Odds are that nobody heard of Frankie Vanderka, Travis Jankowski, and the Stony Brook Seawolves before this past week. Even though they’d won their regional as a #4 seed, the equivalent of a 13-16 seed in basketball winning their bracket, the SBU name was easily dismissed. They were far from mainstream, far less than the Call MeMaybe Harvard Crimson, not even on the radar compared to the power teams of Florida State, Florida, Arizona, and LSU. They got lucky, and it’d be a great story for the program from a mid-major baseball conference to look back on and celebrate in its own annals.
Nobody could possibly have come to close to predicting that the Stony Brook Seawolves baseball team would be the college baseball team with the biggest resonation on the 2012 summer. The future arc of baseball as we know it is gone, deviating from a path by a team that might’ve taken a trip back in a DeLorean for all we know. They’ve altered the course of future events, skewed history in its process, and completely tilted everything sideways without even knowing it.
How deep will this go? It all depends on how deep the Seawolves will go. They just beat a power conference team, perhaps the greatest college baseball team in terms of sustained success and fan support. They beat a team that was the last national champion not named South Carolina. And they’ll play teams that they have no business being in the company of, as many would say. They’ve crashed the party, and the resonating vibrations from that earthquake will aftershock long after the trip from Long Island to Nebraska is finished.
Where do we begin? In the immediate, the course of history is forever altered because of their mid-major status. In basketball, a team just has to get hot, win one game, then win another, and a deep run into the NCAA Tournament becomes likely. The best teams from the mid-major conferences are on par with the mid-level teams in the power conferences, and it’s becoming more and more likely that one team will make some type of run like the one Virginia Commonwealth had a couple of years ago. It’s less and less shocking when a team makes the Final Four as our senses became dulled by the back-to-back national championship appearances by Butler. We latch onto those teams, but we expect someone to make a run. We’re actually more shocked when higher-seeded teams all make it and the power conferences dominate.
Baseball is the polar opposite. The college baseball culture and tournament is designed to favor the wealthier, more powerful teams. There is no parity, and the list of College World Series champions reads like a murderers’ row of power teams: USC, LSU, Texas, Miami, Arizona, Stanford, and Oregon. As expected, the best teams, like Cal State-Fullerton, come from warm weather climates, from schools with resources, from areas where baseball is expected to thrive. With its double-elimination nature, it allows for a high-seeded team to slip but not fail.
The modern era of college baseball and the 64-team setup of the brackets is designed for the wealthy, powerful teams to succeed. Each bracket is played at the national seeds’ home field, in double-elimination format. Playing in front of a home crowd, the best teams can lose a game and still make it through. The best teams remaining then host Super Regionals, a best-of-three series from their home field. The winners of those matchups advance to Omaha, Nebraska and the vaunted College World Series round. That means a team that lost seven games all season can lose two games and STILL make it to Omaha. That’s not including that the teams can then lose another game in their bracket in Omaha before advancing to the best-of-three College World Series final. When it’s all set and done, a team can win the national championship losing four games. Allowing for those slips nearly ensures the best teams always make it through.
It’s the main reason why each year, eight teams qualify for Omaha, and there’s almost always a familiar feel. Texas has gone 34 times, and Miami, Arizona State, and Southern California have gone 23, 22, and 21, respectively (Florida State has also gone 21 times, including this year). Teams like Fresno State, who won the whole shebang in 2008, aren’t supposed to go, let alone win, and teams from mid-major conference like the Ivy League and the Patriot League don’t go at all.
The best players from the remaining teams are usually left to ply their trade and become noticed through summer league baseball. Leagues like the Cape Cod Baseball League offer them a chance to play with players from Florida and Texas or play as replacement temporary players until those guys arrive from their CWS berth. They get such a small window from which to choose from, and their fortunes are very much hit or miss. They’re nothing more than fillers for the stars, place holders for the glamorous, high-ceiling players. Quite simply, players who go to Stony Brook aren’t supposed to be with players from LSU.
