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April 2021 Newsletter

College coaches show resiliency, determination in scheduling during COVID

The news slowly started trickling in on social media. And as the word spread, the collective stomachs of the college baseball community quickly sank into its shoes.

For almost a year, the game had been kept off the field. Along with the NBA and NHL, college baseball was one of the first sports affected by the national sports shutdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The other sports found ways to get back onto the court, field or ice throughout the fall and winter. But college baseball was left to twist in the coronavirus wind.

So, when the calendar turned to 2021 and college baseball coaches across the United States anticipated a return to the field – no matter what additional rules or roster parameters had been established – the last thing any of them wanted to see as opening day approached was the virus continuing to keep teams off the field.

Yet, there it was in electronic black and white: Less than a week before the season opener, Kentucky canceled its opening series at North Carolina. The same happened for Oklahoma State in its planned trip to Sam Houston State. Teams announced they were leaving certain players behind for the opening weekend but continuing on with series or tournaments.

And it was only the beginning. According to Baseball America, more than three dozen series were canceled through the first month of the season, leaving numerous teams to scramble for any game they could find.

Welcome to the 2021 college baseball season in the midst of a pandemic.

To their credit and the credit of medical staffs and schools across the country, the vast majority of teams are doing a fantastic job dealing with playing under these conditions.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the 2020 college baseball season to a halt and has continued to impact the 2021 season, although the players and coaches have returned to the field. Credit: Creative rendition of SARS-COV-2 virus particles courtesy of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH.

Over the past couple of weeks, it seems the number of series that have had to be banged have dropped significantly as teams, coaches and players learn what is required of them to be able to play.

“As a whole, (coaches) have handled this just like the do everything else,” said Craig Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association. “They’ve handed it maturely and taken care of business like they always do. So much was different this year where so much time was spent on COVID protocols, having proper spacing in the dugouts, the way they conducted recruiting, the way they handled travel and testing, dealing with hotel rooms with different roommates to make sure there wasn’t a problem there. They’ve handled it like pros.”

And, it seems, the players themselves have taken on a tremendous amount of personal responsibility in keeping COVID numbers as low as possible on their respective teams.

Still, incidents of the virus continue to crop up, forcing schedule adjustments. In the third week of the season, Wake Forest had to cancel its home Atlantic Coast Conference series against Boston College due to COVID protocols, and Xavier was forced to cancel its trip to play Auburn.

Through a series of calls, however, Boston College and Auburn were able to play a series that weekend, and it’s a trend that began to become normal.

“In a normal year, you can’t find a game for the weekend,” Boston College coach Mike Gambino told Baseball America. “In COVID, everybody is week to week.”

But with instances of cancellations continuing, a new way of finding games other than phone calls developed. A massive email chain that began before the season started quickly turned into an outlet to find games, bringing in most every head coach in Division I, according to Baseball America. It has allowed most, if not all, teams searching for games due to coronavirus cancellations find a team and place to play.

As the calendar approached April, however, and most teams began settling into conference play, the instances of COVID cancellations seemed to diminish significantly. Just by getting to April, the college baseball world surpassed the point in 2020 where the season fell by the wayside.

Teams have apparently discovered the best practices to deal with cases before they spread to the team, and the increased availability of COVID vaccines, which are now available to all adults 18 and over in most places in the U.S., should only continue to help reduce the instances and severity of cases nationwide.

Getting to this point in the season is a testament to the perseverance of everyone involved in college baseball. Getting to the end – the desired, normal end – will be even better.

“Coaches have done everything they can to get the kids back on the field,” Keilitz said. “No one knows what tomorrow’s going to bring, but we’re certainly leaning in that direction, and I hope we can continue with that.”

News and Notes

The SEC has already seen two no-hitters this year. Vanderbilt right-hander Jack Leiter no-hit South Carolina on March 20, and just two weeks prior, four Mississippi State pitchers combined to no-hit Kent State, the Bulldogs’ first no-hitter since 1999 … Cumberland University head coach Woody Hunt announced in January that the 2021 season would be his last after 41 seasons at the NAIA school in Lebanon, Tenn. Hunt entered the season with more than 1,600 career victories, which ranks sixth among head coaches at all levels in college baseball history.

