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Morris: Arm abuse runs amok in college

THE OVER-REGULATED world of college baseball needs more regulation. Anyone watching the College World Series from Omaha should recognize that college baseball needs to regulate the use of pitchers’ arms because coaches obviously cannot police themselves.

This is not meant to be a harangue against college head coaches or their assistants. Those folks are paid — rather handsomely in many cases — to win baseball games.

In defense of all college coaches, too often they are placed in a compromising position. It sometimes comes down to this: my job or my pitcher’s arm? Win today, advance to the CWS and feed my family for the next few seasons. Look after my star pitcher’s future, put his arm on ice and possibly find myself in line at the soup kitchen.

College coaches should never have to face that predicament. The only way to avoid it is for college baseball to institute pitch limits and innings pitched limits. If every pitcher is limited to, say, 125 pitches per week or 10 innings per week, the cloud of controversy concerning the abuse of pitchers’ arms in college baseball would be lifted forever. On top of that, the onus for protecting pitchers’ arms would forever by removed from coaches.

Frankly, it makes too much sense. Yet college coaches generally like the idea of being the only non-regulated level in all of organized baseball. Even Little League Baseball now has pitch counts. Also, every professional organization keeps a close watch on every pitch thrown by one of its players, from rookie ball all the way to the big leagues.

Jerry Meyers is the much-respected coach at Old Dominion, whose clout earned him an assistant coaching position with Team USA, which played in Columbia this past weekend.

“I don’t think that would benefit us,” the former South Carolina pitching coach said. “I would not be an advocate of that. There’s too many variables, and I don’t think there’s too many cases where there are extreme conditions occurring.”

With all due respect to Meyers, he must not have watched much of the NCAA baseball tournament.

Let’s just look at the North Carolina pitching staff during its eight-day stay in Omaha. The Tar Heels played five games. Sophomore Alex White was considered UNC’s ace, and when Tar Heels coach Mike Fox needed him most, White was called to pitch.

In three games covering the first seven days of the CWS, White started one game and appeared in relief two others. White was the winning pitcher in all three games, but at what expense? He threw 12 innings and 170 pitches. No one should be surprised if White soon faces arm surgery.

If you want an example from the NCAA regionals, look no further than the opening game of the Tallahassee Regional. Bucknell’s Matthew Wilson threw a six-hit shutout against Florida State while tossing 153 pitches. We might go this entire major-league season without a pitcher reaching that figure.

Again, this rules-change suggestion is not meant to single out any team or coach. Meyers just happened to be my spokesman for college coaches.

“For the most part, the vast majority of coaches try to do the right thing all the time,” Meyers said. “When it’s ever questioned, it’s usually after the fact and sometimes the blame gets put in some areas that are unjustified.”

Unfortunately, the justification usually centers around a team’s need to win. Meyers is correct in pointing out that playing baseball to win is what separates the college game from other levels. Winning and losing are meaningless in the minor leagues where the sole reason for games is player development.

Meyers also pointed out that the instances of arm abuse in college baseball are “here and there,” but not overwhelming in numbers. That is where I strongly beg to differ.

According to boydsworld.com, a Web site devoted to college baseball, there were 487 instances from Feb. 23 to June 8 in which a pitcher threw more than 120 pitches. For all but five days from April 12 through May 12, at least one pitcher around the country threw 120 pitches in a game. Three of those five days were Mondays, when college games are rarely played.

You might wonder why it is rare to see a pitcher throw 95 mph or higher in college baseball. The reasons are twofold. First, hard-throwing high school pitchers usually are a high draft pick and command big money from a major-league team. Second, professional scouts can make the case to a high school flame-thrower that his arm is going to be protected every step of the way to the big leagues. There obviously is no such guarantee in college baseball.

That is not to say college coaches do not look after pitchers arms. They do in many cases. Meyers said nearly every college coach wants to protect a pitcher’s arm for the long run of his college career and beyond. I do not doubt that.

But when it comes down to winning a game or protecting a pitcher’s arm, the facts bear out that college coaches are left to decide about their future or their pitcher’s future. Until rules are put into place to take that decision away from coaches, college baseball will always be fertile ground for arm abuse.

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