A pitch for UW baseball

Most Madisonians know Dave Zweifel as the former editor of The Capital Times, Madison’s former afternoon afternoon newspaper.

Zweifel and I have a different frame of reference, though I haven’t spoken to him since leaving Madison for good in 1988. Dave’s son, Dan, was a student–athlete at Monona Grove High School, so the Monona Community Herald covered Dan’s Monona Grove teams and the Cottage Grove American Legion baseball team. In the latter setting Dave gave me a beer on a hot night when I was covering his team.

So Dave, I think, deserves a hearing on his Capital Times column:

As former UW Athletic Director Pat Richter well knows, I wrote about the demise of the men’s varsity baseball team until I was blue in the face.

Richter had the dubious honor of ending Wisconsin’s varsity baseball program 25 years ago this spring in order to get the UW’s athletic program in compliance with Title IX. The university was under scrutiny because it had substantially more male athletes on athletic scholarships than female. Richter solved the problem by dropping five sports, including baseball.

Now, 25 years later, the UW remains the only Big Ten school without a baseball program — this in a state that has long had a love affair with the sport and is also home to a Major League baseball team.

I was appalled at the demise of baseball, as were hundreds of others in the Madison area who had supported the Badgers’ team just as basketball and football boosters have backed their teams over the years. But the decision had been made and there was no way to change it.

There have been rumbles over the past 25 years — a letter to the editor here, a talk at a service club luncheon there — but nothing managed to get legs. The big impediment now, of course, is that there simply isn’t enough money to equip a team, pay for scholarships, perhaps build or rent a diamond, and cover travel expenses.

A “club” program was formed on the Madison campus in the meantime, giving aspiring baseball players at the university a place to play even if it wasn’t Big Ten Division 1 caliber.

So it was of interest recently when Jeff Block, the coach of those two club baseball teams, put together a 14-page proposal he hopes will show the Athletic Department that restoring Big Ten baseball at the UW is financially feasible.

Block told former Cap Times sports writer Dennis Punzel, who now covers sports for the State Journal, that Big Ten baseball programs average $1.4 million a year in expenses, but Madison could do it for less by using the city of Madison’s Warner Park as its home field. Plus, Block insists, there are a number of longtime baseball supporters in the area who would be interested in funding a new campus ballpark should it come to that.

Block also pointed out that there shouldn’t be any more Title IX worries because since baseball was dropped in 1991, the Athletic Department has added three women’s sports to its mix of 23 varsity sports.

The Athletic Department’s Justin Doherty didn’t exactly give Block’s suggestions a positive response, pointing out that costs already are a concern in today’s athletic environment and the department is concentrating on the competitiveness of the sports it already has.

Nevertheless, Athletic Director Barry Alvarez has dropped hints in the past that he’d be open to at least considering a return to baseball.

The bottom line is that it still is an embarrassment that the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus is the only Big Ten school without a baseball team.

Well, yes, it is an embarrassment because of the circumstances that led to the death of UW baseball. I don’t disagree that UW had Title IX issues, but the bigger issue was the embarrassment that was former UW football coach Don Mor(t)on, whose ineptitude and resulting plunge in football attendance and revenue nearly torpedoed the entire Athletic Department, along with the department’s poor management under Richter’s predecessors running the Athletic Department.

(To prove that the world is an unjust place: After Mor(t)on was fired one year later than he should have been — ignoring briefly the fact he should never have been hired in the first place — Mor(t)on went back to North Dakota and worked for Great Plains Software, which was purchased by Microsoft, giving Mor(t)on wheelbarrows full of money, no doubt. Mor(t)on should pay all the costs for the reinstitution of UW baseball by himself.)

Block’s and Zweifel’s claim that UW doesn’t have Title IX issues anymore doesn’t mean those issues wouldn’t return if UW brought back baseball. Lacrosse, a sport growing at the high school level in this state, would be a more logical addition than sand volleyball given what passes for spring in this state.

And that brings to mind one major problem with this proposal — what passes for spring in this state. The Division I baseball season starts in February (far south of here, for obvious reasons) and runs until the weekend before Memorial Day weekend; the Big Ten tournament, the winner of which advances to the NCAA tournament, is Memorial Day weekend. Anyone who has lived in southern Wisconsin more than one year knows what “spring” in southern Wisconsin is like — any weather from winter to summer is possible. (For similar reasons summer high school baseball, played by a diminishing number of teams, is vastly preferable to spring baseball, where thanks to Mother Nature you might go a week without games and then have to jam seven games into five days.)

Certainly the fact that Miller Park is an hour or so to the east would help. (The University of Minnesota baseball team played some games at the Metrodome, but there is no more Metrodome.) But the Badgers can’t play all their games in Milwaukee, for what $hould be obviou$ rea$on$.

