Left on base: Despite efforts to bring baseball back to Syracuse, obstacles prevent real progress
John DeFrancisco made his case to reinstate the Syracuse baseball program on four separate occasions. A New York state senator and 1968 SU baseball captain, DeFrancisco tried to shed light on the sport’s significance in college athletics to the university’s administration.
Former Chancellors Melvin Eggers and Kenneth ‘Buzz’ Shaw dismissed his plea without much thought. Nancy Cantor, the chancellor since 2004, showed interest but ultimately followed the actions of her predecessors.
When Athletic Director Daryl Gross arrived, DeFrancisco tried again. This time was different.
‘He basically said we should have a baseball team, and I’ll do what I can to make it happen,’ DeFrancisco said.
But despite Gross’ interest in the possibility, baseball remains a retired sport at Syracuse seven years into his tenure. When the Orange officially joins the Atlantic Coast Conference – right now set for the 2014-15 athletic season – it will be the only school in the 14-team league without a baseball program. Regardless of the ACC’s proud tradition and reputation as a national powerhouse on the diamond, though, SU will only be required by the ACC to field a football, men’s and women’s basketball, and either a women’s soccer or women’s volleyball team, an ACC spokeswoman said.
In his seven years, Gross ended the men’s and women’s swimming programs and added a women’s ice hockey program that just finished its fourth season of competition. The athletic director has also looked into adding men’s ice hockey in that span, keeping an open mind to possibilities for the future of Syracuse athletics. But he also must keep his focus on the programs currently competing.
Gross ‘expressed that he will always explore new ideas to enhance our program, but we (athletics department) have a responsibility to be fiscally sound and in compliance with Title IX,’ Sue Edson, assistant director of athletic communications, said in an email to The Daily Orange.
Gross could not be directly reached for comment.
Syracuse University discontinued its baseball program in 1972. The school’s first interscholastic sport lasted 94 years before budgetary restrictions and a change in the academic calendar doomed America’s pastime at the university for the last 40 years.
Money and Title IX are among the main reasons baseball remains in Syracuse’s past. The cost to start a program that will likely lose money is too steep, and SU must keep an even balance of athletic scholarships for men and women. If the university adds a men’s sport, it would probably have to add a women’s sport.
Though money ended baseball’s run at SU, a shortened academic year that ended in April 1973 didn’t help matters. Still, it all came down to the bottom line.
‘I’m sure that money was the bigger factor because everybody in the United States has a shorter season, and they all seem to still be playing,’ said Dick Woodridge, a pitcher on the final Syracuse baseball team.
In the decades that followed, each chancellor left DeFrancisco with the same impression.
‘It’s really a question of money,’ DeFrancisco said. ‘Baseball brings in no money.’
About five years ago, though, Doug Halliday reinvigorated attempts to bring baseball back to SU. Halliday, a local plastic surgeon and baseball enthusiast, had nearly every obstacle accounted for, from finances to a coaching staff to complying with Title IX.
He met with Gross twice to sell him on his vision for Syracuse baseball.
Halliday said about 20 families, local businessmen and doctors vowed to raise money to start a program. He planned to help out, too, donating all revenue from Botox sales to the cause. He estimated a $200,000 donation could help the team get off the ground for the first year, paying for uniforms, equipment and other expenses.
‘I felt you could develop funding long term with donations, but get a program now and start working with it, have a shoestring budget and you could get it done, and I think it would grow,’ Halliday said.
To save money, Halliday’s grassroots campaign included provisions for a volunteer coaching staff led by Woodridge, now the co-founder of Sports Zone, a training facility for amateur baseball players in Central New York.
Woodridge has helped 25-30 players sign professional contracts throughout the years, and 91 players he has worked with have earned Division-I scholarships since 2004. With his experience and knowledge of local amateur baseball, Woodridge said he was willing to get involved either as a coach or as an adviser and supporter to help bring life back into the program.
Halliday asked him if SU would attract the Division-I talent in the area.
‘Well, certainly they would,’ Woodridge said. ‘I think it would be a big draw. It would be a great draw, especially to start a program.’
Steve Grilli, who Halliday also envisioned as a part of the coaching staff, knows the appeal to play at home in college can be a powerful recruiting tool. Grilli, a major league pitcher in late 1970s, said his son and Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Jason Grilli considered Le Moyne College before deciding to attend Seton Hall from 1995-97.
Grilli said his son likely would have considered SU for that reason if it had a program. And the ACC would only add to the intrigue now.
‘I think it would play into the fact that the kids would say, ‘Yeah, I’d like to stick close to home because it’s a D-I program, it’s an ACC program, which would be challenging,” Grilli said. ‘The ACC is known for some of the better baseball schools.’
Halliday proposed starting a women’s cross-country skiing program to account for Title IX. With top-notch facilities less than 60 miles from Syracuse, in Osceola, Halliday felt it was a perfect match.
With an ideal climate in Central New York, SU could be competitive immediately in a sport in which only 21 NCAA programs qualified to compete for the 2012 NCAA Championship. But that program would also come with expenses.
Like DeFrancisco, Halliday described Gross as receptive and even excited by the idea of baseball at Syracuse. But in the end, the excitement didn’t outweigh the challenges.
Gross pinpointed $800,000 as the average cost to run an elite baseball program each year, Halliday said – well above the $200,000 he felt was attainable. Woodridge said the university would need to back it, and it would need a stadium to play its home games. And Halliday admits a salaried coaching staff would eventually be needed for a program to take off.
‘You could tell he’s a baseball guy and would love to have baseball, but I think he was kind of stuck at getting an endowed program,’ Halliday said. ‘And I think what he didn’t want was to have a program that was a drain on the budget and also that could potentially be a losing program at the time.’
Gross is focused on getting every current program to compete at an elite level. Adding another program requires Gross and his staff to conduct an analysis on a wide range of factors, including financial aid and allocation of scholarships.
‘Our focus as an administration and Dr. Gross’ focus is to have a great group of head coaches in place,’ said Jamie Mullin, associate athletic director for team services, ‘which he’s done, and then continue to provide them with the operational resources necessary to compete at a high level. So that’s really our focus and that’s really Dr. Gross’ focus.’
While Gross and his staff continue to put their energy into their teams, the ACC has started to prepare for having an odd number of baseball programs in the conference. With Pittsburgh joining, the conference will have 13 members, leading to possible changes in the regular-season schedule and conference tournament.
Currently, the teams play 10 of the conference members, missing one opponent during the regular season. And the ACC tournament features the top eight teams.
Boston College head coach Mike Gambino said the options being discussed by the conference for the future include playing every conference member or missing two during the regular season, and the conference tournament could stay at eight or expand to 10.
‘I think there will be some changes in our conference because of it,’ Gambino said. ‘But I think overall it’s a great move for our conference.’
DeFrancisco and Halliday, among others, hope the move to the ACC, though it doesn’t require baseball, generates more discussion surrounding baseball at Syracuse.
After failing to see any progress made on his previous four attempts, DeFrancisco is ready to try a fifth, eager to see if the change in conference affiliation makes a difference.
‘(Since) it was first announced that Syracuse was going to go into the ACC,’ DeFrancisco said, ‘I have a note to myself to meet with the chancellor and to meet with Gross to talk about it and see what impediments they now are going to claim for baseball.’
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