Kendrick: Baseball must improve in Big 12
Published: Monday, April 30, 2012
Updated: Monday, April 30, 2012 00:04
Since 2000, the West Virginia baseball team has had eight losing seasons in Big East Conference play. It has won just three Big East tournament games since 2005 and hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since head coach Greg Van Zant’s second season in 1996.
And, after this season, the Mountaineers will be moving from the Big East to the Big 12 Conference, which is widely considered one of the elite leagues in America.
"The baseball program is clearly in need of revitalization," said Ken Kendrick, the managing partner of Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks and a WVU alum and booster. "I know (Athletic Director Oliver Luck) is committed to working on making the program a better program than it is."
Kendrick, who graduated from West Virginia in 1965 with a degree in business administration, said there have been a lot of components adding to the Mountaineers’ recent struggles to compete on a national scale, but he thinks the move to a bigger and better conference could help turn things around.
"It’s shown over time with the results on the field that the baseball team has not been competitive," he said. "I would use the example of when we were in the Atlantic 10 in basketball and we were not highly competitive, but when we moved to the Big East, the fact that we were in a highly competitive conference drew players to Morgantown to play.
"Being in the Big 12 will, by itself, help us draw in some players that maybe we haven’t been able to recruit up until now. At least, I hope that will be the case."
In college baseball, it doesn’t get much better than the Big 12. Schools that will be in the conference next season have won nine College World Series titles, and Texas and Oklahoma State rank among the top 10 schools all-time in wins at the College World Series.
"The biggest challenge (in the Big 12), is just being competitive," Luck said. "If you look at the Big 12 programs compared to the Big East, it’s a significant step up.
"We don’t want any of our teams to be a doormat in the Big 12. We want this to be a positive experience and be a competitive program with some of the best in the country."
The first step in continuing to improve the program is to upgrade facilities at WVU.
In February, Luck said WVU was looking to build a new baseball facility that would be located at the University Town Center.
The new facility has been making progress, but there’s still plenty of work to be done before West Virginia will be able to call it home.
"There’s been a lot of progress, but it’s not progress that we’re making, it’s progress that the developer is making," Luck said. "Our conversation is with the developer and they’re having conversations with the various political entities that we need to approve this. We meet once a week and try to make sure that we’re doing everything we need to be doing to push this project over the finish line."
The Mountaineers currently play their home games at Hawley Field, which holds just 1,500 people. It would be considered one of the smallest facilities in the Big 12.
"There are challenges competitively. Big 12 baseball is very competitive, and I think we have to recognize everything we need to do to get more competitive and you need to start, as always, with first-class facilities," Kendrick said.
One option Luck is looking into is for the Mountaineers to share their new stadium with a Minor League Baseball team, much like Penn State does with the State College Spikes, the Class-A short-season affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
With Kendrick’s connections throughout professional baseball, that’s definitely something he would like to see happen, and he’s been doing what he can to aid Luck in the process.
"There is a model for it in other places," Kendrick said. "That’s a great concept that can work. It’s not a requirement, but it’d be a real asset to the community and, as a baseball person, I’d love to see baseball played professionally in Morgantown.
"I have made introductions for Oliver to the appropriate Minor League Baseball officials, and that has been my role. I’m going to leave it to him to work with them and strategize an arrangement that can work out."
That relationship he has built with Kendrick, as well as other people who play big roles in professional sports like the Nutting family – which runs the Pittsburgh Pirates – and WVU alum and current president of the Philadelphia 76ers of the National Basketball Association, Rod Thorn, could pay big dividends in helping WVU adjust to the move to the Big 12 and bring a Minor League team to Morgantown.
"Both Ken and the Nuttings have been very helpful," Luck said. "They’re in baseball, they know everybody in the business. I didn’t know a lot about Minor League Baseball, so for them to walk me through and explain how things work and the difference between all the leagues has really helped.
"I know how competitive professional sports can be, and they’re all very accomplished people I can learn from. Those are people that can help me as I look at the challenges that we have because they have all been very successful, not just on the field but off the field, as well. They all run very successful businesses."