This makes the Stony Brook appearance unbelievable. The Seawolves play in the America East Conference, miles below Conference-USA, the West Coast Conference, and the Western Athletic Conference. The America East barely draws any fans, doesn’t receive press coverage, is situated in a “non-college baseball market.” SBU plays on Long Island, and their players are usually relegated to temporary guys who get a cup of coffee on the Cape before they go play somewhere like the Alaska Baseball League or the New England Collegiate Baseball League. They’re hardly blue-chip prospects, and nobody’s on the major league radar.
Last year, all of that really started to turn the corner for a team based on Long Island. Travis Jankowski made a splash in the Cape League when he became the league’s MVP, and then the Seawolves won the America East title for the third consecutive year. Now, after a magical season in which they’ve won 28 of their last 30 games, including the NCAA tournament, they’re headed to Omaha as the first northern team since Maine in 1986.
That in and of itself is shocking. But that’s only half of how deep and how long the “SBU Effect” will hit the baseball world. Scouts are already starting to assemble on Cape Cod for the 2012 Cape Cod Baseball League season, which opens up this week. The first couple of weeks are always against the College World Series, and “temp players,” as they’re known are essential to a team’s success. For Cape League teams, if they come out of the gate too slow, it could be too much to overcome once their “money players” arrive. And if a team does too well or has too many “money players,” the chemistry effect becomes too much of an unknown.
The fact remains that Cape League teams rely on generating enough team chemistry to get the wheels rolling at the right time. It’s rare that a team does what the 2007 Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox did and lead wire-to-wire. Instead, the teams are more likely to have a season like the ’06 Red Sox incarnation on the peninsula. That Y-D team struggled in the early going as they failed to generate enough team chemistry from temp players who knew they’d be leaving. Once the big money players from big money programs arrived, it took a couple of weeks to get acclimated to the team’s style. Once all of it came together, the team rolled into the playoffs as the #1 seed in the Eastern Division, won the playoffs, and captured the league’s trophy. That team became so good by feeding off each other that it produced major leaguers like David Robertson and Buster Posey, with others like Terry Doyle knocking on the doorstep in Triple A.
Instead, teams will now gain players from LSU a week earlier as the season begins, as opposed to waiting for them through first 7-10 games of a 40-game season. Assuming there are teams with a sizeable Tiger contingent, all the LSU guys will a) arrive on Cape in time for the beginning of the season and b) play a full-slate of games.
How does that change everything? Players who go to the Cape are on innings limits, especially pitchers. LSU players start eating up those innings earlier, meaning they might have to go home earlier, meaning teams might be scrambling at the end of the season to find players to fill roster spots. Players on the Cape typically get burned out down the stretch from 10 months of playing baseball, meaning those players might not have anything left in the tank at the end of the year. And players on the Cape typically need to adjust to the wood bats or collapse, meaning LSU guys who can’t adjust will have a compounded mental effect after getting eliminated in Baton Rouge by a team from New York.
There’s the other side of it, too. The scouts assembled will get less of a chance to see unknown talent trying to latch onto other Cape League team. They’ll get less of a chance to see temp players, and they’ll get more of a chance to see LSU guys. The smaller the sample, the less likely an unknown guy gets a positive review. The larger the sample, the more likely a guy from a huge program can have holes punched in his game. All of this then ravels through fall ball, the winter, and the start of next season, leading right up to the MLB Draft in June, 2013.
There’s no way to determine if the course of history has changed for dozens of players who will now play Stony Brook in Omaha, who will now play extended summer ball innings, who will now play with different mentalities. There’s no way to determine if this causes scouts to start scouring the mid-major conferences for elite talent, to find those diamonds in the rough at a time when the SABRmetric way of thinking is starting to saturate. As baseball looks for a new way to determine where its future superstars reside, the new way of thinking will take them to untapped markets like the SBU’s of the world. The whole game has now changed, all thanks to a little engine that did.
This is not something most people think about. It’s also something that can never actually be quantified. But anybody who’s been around the game and the spirit of summer baseball long enough knows one thing; we might never see anything like this again. The Stony Brook Seawolves are barreling to Omaha, going 88 miles per hour, and they’re about to change the course of baseball history in a way nobody could have ever conceived.