Damani Leech’s fellow panelists at Friday’s annual “State of College Baseball” press conference did their best to make him feel welcome.
Leech takes over next year as director of the College World Series from Dennis Poppe, who is retiring after 26 years as the NCAA’s top man in the game. In introducing Leech, moderator Bill Cousins joked that Leech “is going to feel like Gene Bartow in 1976.”
Bartow was the basketball coach who succeeded John Wooden at UCLA.
Dennis Farrell, the head of the NCAA’s Division I Baseball Committee, praised Poppe for his influence in growing the CWS since he took over in 1987.
“Over the last 26 years he has put his heart and soul into this sport and has left it in really good hands for Damani,” Farrell said. “Damani, it’s a big challenge for you not to drive the car over the cliff. Yeah, no pressure at all.”
Leech, who has been Poppe’s right-hand man for the past decade, took the ribbing in style. He said he was excited and a bit humbled to be taking over the event.
Leech then was asked what he’s learned the past 10 years that will help him keep the “car” on the road.
“You learn pretty quickly the nature of this event and how special it is to the Omaha community and the baseball community at large,” Leech said. “The challenge is not unlike what I consider for other events like the Masters, Indianapolis 500, U.S. Open tennis.
“Those are events that have been in the same place for many, many years, and they’ve got a challenge to grow and enhance the event while at the same time preserve what is unique and special about it. That’s not easy to do. It’s a bit of a daunting task.”
Leech said his job will be made easier, just as Poppe’s was, by the support the NCAA gets from College World Series of Omaha Inc., the local sponsoring organization.
“Something that Denny has taught me over the years is how important relationships are,” Leech said. “It’s easy to get caught up in numbers and policies, but at the end of the day, a lot of this revolves around people and having relationships with people to solve problems and accomplish great things.”
Leech and the other panelists — Poppe, Farrell and Dave Keilitz, executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association — generally agree that the college game is on solid ground. The group also discussed the RPI and a possible partnership with major league baseball.
Keilitz said he will survey his coaches this summer to see if there is any interest in switching to baseballs that are used in the professional game. Manufactured by Rawlings, the pro model has flat seams and tests livelier. The switch is seen by proponents as a possible means to counter the reduction in offense since new bat standards were adopted in 2011.
Costs, contractual obligations and liability questions are issues that could prevent college baseball from switching to the pro-model ball, Keilitz said. If the majority of his membership indicates a willingness to use the livelier ball, he would take it to the NCAA rules committee. That won’t happen until July 2014 at the earliest, he said.
Farrell, whose committee selects the teams for the tournament, said a switch to a new RPI formula, which gave greater weight to road wins and losses, didn’t have as much impact as anticipated.
“The initial reaction was the top teams are the top teams regardless of how you skin the cat,” he said. “As you get deeper and deeper into the numbers, that’s when you start to see some of the larger fluctuations.”
College baseball officials have been in discussions the past three years with major league officials about getting professional baseball more involved in the college game, particularly from a financial standpoint.
Changes in key personnel on both sides have stalled the discussions, Keilitz said.
“It is an issue that they (professional baseball) are interested in and the NCAA and the coaches association is certainly interested in,” Keilitz said. “We hope to get the discussions going again, and hopefully something can happen down the road.
“It would be a great thing for college baseball. I think many major league (officials) feel it would be good for them, too.”
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