To tell the story of the 2021 college baseball season—a season that will be unlike any other in the sport’s history, one that will come with coronavirus testing and protocols designed to limit its spread, but also more talent than ever before—we have to start at the end of the 2020 season.
Last season was the first in decades to not end with a dogpile and fireworks in Omaha. Instead, it was aborted a month after Opening Day, just as the coronavirus began spreading in America. That incompleteness reverberates through the sport today and will for years to come. To explain this year, we must first understand what happened last year.
The season began like any other with the fanfare of Opening Day on Feb. 14—Valentine’s Day. Just four weeks later, it was over.
On the morning of March 12, the college sports world was just beginning to feel the seismic effects of the nascent pandemic. Within 24 hours, it had seen the Ivy League become the first conference to cancel athletics and the NBA go on pause following the positive test by Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. Still, no one expected what the day would bring.
Conference after conference followed the Ivy League and NBA’s lead, placing their own seasons on pause. Then, at 4:14 p.m., the NCAA released a statement that it was canceling all its winter and spring championships—including the College World Series—due to the spread of the coronavirus. The season was over.
Stunning, unprecedented scenes played out across the country. Team buses turned around midway through their drives to weekend series. Teams that were in the air that afternoon landed to news that they needed to get back on the plane and come home. Assistant coaches who were out on recruiting trips were pulled off the road and told to turn around. Everywhere there were confused, devastated team meetings full of unanswerable questions and uncertain futures.
In Oxford, Ohio, for a few hours, however, everything continued as normal. As college sports came to a screeching halt around them, Miami (Ohio) and Penn State played on at McKie Field. They had started their regularly scheduled game 10 minutes before the NCAA’s announcement and nobody moved to stop them on a surreal day.
The RedHawks and Nittany Lions had arrived at the field knowing the future was uncertain. Penn State coach Rob Cooper gathered his team before the game and asked them to focus on the moment and not worry about what was going on around them.
“I know you’ve been on social media; you’ve heard what could be happening, but honest to God, we don’t know what’s happening,” Cooper told his team. “What we do know is we get to play. Let’s control that part of it.
“It was a real weird deal,” he said. “I was trying to focus on letting the guys play but the whole time I’m thinking, ‘What do I do if they say we can’t play anymore?’ ”
By the time the game started, Cooper knew the NCAA would soon be announcing its decision. Penn State deputy athletic director Scott Sidwell texted him at 4 p.m. to tell him what was in the works. Cooper chose not to tell his players. After the first inning, he inserted the two seniors on his roster who didn’t start the game, in case this was the final game of their careers.
Once he made those changes, Cooper managed the game as he typically would, trying to win what was now the final game of the season. But he also found himself appreciating the game more, knowing that it was his team’s last.
“Usually as a coach you don’t get to do that,” he said. “You’re constantly in the moment. But to almost not care about the outcome because you knew you weren’t going to play the next day, that’s something I’ll remember. It’s probably something we as coaches need to do a better job of on a daily basis.”
Penn State took a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning before MU scored five unanswered runs for a 5-1 victory in a tidy 2 hours and 20 minutes. It was 6:24 p.m. The season that had been canceled for little more than two hours was now officially done.
In the McKie Field outfield, Cooper broke the news to his team in a postgame meeting.
“We had three seniors— one’s back—but they’re looking at each other like, ‘We didn’t expect today to be a senior day,’” he said. “Guys were disappointed. They were bummed. They were sad. I don’t think it had hit them how much disruption this was going to be, but they understood.”
Around the country, players had similar reactions. They didn’t—couldn’t—know what lay ahead for the world in the fight against the virus and how much everyone’s lives would be upended in ways that stretched far beyond the diamond.
No one could have predicted the ways the pandemic would affect the sport itself. In the weeks after the season was canceled, the NCAA, NAIA and the National Junior College Athletic Association all moved to grant eligibility relief to all spring sports athletes, effectively giving everyone an extra year of college eligibility. Major League Baseball moved to reduce the draft from 40 rounds to just five.
Between returning seniors and fewer drafted players, there were now more players than ever in college baseball. The NCAA moved to eliminate the roster caps baseball operates under, allowing unlimited rosters instead of the 35 players to which teams are typically limited.
Summer baseball was upended. The Cape Cod League and USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team were canceled. Many other leagues were also canceled, and the leagues that were able to continue did so in a much more limited way than normal.
Fall ball was similarly disrupted. Local restrictions caused some teams to miss out entirely. Other teams were limited by what their school would allow. Still others had largely normal fall practices, albeit under tight medical protocols.
The economics of college athletics were attacked early in the pandemic, as markets dipped and typical revenue streams like football attendance slowed. That led to belt tightening around the country and led Boise State, Chicago State and Furman to eliminate baseball. La Salle has already announced the 2021 season will be the last for its baseball program.
It was—in so many ways—a trying year. But now, with the 2021 season fast approaching, it is easier to feel the optimism around the sport. MLB, the NBA, college football, college basketball and more are showing it is possible to play through these challenging times. Multiple vaccines are being distributed around the country. College baseball has more talent than ever before.
After the longest, toughest offseason in the sport’s history, college baseball is back. It will look different this spring. It won’t be easy to thread the needle of testing protocols and virus outbreaks and a multitude of logistical challenges. But around the country, players, coaches and teams are eager to return to action.
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