March 27, 2012

Metrodome future in doubt

Luke Westphal and the rest of the UW-Oshkosh squad have played 11 games at the Metrodome this year.
UW-Oshkosh athletics photo

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Metrodome roof collapse in December 2010 forced the cancellation or rescheduling of 240 college games during the 2011 season. Like their area colleagues at all levels, Division III coaches in the Midwest and Central regions scrambled to find playable fields in March. Some affected teams found ways to refill their schedules. Some played six nonconference games.

The Metrodome had been the one venue that coaches could rely on for a guaranteed date. For all of their obvious appeal, February and March trips by Midwest teams to Florida, Arizona, or any number of locations not buried under feet of snow, don’t come with a thermostat or a permanent umbrella.

Now that the umbrella is fixed, baseball has returned to the Metrodome in 2012, allowing snowbelt teams to play in-region games while serving to spread out their schedules. The weight of accumulated snow curtailed the Metrodome’s immediate future. A proposed football stadium could lead to the Dome’s detonation and end indoor collegiate baseball at the venue.

While many hurdles still must be cleared before spades hit dirt, Minnesota Vikings and Minnesota government officials have a tentative agreement in place to build a new stadium near the site of the Metrodome. If approved by the city council and state legislature – and that’s a big if – the current proposal agreement calls for the Dome’s demolition in 2015. A mainstay – a cornerstone, really – of Midwest D-III baseball is in jeopardy.

The Metrodome is not without its faults. There are several reasons why the Minnesota Twins now play at Target Field instead of the Dome. Not all of them are financial. Playing indoor baseball on plastic overlaying concrete isn’t ideal. Playing two seven-inning games with a time limit, sometimes at odd times, isn’t preferred either. And it stands to reason that teams don’t get refunded if games are halted. But for D-III teams from the Central and Midwest regions, the Metrodome is a blessing, deficiencies and all.

Teams rent time at the Metrodome, and Augsburg College's Ron Petrich creates the schedule. The formula is simple: teams have four and a half hours to play a doubleheader; Petrich pits in-region teams against each other when possible. The Dome routine has been a tradition for many teams from Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Iowa and other states.

At Hamline University in the Twin Cities, having the Metrodome just minutes away not only plays a part in allowing for a junior varsity program and limits missed class time for nonconference games, but it means keeping up with teams from more temperate climes.

“Whether people say it or not,” says Hamline head coach Jason Verdugo, “it does give us a level playing field in comparison to some of our schools out west and in Texas because we do have the ability to play."

My 5 games of the week (March 28-April 3)
March 28: No. 11 Rowan vs. No. 20 Neumann
RU seeking signature win; NU has 2 of those already.
March 29: No. 3 Christopher Newport vs. No. 5 Salisbury
Dear jet stream, please let them play.
March 29: No. 6 Piedmont vs. No. 21 DePauw
DU’s best start since 2008, when it won at then-No. 5 PC.
March 30: St. Scholastica vs. Bethany Lutheran
Series may determine top UMAC tourney seed.
March 31: No. 24 Birmingham-Southern vs. Rhodes
Early lead in SCAC East to series winner.

That more level playing field includes spreading out snowbelt schedules, which, not unlike many areas of the country, can become quite condensed and taxing during the conference seasons. A spring trip may mirror some of those scheduling attributes, but the Metrodome allows several teams a different option heading into the season.

“Everyone says the pitching is an issue on spring trips,” Verdugo says of the typical spring gauntlet of up to a dozen games in a small timeframe. “Well I say 'But what about the right fielder who's been out there for 14 innings in a double dip and you're talking about a 40 degree change in weather?’ That's unrealistic. Guys in the big leagues don't even do that.”

The Dome’s roof collapse wreaked havoc in an area that grew accustomed to those guaranteed games.  With the Dome out of commission last season, Hamline played 33 games in 43 days from April through the end of its conference tournament. The Pipers made the NCAA field as a Pool A, but that schedule is not something Verdugo wants as the norm for his players.

