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June 18, 2008

Rogers: Baseball proving to be anyone's game

OMAHA, Neb. Every baseball coach has his own way of describing college baseball, but at the end of the day the descriptions all point to a phrase often said by Texas coach Augie Garrido.

"Expect the unexpected," Garrido routinely says.

Garrido's Lone Star State counterpart Rice's Wayne Graham often calls college baseball a capricious game.

The meaning of the phrase and word are still the same.

I've been covering college baseball for over seven years now, and the sport just continues to amaze me.

I think back to 2006 when Oregon State made it to the College World Series and dropped an 11-1 decision to Miami in its first game. The Beavers looked battered and bruised after that game, but bounced back to win their bracket and eventually won the national title.

The Beavers added another national title in 2007.

Fast forward to Fresno State this season. The Bulldogs spent much of the regular season failing to impress many observers. But once they clinched an automatic berth to the postseason by winning the WAC Tournament, the Bulldogs won the Long Beach Regional and shocked the nation by knocking Arizona State out of the NCAA tournament.

Now the Bulldogs are in the driver's seat to reach the CWS championship series.

Not only are instances such as these a testament to the member institutions for financially supporting their respective baseball programs, credit also goes to the coaches for making the best out of the resources they have.

Times certainly have changed for Stanford coach Mark Marquess.

"Twenty years ago, you could say one of six teams would win the national title, now you can pick 40 to 50 teams to win it," Marquess said. "When you're spending money on college campuses for baseball programs, and there's a commitment, it's just fabulous and great for college baseball."

With parity in college baseball at an all-time high, only college basketball can really compare in the competitive and fairness department.

George Mason's 2006 Final Four run was something of beauty, while hot shooter Stephen Curry nearly led Davidson to a shocking Regional FInal win over eventual national champion Kansas in 2008.

Even with the great stories of George Mason and Davidson in recent years, Gonzaga probably is the only small program to experience a wealth of success at an elite level. But even it has started to slide in recent years.

Compare college baseball and college basketball to college football.

Going back to 2004, I can remember watching Utah and believing they were just as good as some of the teams competing for the national title. Though far from being great programs, the Utes spanked Texas A&M, Arizona and North Carolina during the regular season.

Utah obviously dominated the Mountain West after those games, but somehow found itself as the No. 6 team in the country in the BCS Rankings. The Utes, of course, promptly turned around and made easy work of Big East champion Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl.

Nobody knows if Utah stood a chance to beat USC for the national title. But in college football, we'll likely never get a chance to see a team from a non-power conference compete for the national title. Unless, of course, the BCS quits thinking about dollar signs of the power conferences and actually tries to provide a fair system of play a playoff system.

In baseball and basketball, you'll see teams travel across the country to play smaller programs. The smaller programs also get the opportunity to showcase their skills in tournaments. Though football doesn't have that luxury, the bigger schools demand that smaller schools like Utah or BYU travel to their town for a football game. To rephrase that, they're scared to play them on the road.

Fortunately, college baseball very seldom has these issues.

The NCAA Tournament field in baseball is not decided by worthless computer rankings, or by some writer sitting behind a computer screen in Kalamazoo, Mich. It's determined by an educated committee that gives 64 teams across the country a shot at their dream of reaching the College World Series and eventually winning the national title.

"There's just so much competition nationwide in college baseball," Miami coach Jim Morris said. "There's so many programs competing each year, it's just makes it pretty tough to get to Omaha."

Last I looked, that's what college sports is all about.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at rogersk@yahoo-inc.com.