For years, the balance of power in Division I college baseball has been tilted in favor of the traditionally strong programs in the South and West.
Teams such as Miami, Clemson and Arizona State have enjoyed the advantages of warmer weather, superior facilities, perennial success and frequent NCAA playoff appearances while also serving as proving grounds for major league prospects.
The American Baseball Coaches Association and the NCAA have spent the last few years working to implement rules changes that would level the playing field. With an eye toward that and better academic progress among student-athletes, the NCAA recently approved rule changes that will affect Division I baseball.
The NCAA has billed the changes as an “academic facelift,” but coaches recognize it as that, and much more.
“In the world of baseball, these rule changes are the single biggest thing that’s ever happened to the game,” said UMaine coach Steve Trimper.
The NCAA Division I Board of Directors recently approved a package drawn up by the Baseball Academic Enhancement Working Group. The recommendations take effect Aug. 1, 2008.
One key change is the elimination of the one-time transfer exception.
Baseball has allowed a student-athlete to transfer from one four-year program to another once without penalty. Division I transfers in most sports are required to serve one academic year of residence at the new institution before becoming eligible to compete.
While phasing out the exception may reinforce the student-athletes’ commitment to their schools, it also may limit Top 25-caliber programs from “stealing” players away from other teams, Trimper said.
At present, summer leagues such as the Cape Cod Baseball League provide not only a high-level, wooden-bat experience for the players, but serve as a recruiting platform for big-time programs and pro scouts.
Trimper, who vacations on Cape Cod with his family, said teams quietly recruit athletes already playing for other schools as potential transfers.
“I had buddies, other coaches I knew, come up to me and say ‘hey, who are you looking at?'” said Trimper, who attended only as a fan. “When I was at Manhattan College, it happened once a year to me,” he said of losing a player to another team.
It happened to UMaine in 2005 when ace pitcher Steve Richard transferred to Clemson after playing on the Cape.
The new rules should not only make legitimate pro prospects balk at sitting out a year, they also should reduce big-time teams’ ability to stockpile players, something Trimper views as a major problem.
The maximum squad size will be reduced from 50 players to 35. And while Division I schools will retain the maximum 11.7 scholarship equivalencies, they may only distribute aid to 27 players.
The NCAA has mandated aid packages for baseball must include at least 33 percent athletics aid. That means if a full scholarship is worth $15,000, a player receiving scholarship money could be awarded no less than $5,000 per year.
The rule also eliminates what coaches call “book scholarships.” Those smaller awards of $500 or so, given in return for a roster spot, helped prominent programs load up with extra players on their rosters.
“It’s really limiting the number of scholarship kids they [programs] can bring in,” Trimper said. “I really firmly believe it’s going to help bring more equity to baseball.”
The only programs that could be hurt by minimum 33 percent scholarship awards are those limited schools that have fewer than six equivalencies.
With smaller rosters, increased scholarship minimums and fewer transfers, there should be more high-level players available at UMaine and throughout college baseball.
UMaine baseball has between 9 and 91/2 scholarships, but Trimper is confident the rules changes will help the Black Bears’ compete in America East and beyond.
“These new rules are forcing everybody in the country to do it the way we do it,” Trimper said of northern coaches’ recruiting efforts. “I think, in five years’ time, the level of play is going to go up at all levels.”
The NCAA also has mandated student-athletes in all sports must meet academic certification requirements early in the fall term to be eligible to participate at any point in the academic year.
Under the present system, baseball players who have not have achieved minimum degree progress in September can complete their work in the fall and still be eligible to play when the season starts.
The new rules will require baseball programs to achieve a minimum four-year average Academic Progress Rate of 925 without penalties and be above 900 to avoid reductions in game and practice dates.
UMaine baseball’s four-year average APR through 2005-06 is 936, which is higher than the Division I average.
“Ann Maxim, I can’t give her enough credit,” Trimper said of UMaine’s senior woman administrator and director of academic support services. “No one realizes how hard she works to help the guys work toward a degree and comply with these rules.”
Another important rule change spearheaded by ABCA Executive Director Dave Keilitz and promoted by Husson College coach John Winkin takes effect in 2008. Baseball teams now may not begin in-season practices until Feb. 1 and can’t play a countable game until the last Friday in February.