ted Lyons pitched at the time.
- Sterling moved back to Waco the following year and played center field for Waco American Legion's 1929 state champion team.
- His first job at Baylor was in the bookstore, a position given to him by Pat Neff.
- Sterling was a member of Baylor's baseball team from 1934 to 1936. In that time, he played against TCU third baseman Sammy Baugh, who Sterling later followed as a member of the Washington Redskins while living in the nation's capital. On Nov. 14, 1943, Sterling was in the crowd when Baugh intercepted four passes, an NFL single-game record that still stands.
- Sterling was a loyal Redskins' fan. In 1954, he saw former Baylor great Adrian Burk of the Philadelphia Eagles torch the Redskins with seven touchdown passes, an NFL single-game record that still stands.
- Sterling was a regular at Waco's Katy Park during the venue's hay day. In 1929, he attended New York Yankees exhibition games, where he saw Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig among others. On Aug. 6, 1930, Gene Rye (aka Eugene Mercantelli) of the Waco Cubs hit three home runs and collected nine RBI ... IN THE SAME INNING. Jinx Tucker, Waco Tribune-Herald sports editor at the time, wrote the following: "They [the fans] can go on out daily to baseball games the balance of their natural lives ... and they will never see the like of it again."
- On April 13, 1945, Sterling stood on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street in Washington, D.C., when the horse-drawn caisson carrying the body of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed on its way to the White House. Sterling, dressed in his U.S. Navy uniform, stood at attention and saluted the deceased commander-in-chief.
- Sterling was perhaps best known for his bus travels. He listed Vail, Colo., and Williamsburg, Va., as his favorite places to visit. His favorite bus station was in Sioux Falls, S.D.
- He visited and toured the homes and/or libraries of nine U.S. Presidents: John C. "Calvin" Coolidge (Plymouth, Vt.), Franklin D. Roosevelt (Hyde Park, N.Y.), Harry S. Truman (Independence, Mo.), Dwight D. Eisenhower (Abilene, Kan.), John F. "Jack" Kennedy (Boston, Mass.), Lyndon B. Johnson (Austin, Texas), Gerald R. Ford (Grand Rapids, Mich.), James "Jimmy" E. Carter (Plains, Ga.) and William "Bill" J. Clinton (Little Rock, Ark.).
- He toured eight sports halls of fame: baseball (Cooperstown, N.Y.), basketball (Springfield, Mass.), college football (South Bend, Ind.), National Football League (Canton, Ohio), tennis (Newport, R.I.), Texas Sports Hall of Fame (Waco, Texas), track and field (Washington Heights, N.Y.) and trotting horse racing (Goshen, N.Y.).
- Sterling said of his absence at the Bears' 1976 football game at Rice due to a severe ice storm in Central Texas: "I think that proves I'm not a `fan'atic."
- His mother once told him: "Bud (the name by which he was known to family members), all you know is sports and politics." He replied: "And taxes, religion and travel."
- He was an avid softball player during his time in Washington and one season hit .600 due to his ability to beat out every bunt. He pitched two no-hitters in slow pitch. ... Upon returning to Waco in 1974, he played first base one year on a co-ed team at age 70. A female opponent hit a grounder to Sterling, and his pitcher yelled, "Touch the bag!" Sterling said, "I would rather touch her." ... When asked if he pitched fast-pitch or slow-pitch, Sterling responded, "I pitch as fast as I can."
- Sterling was selected First Baptist Church of Waco's 2001 Senior Adult of the Year. He was a generous contributor to FBC Waco, FBC Washington and Baylor University. He was a messenger to the Southern Baptist Convention from 1977 to 1990, and he was a messenger at the Baptist General Convention of Texas. He attended the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Convention several times and Baptist World Alliance conventions in Tokyo (1970), Stockholm (1975) and Toronto (1980).
- Prior to the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Michael Johnson told Sterling: "Mr. Sterling, you can't ride the bus." Sterling attended those Games (his fifth of six Olympiads) and was present in Atlanta four years later when Johnson won three gold medals and shattered world records in the 200 and 400 meters.
- Sterling attended numerous NCAA Track and Field Championships and attended the NCAA Outdoor Championships each year from 1976 to 2005. He also once took a 59-hour bus ride to Eugene, Ore., for a track meet.
- He played in Baylor's Old Timers Game in 1999 at age 86 and continued driving until 2006. The visitor's dugout at Baylor Ballpark bears his name. In 1985, Sterling was named Grant Teaff Special Fan of the Year, and he was named Judge Bill Logue Fan of the Year in 2002.
A TRIBUTE TO A MODEL FAN
It was Wednesday afternoon during this past spring break, following a Tuesday-night win vs. Ole Miss. I was driving along University Drive in Oxford, Miss., looking for a gas station when I saw him. Over the last five years, I have seen him everywhere the Baylor Bear baseball team has played from Waco to Ames, Iowa. On this particular day, he was walking along the side of the road with jacket tied around his waist and a small bag over his shoulder. Without asking, I knew he had used his Greyhound senior citizens bus pass and found his way from Waco to Oxford. His name is Thornton Sterling, Baylor class of 1936.
Most of the Baylor coaches, regardless of sport, know Thornton Sterling and many of the players do as well. He has a passion for college sports and a loyalty for Baylor athletics that is unmatched. Through the years he has had numerous opportunities to get on and off the Baylor athletic bandwagon. Many so-called "fans" do. Not just at Baylor, but everywhere. You know the type. The "what have you done for me lately" fan who comes to the game to be inspired rather than to inspire.
Anyway, Thornton Sterling is a model fan. He does his homework on the players - names, stats, hometown, etc., and has a healthy respect for both the game and the opponent. That means he knows that both mental and physical errors happen. He knows that the opposing team is trying to win, too, and doesn't feel the need to verbally abuse college athletes when the undesirable happens. He knows that no matter how bad (or mad) he might feel, he will never feel as bad as the players, coaches, or even their families who have invested themselves in a sport they love so much.
It's been a couple of weeks since our trip to Ole Miss. We actually gave Thornton a ride back on the team bus to Jackson, Miss. There he caught the Greyhound for Fayetteville, Ark., for the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships. He made it back for our tough series at Texas Tech and enjoyed this past weekend's wins at Oklahoma. And I have no doubt he'll be at the Baylor Ballpark for our series this weekend with Nebraska. No bandwagon for Thornton. Only a bus will do.