“Did we get through it?” Verdugo asks rhetorically of his team that mustered a 3.0 grade point average despite last year’s unusual baseball demands. “Absolutely. But I don't know that I would want to do that again. It made it extremely difficult. We had guys miss class far too often because of that.

“Some guys had sleepless nights in terms of studying and then having to get back up and get after it the next day in a conference game."

Due to its location and early spring break, Concordia College-Moorhead does not have many natural in-region options for nonconference games. To combat that, Concordia head coach Bucky Burgau had 12 games scheduled at the Dome in 2011. Further weather-related issues limited his team to six nonconference games despite securing playing fields from Omaha to Chicago. The Metrodome’s unavailability underscored the venue’s importance.

“For us to take a spring trip in late February and play eight games,” Burgau says, “and then come back and have to sit inside for probably three weeks – I’ve always felt April 1 is the real target date for us to be on our field – is not good.

“Consequently I’m worried about the future a little bit with the possibility of the Dome being gone and this new Vikings stadium not being conducive to baseball. It would not only hurt us, but all of Midwest college baseball a great deal. It really gives us a chance to spread our season out.”

Taking a spring trip down south is an option for a team like Concordia, but those schedules are out of teams’ control. The NCAA could vote in the middle of April to make all D-III games count in the primary criteria for the 2014 season. But until then a team on an island like Concordia, which plays area NAIA and D-II teams midweek as a geographical necessity, is potentially disadvantaged if it can’t control its spring nonconference schedule.

“We have to win the conference tournament to get in almost,” Burgau says, “because I’m going to play six to eight games against NAIA or Division II competition almost every year."

My top 25 ballot (D3baseball.com rank):
Stats, musings and folly valid through Sunday, the poll’s cutoff
1 (1). Trinity (Texas) – Much more than Klimesh, Lucero and pray for rain.
2 (2). Marietta – Home opener resulted in fourth shutout in 13 games.
3 (7). Wheaton (Mass.) – 13-game win streak, 6-1 vs. 2011 NCAA teams.
4 (4). Kean – Mixed bag in California, but wins over some of SCIAC’s best.
5 (3). Christopher Newport – Remaining schedule rife with critical games.
6 (13). St. Thomas – A freshman handcuffed Twins rookie team last week.
7 (16). Adrian – Lost to one of Mideast’s best pitchers in DH split with Hope.
8 (6). Piedmont – Concerning: allowed 19 runs in DH split with Covenant.
9 (9). UW-Stevens Point – 3-2 week; win over Ramapo forestalls demotion.
10 (18). Ramapo – Beat Neumann, St. Thomas; batting .344 with 2.93 ERA.

The rest of my ballot: Concordia Chicago, Neumann, Illinois Wesleyan, Misericordia, Cortland, Aurora, Washington & Jefferson, Salisbury, Thomas More, Keystone, Pacific, Rowan, St. Joseph’s (Maine), Concordia (Texas), Bridgewater (Va.).

Last Team Standing: Ramapo so far, with one D-III team yet to play.

Last Team Sitting: Caltech (0-20), Rust (0-15), Martin Luther (0-8), Minnesota Morris (0-8).

“The Dome is important to us so we get to play as much in-region competition as we possibly can. The Dome for Concordia is really huge.”

Postseason ramifications also played a part in UW-Oshkosh head coach Tom Lechnir’s decision to play nonconference games at the Metrodome in 2012. Lechnir’s team played 11 games at the Dome, all in-region. UW-Oshkosh went 9-1 on its spring trip to Florida in 2011, but uncontrollable scheduling limited the Titans to two in-region games and a 1-1 record in the primary selection criteria.

“We figure it’s not worth the money to go down to Florida and have a great spring trip, like we did last year,” says Lechnir, whose team had one game cancelled at the Metrodome this year due to time contraints. “We’re going to the Metrodome and play time-limit games, seven-inning games.”

The proposed change to all in-region games would help offset the potential dismantling of the Metrodome. If one change happens without the other, snowbelt teams that typically play at the Dome could have their postseason fates in the hands of spring-break schedule makers.

