WVU baseball program taking a swing at relevancy
MORGANTOWN - Matt Frazer isn't about to trash Greg Van Zant.
After all, why? Why throw gasoline on a fire whose embers have all but burned out? Shoot, even the website dedicated to ridding West Virginia of its long-time baseball coach sits idle today, there for perusal but untouched since his firing in May.
"And besides, I'm grateful to him,'' Frazer said. "He's the one who recruited me and gave me a chance to play Division I baseball. I can't knock him.''
Still, as West Virginia's baseball season approaches - the Mountaineers are practicing and begin play in just over two weeks with a three-game series at North Florida - things are just, well, different.
It's not that they're different in what the Mountaineers are doing under new coach Randy Mazey. After all, this is baseball we're talking about. It's not the most complicated of games. You throw, you catch, you field, you hit.
The difference is in attitude. It's in style. And most of all, it's in intensity.
"The intensity is definitely a lot more with Coach Mazey,'' said Frazer, the tight end-sized first baseman from Nitro. "We're always doing something. We're always moving, always doing something. We've done the same things in the past, but this year it's just a lot more intense.''
And, well, if any sport at West Virginia could use a shot of intensity, it's the baseball program.
For years now, WVU baseball has been almost an afterthought. In a way, that's to be expected. After all, cold and rainy days in Morgantown generally outnumber warm and sunny ones, and seldom has there been reason for anyone to go out of their way to pay much attention.
In Van Zant's 18 years, West Virginia was, well, mediocre. There was one NCAA tournament appearance - his second season - and just seven seasons in which the final record was significantly above .500. But it's not as if that was out of the ordinary. Van Zant and Dale Ramsburg have coached the team since 1968. Ramsburg's teams made only four NCAA tournament appearances in 27 seasons.
Throw in Steve Harrick and those were the only three coaches at the school between 1948 and now. There have been just five since 1921, including a 23-year stint by Ira Errett Rodgers. That type of consistency and continuity would be great if the program had been consistently good. But it wasn't. Of the 18 men who have served in the position, Rodgers ranks last on the school's all-time list of winningest coaches by percentage. Van Zant is fourth from the bottom, Ramsburg seventh.
They remained, in part, because they had some good seasons, especially Harrick and Ramsburg, although even Ramsburg had just 10 seasons out of 27 in which his teams finished 10 or more games over .500 and nine in which they were .500 or worse.
The other reason they remained was because no one was really paying much attention. The basketball or football team slides along in mediocrity and people take notice, coaches are replaced. The baseball team does the same and, well, it's just baseball, right?
Those days appear to be at an end, thus the hiring of Mazey from baseball-rich TCU and a staff of like-minded baseball people. Thus the push for a new ballpark in Morgantown. Thus the road show that will be this WVU baseball season, searching out the best parks in the state to play (11 in Charleston and four in Beckley, as opposed to just four single games and one series at Hawley Field).
And thus at least a bit of emphasis on the sport, some of it in rather nuanced ways.
"In the past, they didn't do anything to promote us,'' Frazer said. "Now it's like they care.''
Whether or not that makes a difference in terms of success remains to be seen, of course. This is a team that returns almost everyone from a year ago - pitchers who started 43 of last year's 55 games and nine of the 11 position players who played in at least half the games - but it's also a team that was 23-32. Mazey has brought in 14 new players, but the level of competition is kicked up a notch or two in the Big 12, as well.
"We've got the offense, we've got the defense and we've got the pitching,'' Frazer said. "We should be right up there.''
There's also the travel factor. A 56-game schedule includes just eight games in which the Mountaineers don't have to bus or fly, a number that is likely to be reduced even further by the elements.
"No, it's not ideal. The travel's hard,'' Frazer said. "But we travel a lot anyway. And it's not like we're losing the home-field advantage [in games at Charleston and Beckley]. We're still playing in front of our fans, just in a different place.''
And, of course, for guys like Frazer there's the need to pretty much start all over again. Frazer played and started 54 of the team's 55 games a year ago. He hit .294 and led or tied for the team lead in doubles and home runs. At 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds, he's certainly an imposing physical specimen.
But he's also a rookie again.
"It's actually fun,'' Frazer said. "It gives you a chance to really dig down deep. You go full speed every time you're out there with somebody new as your coach. They don't know who you are and you don't know who they are. You have to prove yourself.''
And in the end it might make West Virginia baseball relevant.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1