Money in a general sense is less of an issue at UW these days, with the huge Under Armour contract beginning July 1 and a possible new Big Ten TV contract that would dwarf the previous deal. But even if revenue is coming in like the Mississippi River in the spring after a snowy winter, UW can’t afford to ignore finances. (Given Title IX the costs of baseball would have to include the cost of whatever women’s sport is added to offset baseball.) And as we know from Don Mor(t)on and his Veer from Victory Badgers, success (or lack thereof) leads to attendance (or lack thereof) and revenue (or lack thereof).

According to Wikipedia’s UW baseball page, from the first team in 1896 until the last team in 1991, the Badgers won about 46 percent of their games. The Badgers’ last winning season was 1988, 15–13. The Badgers got to the College World Series once, 1950. From 1965, the first year of the Major League Baseball amateur draft, 38 Badgers were drafted, including two in the first round, outfielder Mark Doran by California (then Anaheim, now Los Angeles) in 1983 and pitcher Tom Fischer by Boston. Neither played a single game in the major leagues.

According to Baseball Reference, 110 former Badgers played professional baseball, and 15 position players and 15 pitchers, including Hall of Fame pitcher Addie Joss, played in the majors. The most notable Badger baseball players probably were Joss, who had 160 wins and a 1.89 ERA in the early 1900s; Harvey Kuenn, a .303 lifetime hitter who later managed the only Brewers World Series team; Paul Quantrill; who pitched for 14 seasons; Lance Painter, who pitched for 10 seasons (including with the 2001 Brewers) despite a career ERA of 5.24; pitcher Jim O’Toole, who pitched for 10 seasons, going 19–9 for the 1961 National League champion Reds; outfielder Rick Reichardt, who played for 11 seasons, three with the White Sox, with a .261 career batting average and 116 home runs; and pitcher Rodney Myers, who pitched for the 1998 wild-card Cubs.

Future major league pitcher Paul Quantrill celebrates a win during the Badgers’ last winning season, my last semester. According to classmate Rob Hernandez, 1,500 fans attended this game.

There weren’t enough ex-Badgers in Major League Baseball to even create much of an all-Badgers MLB team in the 116 years of UW baseball:
Starting pitchers: Joss, Quantrill, Painter, O’Toole.
Relief pitchers: Myers, Tom “The Klaw” Klawitter (better known as the long-time Janesville Parker girls’ basketball coach).
Catcher: Robert “Red” Wilson, who played in the 1950s.
First base: Frank “Pop” Dillon, who played around the turn of the previous century.
Second base: Clay Perry (played one season in Detroit, 1908).
Shortstop: Kuenn.
Third base: John Sullivan, who played in the 1940s.
Outfield: Reichardt, John DeMerit (who was on the 1957 world champion Milwaukee Braves), Milt Bocek (two seasons with the 1930s White Sox).

One feature of the UW baseball team from what I remember as a student was players from other sports, including football players Doran (a kicker) and Scott Cepicky (a punter) and Scott Sabo (a hockey player). I believe some football players run, or ran, track as well. I don’t know if football coach Paul Chryst, men’s basketball coach Greg Gard or men’s hockey coach Tony Granato would allow their players to play baseball now.

Not surprisingly given the preceding list, baseball wasn’t that popular at UW. For what it’s worth, in five years as a student I never went to a game. The sport was not promoted on campus, the team wasn’t broadcast on radio, and the only way I knew about the team was from newspaper and TV coverage of games. I don’t even recall the Daily Cardinal and Badger Herald covering the team,  though they must have.

The stadium, Guy Lowman Field (to be precise, its second site), is now the site of Goodman Diamond, where the Badger softball team plays. Lowman wasn’t much of a field when UW was playing there …

Guy Lowman Swamp

… but Warner Park, which hosted the minor-league Muskies and Black Wolf and now independent-league Mallards, is in much better shape, though it is no closer to campus than it was when the Badgers and Muskies played occasional exhibition games. (Warner Park is considerably farther from campus than the Dane County Coliseum, the previous hockey home.)

In a more perfect world, a minor league team (and I’ve argued here before that greater Madison is large enough to support a Class AAA franchise) and UW would share a baseball stadium close to, but not on, campus. (Because beer.) As it is, the Badgers’ season would end before the Mallards’ season begins, so unless the Badgers hosted NCAA tournament games (see previous paragraph about their last College World Series experience), there would be no scheduling conflicts. I have serious questions about how viable UW baseball would be so far off campus at Warner Park. And there remain questions about how successful baseball would be at Wisconsin, given its previous lack of success and previous lack of fan interest.

 

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