“For the time being, the Metrodome is a necessary tool for us,” Lechnir says. “We’re just happy that we get to be a part of it. They don’t just keep it to Minnesota. They do open it up to Wisconsin schools and other states. And Ron [Petrich] really does a good job.

“But if that rule comes in 2014, a lot of teams are going south.”

If Minneapolis and state officials resolve funding issues for a new Vikings stadium, D-III Midwest snowbird teams may not have an option.

Minors spotlight

 UW-La Crosse outfielder Vinny Rottino, Triple-A Buffalo Bisons (Mets): Rottino signed with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2003 after a four-year career at UW-La Crosse (1999-2002). Rottino was traded to the Dodgers in 2009. He signed with the Marlins in 2010 and the Mets, his current organization, in 2011. In his senior season at UW-La Crosse, Rottino won WIAC Player of the Year honors and set school records with 57 runs, 80 hits, 19 doubles and 15 home runs. Rottino owns the school record with 50 career doubles and ranks second in career hits (199) and home runs (23). UW-La Crosse went 86-64-1 during Rottino’s four-year career.

Rottino made his major league debut with the Brewers in 2006. He also made appearances with the Brewers in 2007-08 and with the Marlins in 2011. In 26 career major league games, Rottino has seven hits and four runs batted in. Rottino was named a minor league all-star in 2004-05, 2007-08 and 2011. He was named the best utility player in his league in 2010. At Triple-A in 2011, Rottino batted .304 with 81 runs, 31 doubles and 10 home runs in 467 at-bats. In 529 at-bats at Single-A in 2004, he had 17 home runs and 124 runs batted in. For his nine-year minor league career, Rottino has batted .294 with a .363 on-base percentage, 573 runs, 204 doubles, 532 runs batted in, and 102 stolen bases.

Where the pros are

Rottino is one of 25 D-III alumni who were assigned to major league camps this season. Joining Rottino at 2012 camps are six who ended last season on major league rosters: Wheaton (Mass.) outfielder Chris Denorfia (Padres), Messiah outfielder Chris Heisey (Reds), Centenary (N.J.) pitcher Cole Kimball (Nationals), Eastern Mennonite catcher Erik Kratz (Phillies), Alvernia catcher Anthony Recker (Athletics) and UW-Stevens Point pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (Nationals).

Other D-III alumni, depending on your definition, among current major leaguers are Mariners pitcher Charlie Furbush, who played for St. Joseph’s (Maine) before transferring to LSU; Rangers pitcher Joe Nathan, who played at Stony Brook during a period that included a D-III program; and Diamondbacks pitcher Joe Paterson, who played at Linfield before transferring to Oregon St.

A possibly incomplete list of D-III alumni also getting assignments to 2012 big league camps through March 25 includes Keystone first baseman Yazy Arbelo (Diamondbacks), Trinity (Conn.) pitcher Jeremiah Bayer (Red Sox), Linfield infielder Kelson Brown (Pirates), Marietta pitcher Mike DeMark (Diamondbacks), Wesleyan infielder Drew Dominguez (Red Sox), Rose-Hulman pitcher Derek Eitel (Diamondbacks), Brandeis pitcher Nelson Figueroa (Blue Jays), FDU-Florham pitcher Ryan Flannery (Yankees), Pitt-Bradford pitcher Zach Foster (Pirates), Cal State-East Bay (then D-III) outfielder Archie Gilbert (Diamondbacks), Pomona-Pitzer first baseman Drew Hedman (Red Sox), Hamline utility Dan Kaczrowski (Diamondbacks), Pomona-Pitzer infielder James Kang (Red Sox), Alvernia infielder Zach Lutz (Mets) and Otterbein pitcher Dan Remenowsky (White Sox).

Not too shabby. Some of them have been reassigned to the minors; some are still getting instruction with parent clubs. D-III alumni will take center stage in next week’s column. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the players above when you’re perusing spring training box scores. Chances are you’ll see D-III players holding their own, like Rottino singling off Stephen Strasburg, Brown driving in a go-ahead run in the 10th inning, and former collegiate teammates Kang and Hedman combining on a 4-3 putout. All of those occurred in recent major league spring training games.

Next week: Reminiscing.

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