The Big Ten Conference announced that the 2013 Big Ten Baseball Tournament will be held at Minneapolis' Target Field and the 2014 tournament will be held at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. Both sites raised eyebrows from people who feel that both parks are too big for the Big Ten tournament. Based on past history, those critics may have a point. But I think those critics may be missing a signal from the Big Ten that baseball needs to be B1G-ger.
When Nebraska joined the Big Ten, baseball experts told us that irregardless of how much the move makes sense for football, it was a bad move for baseball. The Big Ten's track record in baseball has been horrid in recent years; it's tough for northern schools to compete when the southern schools don't have to wait for the ground to thaw to play home games. Other than the automatic bid the tournament champion receives, the Big Ten is a non-factor in the regionals. Only four Big Ten teams have advanced to the Super Regionals since 1999. And the College World Series? Not since 1984.But past futility doesn't automatically ensure future irrelevance. This season, Purdue has broken through the ice and is currently ranked ninth in the country. It's not a question as to whether the Boilermakers will earn a regional bid, it's more of a question as to whether they'll host. They have the record, just not the facility. Lambert Field is considered unsuitable, and Alexander Field isn't ready yet. (Purdue officials likely should call Lincoln, who managed to get a regional into Buck Beltzer prior to it's retirement) They are looking at other minor league ballparks, and even Wrigley Field has been mentioned.
Nebraska's entry into the Big Ten is certainly a factor in changing the Big Ten's way of thinking. A lot of Omahans thought that the Big Ten should have selected Werner Park if they were considering Omaha as a host site. Werner Park is a 6400 seat stadium located about a half-hour from downtown Omaha, and would be large enough to hold the crowds that the tournament draws in it's current setting in Columbus, Ohio. But they forget that this tournament hasn't included Nebraska in the past, and the Nebraska has typically drawn big crowds when they've played in Omaha...all crowds that would not only fill Werner Park, but fill it twice...and even fill the berms that provide overflow seating.
But does the Big Ten really need a 39,504 stadium like Target Field, let alone a 24,000 seat stadium like TD Ameritrade Park? Not likely, but both facilities simply more amenities for fans and players that will show that this is a B1G event. Ameritrade Park has four locker rooms, so when games are going back-to-back, teams don't have to share. Both facilities represent the "next level" (Major League Baseball and the College World Series); something they should aspire towards. Both are located in vibrant neighborhoods: the warehouse district in Minneapolis and "NoDo" in Omaha. Hotels, bars, restaurants..all within walking distance. Werner Field is essentially out in "BFE", surrounded by the cornfields southwest of Omaha...but a new Arby's just opened a couple miles to the west.
Give the Big Ten credit for these selections... It's bold thinking in trying to elevate baseball in the conference. There won't be sellout crowds, but fans should find plenty to see and do during the entire tournament in both locations; both venues will say "big time" to the teams and their fans. If Nebraska is playing on the weekend, expect crowds approaching 15,000 or more in Omaha...and with Minneapolis a reasonable seven hour drive from Omaha, expect more than a few Husker fans to make a May road trip to the Twin Cities next year.
It's a gamble, to be sure. But Big Ten baseball really doesn't have much to lose. And if the Big Ten gets into a rotation for conference tournaments in larger venues, it might prove to be a recruiting advantage for the conference. Imagine future tournaments at Wrigley Field, Progressive Field, or Miller Park. It's a bold move; a B1G idea. And definitely worth pursuing for the Big Ten.