D’Amato: 26 years later, UW still without varsity baseball – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
When the University of Wisconsin dropped varsity baseball in 1991, there were valid reasons. The athletic department faced a $2.1 million budget shortfall, spending was outpacing revenue and the financial outlook was bleak.
Surely, it pained then-athletic director Pat Richter, an all-Big Ten, power-hitting first baseman for the Badgers in the early 1960s, to lop baseball (along with men’s and women’s fencing and gymnastics), but he had little choice.
Twenty-six years later, the climate has changed dramatically.
The football and men’s basketball programs, with annual bowl game and NCAA tournament appearances, are cash cows. The Big Ten’s TV contracts are worth a reported $2.64 billion over six years; Wisconsin budgeted for $41.5 million in media rights revenue in 2017-’18.
The athletic department’s facilities master plan for the next decade calls for more premium-level seating at Camp Randall Stadium – which underwent a major renovation 15 years ago – and an addition to the Kohl Center.
Still, Wisconsin remains the only Big Ten school without baseball. And the subject of bringing it back is dead on arrival at athletic director Barry Alvarez’s doorstep.
“As we look forward and anticipate, our costs are going to continue to rise,” Alvarez told me. “Right now, we’re able to allow all 23 varsity sports to operate and be competitive. The cost of adding baseball is much higher than people think.
“Plus, you’d have to add another sport (to remain compliant with Title IX). It’s not feasible for us to add two sports. I was charged to run 23 varsity sports and that’s what we do. If it made sense to add baseball, I would do it. I like baseball.”
Alvarez’s math doesn’t add up to Jeff Block.
Block, 38, a UW alum who lives in Madison, runs Wisconsin’s successful club baseball program and is spearheading an effort to bring back varsity baseball. He submitted a 14-page proposal to Alvarez that outlines how it could be done.
“Operationally, baseball costs about $1.3 million per year for a Big Ten school,” Block said. “When you look at college athletics overall and the amount of money that is being tossed around, it’s really not that much.”
He said he had a list of former UW players, alumni and boosters who pledged to donate more than enough money – “in the tens of millions” – to endow a baseball program, an idea met with skepticism from Alvarez.
“People say, ‘We could endow baseball,’ ” Alvarez said. “I have researched that and it’s way more expensive than people think.”
The athletic director added that facilities would have to be built, though Block said the Badgers could use Warner Park, home of the Madison Mallards, a collegiate summer baseball team that plays in the Northwoods League.
Alvarez also argued that travel costs for spring baseball were prohibitive and that the program generated little fan support before Richter pulled the plug.
“Baseball, when it was a varsity sport here, I think our average attendance was fewer than 50 people,” Alvarez said. “There isn’t much of a groundswell. There are a handful of people who won’t let it die.”
Block disputed that characterization, pointing to a petition to “Bring Varsity Baseball Back” on the UW club website that has nearly 2,700 signatures.
“I’ve had conversations in the thousands with people who are very interested and passionate about it,” Block said, adding that Bud Selig, a friend of Alvarez’s, has been quietly supportive.
Tom Meyer, 79, who coached the Badgers’ varsity team for 13 years (1970-‘83), agreed that there is plenty of interest in bringing back baseball.
“Lots of people feel that way,” said Meyer, who lives in Milwaukee. “Every week I hear from somebody, ‘Why don’t we have baseball at Wisconsin?’ I still hear it every week.”
Block said he has had email exchanges with Alvarez, but that the athletic director has refused to meet with him.
“He won’t answer my questions directly,” Block said. “I love Barry and what he’s done for the university. But there are millions of baseball fans out there. Look at how the Brewers draw. It’s a baseball state.
“I don’t want to make him mad. At the same time, I think it’s not unreasonable to ask to have that meeting and to talk about those things and to get real answers. Maybe at this point in his career it’s something he doesn’t want to take on. Maybe he thinks it’s a risk. If it doesn’t do well, he doesn’t look good.
“I don’t know what it is.”
I’m with Block on this one. Alvarez probably regards him as a royal pain in the behind, but it wouldn’t hurt for the athletic director to hear him out and to spell out in specifics why baseball wouldn’t work.
Asked what he would tell people who signed Block’s petition, Alvarez said, “I can’t tell them anything different than what I just told you. We have people putting things out there that aren’t the truth. I wish we could have baseball. I have to be fiscally responsible. You just don’t drop other things and punish other sports because someone wants baseball.”