Staples baseball coach Jack McFarland was in the midst of talking about his team’s CIAC Class LL semifinal victory over Cheshire and the prospects of facing Southington in the state championship game when he stopped in mid-sentence.
“I just wish it was best two-of three,” McFarland said. “Or we had Cheshire, Southington, Amity and us in a Final Four double-elimination tournament. That’s what people want to see. One bad inning in our sport and you can lose in single elimination. It’s not right.”
No one promotes change in postseason season tournaments any faster and louder than the coach who had just been eliminated. In any sport. Maybe they are right. Maybe they aren’t. Either way, others will say the guy is crying sour grapes.
That’s why it’s good to start here with McFarland. Staples won it all in Class LL in 2017. And if the Wreckers knock off Southington on Saturday, they figure to be voted the No. 1 team in the state Top 10 poll. McFarland has no grapes to sour.
He just wanted to go on record — loudly — as “a big proponent of change and a double elimination phase” in the CIAC state baseball tournament.
McFarland will need a megaphone to come off any louder than Martin Fiore. The successful East Catholic-Manchester coach is every bit as passionate as McFarland. One question about the state tournament during the Class M semifinals at Muzzy Field in Bristol and Fiore was pulling out his iPhone and texting me an entire system he wants the CIAC to consider.
It is essentially the same system used in college baseball.
“If the CIAC really cares about a true champion they will have some form of double-elimination,” Fiore said. “Maybe they don’t care about having a true champion. Sometimes we feel like they want to have a tournament because they have to get it over as quickly as possible, crown a champion and move on to football for next year.”
No one loves stunning upsets in state tournaments any more than I do. There’s an undeniable romance in the underdog, especially if involves a once-in-a-generation team from a small town. And no one loves — OK, Mike DiMauro of The Day of New London does — to rail about the advantage of schools of choice have over public schools.
So at first blush, the thought of some raw-boned ace, the town’s one star, pitching a low seed over one of the top teams in the class, if not the state, seems very cool. Yet what then? That team gets smoked in the next round when that ace is unavailable to pitch. What’s left is neither the romantic underdog nor one of the best teams.
“The worst team to play is an 8-12 team, because they have eight wins because of that one guy,” Fiore said. “Plus, that team plays better when that stud pitches. People say there’s no tomorrow and all that stuff and I get it. But to me it doesn’t matter if you’re seeded fifth or 25th, the goal is to win the whole tournament, not one game.”
Beyond that one point, of course, is the universal problem of tech schools running up impressive records against inferior opponents and substantially skewing the brackets. As a result, a team this year like Jonathan Law-Milford had an easier path as a 26 seed than No. 4 Hand-Madison, which had Guilford and Notre Dame-West Haven in front of it, in Class L.
Yet, most importantly is the very nature of the game. Baseball is not a collision sport. It is not a taxing cardio sport. It is a situational sport decided on a pitch an inch outside, or a walk or a balk or a bunt that rolls an inch inside the foul line. In a sense it’s like a videogame. So many variables and so many urges to keep playing. Why do you think Ernie Banks yelled, “Let’s play two!” You never heard Eli Manning yell that.
“There is not another sport that you rely more on the condition of the field, the sun, the pitcher is huge, the way a ball bounces,” Fiore said. “You can’t draw up a play in the huddle or at timeout. It’s all about pitching.”
Yes, a more physically demanding sport like hockey is subject to so many variables, too. A puck off a skate. An iffy penalty call that leads to a power-play goal in the final minute. And, except for a pitcher, no one can control a game like a goalie. The difference is a coach can always decide who plays goal. A starting pitcher cannot go every game.
If you think, hey, too bad, that’s the breaks, there’s nothing that will change your mind. Me? I think these coaches are correct. The CIAC should go to something superior to a one-knockout system.
“I actually have several ideas,” Fiore said. “One of them is do it like the colleges. They have 64 teams. Say the CIAC wants to keep it at 32. Fine. There would be eight pods of four teams each.”
In Pod A are the 1, 16, 17 and 32 seeds. Pod B would have 2, 15, 18, 31. And so on. On Day One in Pod A, 32 plays at 1 and 17 plays at 16. One Day Two, the winners play and the losers play. That knocks out one team. If you’ve followed colleges at all, you know how it plays out from there on Day Three. If the two remaining teams have one loss, you can play a fourth day.
“It makes more sense to play Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Monday on Memorial Day weekend,” Fiore said. “Baseball was meant to be played on Memorial Day. And, theoretically, you could have a full week if there’s weather.”
When the first phase is complete, there are eight teams left. Repeat the process with two pods of four teams each. In Fiore’s plan, you are left two teams in a best-of-three finals the following Friday and Saturday. In his theoretical scenario, he had the entire tournament starting May 29 and ending June 14.
“There are more games, don’t get me wrong, but there’s really not much extra time involved,” Fiore said.
If you’re really looking to save time, exactly what is the worth of baseball conference tournaments? Coaches hold back their important pitchers for the upcoming state tournament. Teams aren’t going all out. So what exactly is the point?
“You don’t really need them,” McFarland said. “They’re pretty ridiculous.”
“Another thing that’s very unfortunate the CIAC does is with the schedule they force you to throw two guys in the tournament on short rest every time,” Fiore said. “Three days is not full rest. That’s not counting days changing with rainouts.”
New York has gone to a system where the first round is single elimination and then goes to pods of double elimination. That’s certainly a possibility.
“I coach Trumbull in American Legion and they’ve gone to pods, which is tremendous,” McFarland said. “Maybe you play the 16 through 32 teams against each other just to get into a (double-elimination) tournament. There are a lot of cool ideas.
“One thing that bothers me is every other major (CIAC) sport has at least tried to do something different on a yearly basis. Football has. Basketball has. Why not one year try something different with baseball? It’s just been the same five games, good luck and hope you don’t make any mistakes. At least try something. It would be fun and fair and create more interest.”