For two hours Friday afternoon, the weighty and weird confluence of the college baseball postseason and the Major League Baseball Draft all came to rest on Billy Anderson’s shoulders.
Anderson is South Carolina’s Director of Sport Performance for Olympic Sports and the head trainer for the baseball team for the last 14 years. On Friday, he was the Keeper of the Phones.
The Gamecocks open their NCAA Super Regional against Oklahoma State on Saturday. That was complicated by the fact that Major League Baseball is holding its amateur draft this week. The first round was Thursday night. Rounds two through 10 were Friday, which meant that when South Carolina took the practice field just after lunch, some of its players were expecting some really important phone calls.
Anderson was given the responsibility of holding the phones for the players who expected to be drafted Friday. It would seem that having these two major events happening at the same time was some kind of terrible scheduling mistake, but sure enough it happens this way every year.
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“I don’t want to say it’s awkward, it’s just a different way to do it,” Anderson said of the timing of the MLB Draft and the college postseason. “I don’t know how you’d do it differently. The thing of it is, it involves 16 teams of the 300 some teams there are, so for everyone else it’s not a distraction. It is what it is.”
The head coaches of those 16 teams still playing are not as understanding as Anderson, especially Oklahoma State’s Josh Holliday. He appeared at a Friday afternoon news conference as gracious a guest as you could have, praising the Palmetto State hospitality his team received last week at Clemson and again this week in the Capital City, but he didn’t mince any words when it came to the MLB Draft.
“Is it a good system? No, it’s horrible,” Holliday said. “No other major NCAA sport plays their championship with the draft happening simultaneously, and the fact that we can’t find a two- or three-day window on a massive calendar so that these two things don’t have to overlap is an insult to the intelligence of all the great people that oversee both of these things. I would hope for the sake of these kids that we would continue to look for ways not to put them in this situation but because we are in it we need to deal with it the right way.”
Oklahoma State pitcher Thomas Hatch sat beside Holliday on Friday, having walked into the interview room 15 minutes after being drafted in the third round by the Chicago Cubs. Fifteen minutes after Oklahoma State left the media room, Cowboys infielder Donnie Walton was drafted in the fifth round by the Mariners. Oklahoma State, which was on the practice field at the time, told its players to instruct MLB teams to call their parents if they were going to draft them in the two-hour window of Friday afternoon’s practice.
“Both parties have a lot at stake. The idea would be for them to be able to communicate in a way where a kid is not running down a fly ball at the time his name is called,” Holliday said.
South Carolina pitcher Braden Webb, the first Gamecock selected this year, also was on the practice field when he was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the third round. Outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams (fifth round, Yankees) was picked later in the day, after South Carolina had left the practice field.
This all creates a mess for college baseball coaches. Hatch -- and probably Webb although USC coach Chad Holbrook hasn’t yet announced his starting pitcher – will pitch the most important game of his collegiate career one day after getting maybe the most exciting and potentially distracting phone call of his life. It’s even worse on college coaches when a player doesn’t get the call he expected or gets the call much later than expected. Who wants to put someone in the lineup when their chin is dragging their chest?
“Do I think it’s the right timing? No. Does it put us in a little bit of a difficult spot as a team, especially some of those teams playing today? Yeah,” Holbrook said. “It’s not a great system at all, not even close.”
College coaches feel helpless to change the situation, unsure that their concerns are even being heard at the MLB level, Holbrook said.
“We try like crazy to cater to them and make sure our players are available to them 365 days a year. That door is always open (to them) because I know my players’ dreams are to play Major League Baseball so we do our best to accommodate them,” Holbrook said. “I wish like crazy it could be tweaked a little bit so they could accommodate us in our most important time of the year.”
The SEC’s 14 football coaches spent a lot of their time at last week’s spring meetings talking about a system to better accommodate their underclassmen who are considering early entry into the draft. Alabama head coach Nick Saban was upset that a half dozen of his underclassmen received letters from the NFL underclassman advisory committee shortly before the national championship game.
“I mean, you’d like for the guys to be able to stay focused on what they’re doing for their team,” Saban said.
You better believe the powers-that-be in the conference will do all they can to help their football coaches avoid this headache. Somebody at the administrative level needs to spend the same amount of time helping college baseball coaches come up with a solution to what is a much worse problem.
For a couple hours on one afternoon, though, Anderson got to enjoy being part of a great day for some of his team’s players. He answered the phone when the Brewers called Webb.
“It was exciting to see Braden’s face,” Anderson said. “You are walking up to him with the phone and you could see the excitement building, and he’s talking and he’s got a big smile on his face and he hangs it up and I’m like, ‘What’s up?’ He says, ‘I’m going in four picks to the Brewers.’”
There is a lot of prank potential in the position Anderson was given Friday, but it’s too important a thing in the players’ lives to joke about, he said. He felt bad enough about enough about an unintentional glitch.
“I went to (Taylor) Widener with a phone because someone sent a text to say, ‘Call us when you can,’” Anderson said. “I went to Taylor and said, ‘They want you to call them.’ He said, ‘That’s not my phone.’ It was for Gene.”
If only there was some way to avoid issues like this.