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The existential questions surrounding Northwestern baseball

Why spend money on a program so futile? Because we produce a modest, but fair, number of Major Leaguers.

Joe, your alma mater's sucked at baseball for years. I'm just being straight with you.
Joe, your alma mater's sucked at baseball for years. I'm just being straight with you.
Ezra Shaw

Let's say you and your spouse are Northwestern University alumni, and as is the case with all fine graduates of this institution, you've got $5 million burning a hole in your pocket. What to do? Maybe you donate it towards that fancy-pants athletic complex they're throwing up on the Lakefill. Maybe you endow a couple scholarships. Maybe you build a new dorm or science center on campus and stamp your name on it.

But no, you and your spouse have come up with an idea that's...wait for it...out of left field. You excitedly call up Jim Phillips to inform him: you've decided to pledge the money towards renovating the NU baseball stadium.

What are you, crazy?

This is, after all, a program has has not made the NCAA tournament since 1957. It has an overall record of 676-1121-12. It hasn't even ended a season above .500 in 13 years.

Why would you throw your money into a pit of a program like that?

Well, maybe you noticed that the team's home field, Rocky Miller Park, named after your father or father-in-law, hasn't been renovated since 1983, besmirching his name as it looks increasingly rinky-dink compared to other schools' facilities. Or maybe you're just a visionary, seeing flowers and bunny rabbits and unicorns where others see weeds and a lot of futility.

Whatever the case, you've just brought Wildcat baseball the most attention it's received from NU fans since...I dunno, maybe that 1957 tournament berth or some interview with Joe Girardi when he happened to mention Northwestern.

Here on this blog and elsewhere in Internet NU fanland, people have been casually debating the worthwhileness of having a baseball program. As noted, the on-field performance is difficult to defend. The fan/student body support at games is negligible. The Big Ten as a whole stinks at baseball, having just sent its first representative to the College World Series since 1984. And as the argument goes, wouldn't the money spent on baseball be better directed towards a sport that NU could be successful in? Men's lacrosse, perhaps, or the ultimate pipe dream, men's ice hockey?

If you haven't guessed by now, I'm here to play devil's advocate. As commenter C.E.Bell said astutely in one of the previous posts, all of those arguments could've applied to NU football before 1994 and men's basketball today, and then where would we be?

[Tangent: In researching for this post, I discovered that NU's first baseball team in 1869 was nicknamed "La Purissimas," because, according to an alumnus quoted in the program's almanac: "They were the finest bunch of ball tossers in any part of the farming country adjacent to Chicago." So many things that are wonderful about that factoid.]

The point I'd like to make, though, is that it would be difficult for NU to get rid of a sport when to generates some of our most prominent sporting alumni. Girardi is obviously the big one, probably ranking among Pat Fitzgerald and Luke Donald as one of the most recognizable NU figures in sports today. We've also had recently retired Mark Loretta, who made a couple of All-Star games, as well as currently active pros J.A. Happ and George Kontos, both World Series champs. Just drafted Luke Farrell (6th round, Kansas City Royals), who is the son of Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell, could join those guys in the bigs soon.

In all, NU has sent 22 players to the Major Leagues throughout its history, including seven since 2000. I'd argue that for a program that's been so lousy on the field, that's a pretty solid success rate in getting players to the big leagues, considering there are only about 750 Major League roster spots (plus a few dozen players on the disabled list) at any one time. Using this site, I compared the number of NU Major Leaguers to our Big Ten brethren, and it stacks up decently.

School MLB players in 2013 MLB players since 2000 MLB players total in history
Illinois 0 9 71
Indiana 0 7 22
Iowa 0 3 26
Michigan 5 17 78
MSU 0 2 38
Minnesota 2 9 33
Nebraska 8 23 44
Northwestern 2 7 22
Ohio State 3 9 55
Penn State 1 2 30
Purdue 1 3 20

Obviously, this doesn't distinguish between All-Stars and back-end roster fillers, but in terms of numbers, NU is right in the middle of the pack of the conference, especially since 2000. (Nebraska, it should be noted, used to play in the Big 12, a baseball power conference.) The numbers aren't fabulous, or anything, but we are at the very least competitive with the rest of the Big Ten in having guys make the Major Leagues.

For comparison, Stanford currently has eight guys who have reached the Majors this year, Rice has seven, Vanderbilt has five, and Duke has three. So, clearly, NU isn't a juggernaut, but in terms of the amount of money spent on the program and the number of Major Leaguers NU has spawned, it seems to me the return on investment is justifiable.

So, how to improve NU to be competitive against the powerhouses of the sport? This is difficult, largely due to geography. Most of the top programs are located in warm-weather states conducive to playing year-round ball. Northwestern and its northern cohorts are stuck indoors in February and March, and thus have to play a ton of road games early in the season.

There has been some interesting chatter that the Big Ten could move away from playing in the spring and instead play baseball in the summer, when the weather is better. This schedule shift would mean the Big Ten would not be competing for berths in the College World Series, but instead play an independent schedule during a time when no other colleges are playing. It's an intriguing idea that could see attendance improve and provide summer content for the Big Ten Network, but since the idea first surfaced last year, I haven't heard anything more on it.

There's also the issue of scholarships. NU does not reveal how many scholarships it gives out in each sport, but anecdotally, I've heard that NU does not offer the maximum 11.7 scholarships allowed by the NCAA in baseball.

And then there's the facilities. If you've ever been to Rocky Miller Park, you know that there are high schools whose baseball field puts NU's to shame. The atmosphere is moribund, due to a neighborhood restriction on playing music over the PA, and the amenities for both players and fans are next to nil.

So, this $5 million pledge from Richard and Roxy Peppers could be a start to changing that. The donation requires NU to raise additional funds by Oct. 1 in order to finance the stadium overhaul, with new locker rooms, training facilities, renovated fan seating area and a new scoreboard. For comparison, Michigan renovated its historic baseball stadium in 2008 for $9 million, while Nebraska built a completely new baseball/softball complex in 2002 for $29.5 million.

A renovation to NU's baseball facilities could generate more interest in the team from fans and high school prospects, and maybe, just maybe, make Northwestern a more relevant and more competitive program that can compete for titles and put more guys into the pros.