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DeCock: New ballpark damaged College World Series

Luke has worked for The News & Observer since 2000. He covered the Carolina Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a sports columnist in August 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
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The College World Series will end Tuesday or Wednesday, and for baseball fans, it can’t come too soon. What was once a showcase for the best of college baseball has become a grueling tableau of the worst of it thanks to Omaha’s new TD Ameritrade Park, where the wide-open spaces leave hitting and pitching trumped by bad defense.

The new ballpark, opened to replace venerable and beloved Rosenblatt Stadium in 2011, was built to the same dimensions, with fences and the power alleys designed to contain the old ping-happy, ball-launching aluminum bats. But while Omaha was busy building the new ballpark – a condition of the NCAA for keeping the College World Series in its traditional home – the NCAA was busy tweaking the bats.

The same season TD Ameritrade debuted, the NCAA debuted a less-powerful bat that mimics its wooden counterpart, the so-called BBCOR bat. TD Ameritrade was obsolete before it ever hosted a College World Series game.

It’s a beautiful ballpark, but it’s bad for college baseball. The venue has taken skill and talent out of the game and replaced it with luck. TD Ameritrade’s wide-open spaces – 375 feet to the power alleys, 408 to center – are better fitted for a national park than a ballpark, particularly with the prevailing wind blowing in.

“To make it more interesting for the fans, it’d probably be cooler to move the wall in,” North Carolina outfielder Chaz Frank told The N&O’s Andrew Carter in Omaha. “But they probably won’t do that, I’m sure.”

Going into the finals, there were a total of three home runs hit in 12 games. Of those 12 games, only six saw more than five runs scored – with a total of 14 errors in those six “high-scoring” games.

North Carolina and N.C. State averaged 0.6 home runs per game before coming to Omaha. At that rate, they should have combined for at least four in their seven CWS games. They hit one, by North Carolina’s Brian Holberton.

In the fifth and final meeting of the season between North Carolina and N.C. State, Tar Heels starter Hobbs Johnson could throw nothing but fastballs with impunity, having seen Wolfpack star Trea Turner launch a virtual moon shot in an earlier 2-1 loss to UCLA that died quietly on the warning track.

“It wasn’t just Trea’s ball,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “I saw Oregon State’s guy absolutely crush one the other day. Kind of a similar situation, would have been the game, maybe. … If something doesn’t get changed, I think you will see some ballparks moving their fences in, parks they control, but this obviously is up to the city of Omaha and maybe the NCAA.”

The team to emerge from their side of the bracket to play Mississippi State in the finals was not any of the three powerful offensive teams – Louisiana State was the other – but UCLA, a weak-hitting team straight out of the Dead Ball Era.

“You have to make adjustments in this game, rather than sit there and complain about what bat manufacturer is making them and the size of the ballpark,” UCLA coach John Savage said.

His team never had to make any adjustments. The Bruins have been grinding out runs without hits all season. This was nothing new to them.

After the years of inflated double-digit offense delivered by juiced-up bats, there are legitimate concerns the pendulum has swung too far the other way. (Across college baseball, home runs are down by more than half since 2010, when the new bats were introduced, and by two-thirds since bat performance was first dialed back in 1999.) One option is to switch to one of the balls professionals use, which are harder and have less-prominent seams to reduce pitch movement.

That’s open for debate everywhere but Omaha, where there is no debate. New ball or old ball, the ballpark was built for the old bats. Move in the fences, or it will continue to make a mockery of the game with the new ones.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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