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COVID-19 Pandemic Continues to Affect NCAA Baseball

Elliot Ballpark

The coronavirus pandemic is having sweeping effects on college baseball, with conference championships cancelled and new ballpark debuts pushed back to 2021.

Since last week, it has been apparent that COVID-19 will have major implications for college sports, with the NCAA cancelling remaining winter and spring championships, including June’s College World Series. Although spring championships were cancelled last week, the NCAA did not technically cancel regular season baseball at the time and left the decision to individual conferences, leaving questions about whether some would resume play later this spring.

The situation has since become clearer, with the ACC and SEC among the conferences to cancel their baseball championships on Tuesday. The SEC was set to return to Hoover Met Stadium in Hoover, AL, while the ACC was set to stage its tournament at BB&T Ballpark—the home of the Charlotte Knights (Class AAA; International League)—for the first time.

“This is uncharted territory and the health and safety of our student-athletes and institutions remains our top priority,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said in a press statement. “This decision is aimed to protect from the further spread of COVID-19.”

“This is a difficult day for all of us, and I am especially disappointed for our student-athletes,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a press statement. “The health and well-being of our entire conference community is an ongoing priority for the SEC as we continue to monitor developments and information about the COVID-19 virus.”

Meanwhile, the cancellation of games is also affecting the scheduled openings of new ballparks. With the rest of its 2020 baseball season scratched, UConn will not play its first season at Elliot Ballpark until 2021. While the ballpark might still be used for other events leading up to next season, including potential alumni games, the end of the 2020 season is certainly a disappointment for the UConn baseball program. The ballpark was originally scheduled to have opened March 29. More from The Day:

“I’ve been pretty public in saying I’m trying not to be emotional about it until we’re actually in the thing,” [UConn head baseball coach Jim] Penders said, “because I’ll believe it when I see it. We’ve been waiting so long anyway. … Our first meeting on that facility happened in 2003; we’ve waited 17 years. We can wait 18.”

The UConn baseball team has checked out their new stadium and walked the artificial turf. But the Huskies hadn’t held an official practice there.

There’s a strong possibility that an exhibition game will be the first event in Elliot Ballpark, according to Penders who’s in his 17th season as a head coach and served as an assistant before that.

Penders and [athletic director David] Benedict already have discussed doing something that involves the UConn baseball family. Former coach Andy Baylock suggested an alumni game.

Oklahoma State University is also facing a delayed opening for its new ballpark, O’Brate Stadium. The ballpark was to have hosted its first game on Friday, but that will not happen after the Big XII Conference announced last week that all conference and non-conference competitions are cancelled through the end of the academic year, while team activities—such as practices and meetings—have been suspended until at least March 29.

The University of Portland announced last week that all future team activities in the spring semester had been cancelled, affecting baseball in the process. This means that the program will not play any games this spring at an extensively renovated Joe Etzel Field, which was expected to debut in the coming months.

While it is already delaying the openings of college ballparks that were set to debut in 2020, COVID-19 is also creating more uncertainty for the timing of a planned new Marshall University ballpark. The university had been aiming for a 2021 opening, but it was revealed last month that the timeline hit a snag after bids for the project were put out in December and came back around $28 million, exceeding the initial estimate of $18-$20 million.

In the wake of COVID-19, however, Marshall has opted to slow down fundraising efforts for the ballpark. Athletic department officials emphasized Tuesday that they remain committed to seeing the ballpark move forward but want to wait for a more appropriate time to resume the fundraising process. More from The Herald-Dispatch:

“Now is just not the right time to go ask people for money,” said Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick….

Hamrick said they will slow down for the next 30 or so days.

Overall, though, fundraising for the stadium is going well, he said.

“We still have a long way to go,” he said. “We still have a lot of people to see. People are very excited. We have at least two seven-figure gifts that have been committed so far, and we think there are more out there.”

The shutdown of the NCAA baseball season has wider implications on the baseball industry as a whole, not only because of the cancellations of games and facility openings, but also that it is one of the factors contributing to the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 MLB Draft. The 2020 Draft was to be held June 10-12 in Omaha but, with the cancellation of the College World Series, MLB no longer has a reason to attach the draft to larger public events. (The NFL has already made this decision, cancelling all public events in Las Vegas associated with its April draft.) Still, with most college and high-school conferences programs ending their seasons and MLB organizations pulling scouts off the road, we could end up seeing a scaled-down or reworked selection process.

Rendering courtesy UConn.

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RELATED STORIES: NCAA College World Series Canceled

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