Artifact of the Month

The April artifact of the month is the signed lineup card from the first game in a Power 5 Conference to feature an all-Black umpiring crew. Veteran umpires Linus Baker, Damien Beal, Greg Street and Randy Watkins worked the Feb. 25-28 Atlantic Coast Conference series between Virginia and North Carolina in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. UNC won the game, 3-2.

In Memoriam

Dr. Bobby Brown, a 2015 recipient of the George H.W. Bush Distinguished Alumnus Award, died on March 25, 2021. Brown played baseball at three universities and with one professional team, was a doctor in the Navy and Army, received a medical degree and practiced cardiology for 25 years. He also served as president of the American League from 1984 to 1994.

The following excerpts are taken from an article written by HOF volunteer McKenzi Morris prior to the 2015 Bush Award presentation to Brown and Congressman Roger Williams.

Brown started his first semester at Stanford University in the fall of 1942 just before his 18th birthday. In October of that year he enlisted in the Navy, which sent him to the University of California Los Angeles.

When he started school he was studying chemical engineering, he said, but after his first chemistry class he decided that was not the right fit.

The switch to medicine worked, Brown said, because it gave him a chance to work with people.

“Medicine seemed to be the most logical thing to get into,” Brown said. “(I liked) the idea of practicing medicine, doing decent work for people, working with people and being my own boss.”

Brown was drafted by the New York Yankees in 1946 and made his major league debut in September of that year. He played with the team from 1946-1954, according to the Baseball-Reference, which included four trips to the World Series.

His postseason batting average for the years 1947, 1949, 1950 and 1951, according to Baseball-Reference, was .439 with an on-base percentage of .500. All four years he went to the World Series with the Yankees, they won the title.

The team was skillful when they played, Brown said, and the environment was wonderful and unlike anything else.

“We had great teams that were extremely successful,” Brown said. “We had all good people on those teams that were excellent teammates and had great ability. We played for capacity crowds. It was a great life.”

During the years 1952-1954, Brown served in the U.S. Army as a battalion surgeon stationed in Japan, according to the Tulane University website, and missed two World Series with the Yankees.

Brown went back to Tulane during each offseason when he was with the Yankees to finish out his medical degree, so when he completed his service with the Army in May 1954, he was finished with medical school.

Brown made the decision to retire from baseball that same year, he said, because he felt the need to practice medicine full time in order to be a successful doctor.

He began his residency in San Francisco studying internal medicine, according to the Tulane website, then went back to Tulane for a fellowship in cardiology. In August 1958 he opened his own practice in Fort Worth.

“It wasn’t a question of whether I thought I should quit baseball or not,” Brown said. “What really was the determining factor was that I didn’t think I could continue practicing medicine going just six months a year. I thought I had to devote all of my time to the medicine if I was going to do that as my life’s work.”

In 1974 the Texas Rangers changed leadership, according to the Tulane website, and Brown was a friend of the new owner. He took a six-month leave of absence from his practice to serve as the interim president of the organization, and then went back to cardiology.

He practiced medicine for another 10 years, Brown said, and got an opportunity to return to baseball as president of the American League. In 1984, he retired from medicine and took the position.

Brown had been practicing medicine for 25 years, he said, and felt that it was a good time for him to get back into baseball and ease into his retirement.

“I knew baseball and didn’t have to have a refresher course in baseball,” Brown said. “I decided it was a good lateral move for me, which it was.”

Television has changed the aspect of the game, Brown said, along with the money and traveling involved. This and drug testing were issues Brown attempted to face during his time in charge.

Despite his tenure as American League president, Brown said the thrill of actually playing the game still reigned superior and that life as the president was much calmer.

“You couldn’t beat the fact that you were a player,” Brown said. “That was really exciting with the great team and the World Series. It was a different type of life than being the president of the league.”

After 10 years of serving as the American League President, Brown retired in 1994.

He enjoyed living in New York and had an interesting time, he said, but felt he had reached a point where he could take a step back and relax.

“I was going to turn 70 and I thought it was a good time,” Brown said. “I was in good health and thought I could enjoy myself. It was a good time for me to sit back and plant the roses.”

Brown was fortunate to have both an athletic and academic career, he said, and credits the universities and medical school he attended for that.

“Tulane University allowed me to play baseball and stay in medical school, which was extremely important lifetime decision for me,” Brown said. “They allowed me to pursue the two endeavors, and that was arching for me. That shaped my whole life.”

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