10 Innings Extra: Weathering travel curveballs

It’s a tricky thing, navigating an early spring schedule when you play an outdoor sport. Thus is life in college baseball.

That’s why northern teams travel south each weekend for about the first month of the season. However, the south isn’t always a safe haven from nasty late winter and early spring weather, as a number of Big Ten programs have already found out in the early goings of the 2018 season.

Illinois was supposed to fly to Texas to open its season, but because of fog hanging over Chicago’s Midway Airport, on the eve of opening day the team’s scheduled flight didn’t happen. Illini head coach Dan Hartleb didn’t want a wasted weekend, so he got on the phone.

“As soon as we started having trouble with the flight, and we found out we only had a slim chance getting out on Friday, and we already knew there was a possibility of rain in Texas, I called a friend down in the Nashville area who is head coach, asked him about maybe jumping in with them and the other team they were playing,” Hartleb said. “He said they were getting rain and it would be difficult to get everybody involved. But he told me about Austin Peay and South Dakota State, and told me to check with them.”

Austin Peay and South Dakota State, due to forecasted weather altering their schedule with weekend cancellations of their own, agreed to meet in St. Louis to kick their seasons off, and Hartleb asked if his Illinois team could join in at St. Louis University. That plan was OK’d, and the Illini got on a bus. Lucky for them, there was already a field waiting for them. That’s not always the case when teams are trying to get extra games on the schedule after cancellations.

“A lot of things come into play,” Hartleb said. “[If it’s a] neutral site, you have to rent the playing field, get umps, housing. One of our major obstacles was bus availability, and finding a driver who wasn’t already scheduled.”

Purdue was in the same situation as Illinois, trying to fly out of Chicago to get down to Texas. The Boilermakers were scheduled to play an opening weekend series against Baylor.

“It’s not a real fun drill to go to the airport and hang out for a couple hours and find out you can’t get a flight out for several days,” Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski said. “[The players] were really disappointed. They wanted to play Baylor, they’re a really good program.”

Wasikowski looked for another way to get down to Waco, and when he was on the phone with the Baylor staff, they discussed splitting the costs of a charter flight.

But when pen met paper and they started adding up how much it was going to cost if they chartered a flight, it just didn’t make sense. Wasikowski said it would cost about $75,000 for his team and staff to charter a flight to Texas, and that’s just the cost for a one-way flight down there. Add in the flight home, and Wasikowski’s estimation of another $15,000 for the other legs of the trip, and it’s easy to see why Purdue elected to seek an alternative option.

Northwestern saw its opening weekend in flux as well, due to be unable to fly out of Chicago. Wildcat head coach Spencer Allen said cancelling games is not only hard enough logistically, but it puts some pressure on him to get guys into comfortable positions as they head into the bulk of their schedule.

“[Getting games in] is huge for us,” Allen said. “You want to figure out the pitching rotation, your batting order, everything. I think it’s very important, and that’s why we try to schedule with teams that will do four-game series, to get more games on weekends we can play. Midweek games aren’t really an option for us this early.”

Unlike Illinois and Purdue, Northwestern did ultimately reach its intended destination. Flying out a day later than anticipated and trimming a scheduled four-game series to three games, the Wildcats played Nebraska-Omaha for three games in Glendale, Ariz.

Wasikowski and Purdue were able to play a full complement of three games, finding a weekend opponent in against Western Michigan. The Broncos also had a weekend in Texas nixed and the two met in Emerson, Ga., at the Perfect Game Complex at the LakePoint Sporting Community.

The importance of finding those games for Purdue, and for every program that has early-season games cancelled, is two-fold. First, missing out on one of the first weekends of the season puts a team behind the eight ball at the beginning of the year. Second, as Wasikowski pointed out, it hurts you come NCAA Tournament time.

“You’re only allowed 56 games on your schedule,” he said. “You basically have the first five weekends of year that are non-conference, and if you’re going to leave any of those [unplayed], it can get risky at the end when it comes to getting into the postseason. They look at number of wins as a marker, and you’re looking at a 34-win minimum to be in the discussion. If you’re losing games [on the schedule], you’re at a real disadvantage.”

That’s why head coaches, who start out as meteorologists in predicting weekend weather, turn into journalists when they have games get cancelled, following every lead they get to try to find a couple games to play.

Playing baseball in the northern part of the country has its disadvantages, and this may be one of them. But it’s what the athletes and the coaches of the Big Ten signed up for.

“It can happen anytime,” Hartleb said. “Early, you get cancelled more with cold weather. But teams in the south can be cancelled because of rain. The thing I always tell my players is: good athletes adjust.”

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