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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Publication Date: April 24, 2001

The Sky Is Falling

Under U. S. government rules (probably rules of the other SEC, although I'm too lazy to verify that), publicly held corporations are required to announce all moves wherein they reduce the size of their workforce by more than a certain amount. On the other hand, there are no requirements that they announce that they're going to add to the size of the workforce, so they usually don't, since such an action would have an inflationary effect on wages. That's why you see a constant stream of announcements of layoffs with no corresponding announcements of hirings even during times of decreasing overall unemployment.

There seems to be a similar effect in college baseball each time a school announces that it's discontinuing its baseball program. The impression you would get from reading the baseball press, especially the outlets which only cover college baseball in the context of other sports such as ESPN, is that the game is withering away. Some of this is due to demonization of Title IX, some of it is due to the complexity of joining Division I we'll talk about below, and some of it is just bad reporting, but the impression is quite inaccurate.

If you look at the overall trends, the number of teams participating in Division I baseball has steadily risen throughout the last thirty years at least; the number of teams is up roughly 50% since 1980. Of course, there's a sense of loss whenever a program with a long history like Wisconsin or Iowa State goes away, but to suggest that the sport is ailing because of that is absurd.

Who's Playing?

This year is a good example of this phenomenon. Iowa State is discontinuing baseball. Meanwhile, there are no less than eight schools in the process of joining Division I some time in 2002 or 2003. By my count, this will push the total up to 289; I fully expect the number to hit 300 before 2010. At some point, that may become unworkable and promote the creation of Division IAA, but that's a separate problem.

You'd think that the process of joining Division I -- or, for that matter, even telling who's currently in Division I -- would be simple. You would, of course, be wrong; this is the NCAA we're talking about. The regulations are, well, NCAA-esque; they're complicated and hard to find at all. As far as I can tell, there is a requirement of a four-year provisional period to join the NCAA, but I've been unable to find any regulations at all on the process for changing divisions within the NCAA.

Therefore, it's hard to even tell sometimes whether a team is in Division I yet. Since a school can withdraw from the process at any time, which has happened a few times in recent years; that limbo can really be hard to handle for someone like me who needs a complete list of D1 teams. Given the amount of mail I've gotten this year, some of it from people within the athletic departments of their opponents, about the status of Cal-Riverside, this is not just a problem for outsiders like me; the participants seem quite confused about it as well.

My best guess, based on reading between the lines from last year's official RPI's and a few other things I've read, is that teams who are in at least their second year of provisional D1 status but are not full members yet are not counted in the RPI's but are not counted against a team for the four-game non-D1 limit.

The New Crop

Usually, teams that move into Division I take a few years to make an impression. Probably the best addition of the last few years has been Elon, who barely made it in the top 100 in 1999. However, a couple of next year's newcomers have the potential to make something of an impact a lot sooner than usual. In order to get a feel for where they are now, I took the year's results to date and then added in all the games played against Division I teams by the seven soon-to-join teams that are active this year (Cal-Irvine is reinstating the sport in 2002 and going straight to Division I) and games between those teams. I then ran the ISR algorithm on that set of games to see where the newcomers would be coming in if they were included:

 73  108.7   15  26  Cal-Riverside
 83  107.7    8   4  Birmingham-Southern
190   92.9    8  15  Lipscomb
229   87.2    3   8  Savannah State
246   83.7    6   8  Gardner-Webb
271   76.4   10  16  Binghamton
289   52.6    0   6  Morris Brown

In most of these case, of course, this is a rather small sample to try to make a judgment on, but it would appear that a couple of these teams could be contending for the postseason within a couple of years. A quick look at each of the teams:

Cal-Riverside is a member of the University of California system located in the Los Angeles metro area. As you can see, they've already scheduled an ambitious Division I schedule, and have drawn blood rather impressively at times this year, with wins to show over Southern California, Long Beach State, and UCLA. They'll begin play in the Big West next year.

Birmingham-Southern is a small private school in Birmingham, and they're already the best college baseball team in town this year. They're a perennial NAIA power, ranked third in the latest poll, and have wins over Georgia and Vanderbilt this year. I have personal reasons to hope they succeed, besides the fact that their campus is only a couple of miles from my office, since my great-grandfather pitched for the team from 1915 to 1917. They'll join the Big South next year.

Lipscomb is a small private school in Nashville. They'll move to Division I from the NAIA in either 2002 or 2003, presumably as an independent unless an opportunity for conference membership presents itself. At one time, there was the possibility of the formation of an American South Conference, but the addition of Belmont and Birmingham-Southern to the Big South has probably scuttled that. They've had limited success against Division I this year.

Savannah State is a historically black college in Savannah, Georgia. They will join as an independent, although their past schedules would indicate that they might consider joining the MEAC at some point. They gave up thirty-five runs in a game to Florida this year, but have also beaten a few SWAC and MEAC teams.

Gardner-Webb is a small Baptist school in the Piedmont area of North Carolina. They'll join in 2003 as an independent. They've had mixed results this year but show some signs of hope.

Binghamton is the latest member of the SUNY system to join Division I, joining Albany, Buffalo, and Stony Brook. They'll join in 2002 as an independent but are expected to be invited to join the America East conference soon. They look to have the potential to compete fairly well within the context of the Northeast.

Morris Brown is a small historically black college in Atlanta. They've had rather poor results in limited play this year, being swept by both Alabama State and Alabama A&M, as well as Gardner-Webb. They'll enter as an independent in 2003, I believe.

Cal-Irvine is another member of the UC system located in the Los Angeles area. They are restarting their baseball program in 2002 after a ten-year-or-so absence and show every sign of trying to compete right away in the Big West.

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