Damani Leech never hesitated a decade ago when Dennis Poppe invited him to join the NCAA team that oversees the College World Series.
Leech was working in compliance for the NCAA and was conducting a seminar in Chicago when Poppe called.
“He said, 'You want to come work for me?'” Leech said. “I said, 'When can I start? He said, 'How soon can you get to Omaha?' I got on the first flight I could and came out.”
He made it in time for the final games of the 2003 championship series between Rice and Stanford. He's served as Poppe's top lieutenant for the past 10 series and takes over as director when Poppe retires Jan. 1.
Leech, a 37-year-old native of Tacoma, Wash., sat down with The World-Herald before the final game of this year's CWS and talked about some of the issues he'll be in charge of tackling as the NCAA's top baseball official.
The first is the growing concern about the lack of offense since the CWS moved to TD Ameritrade Park in 2011. There have been 22 home runs in the three series played there, including three this year.
The teams' collective batting average was .239 in 2011, .234 in 2012 and .237 this season. The eight teams combined to score 86 runs in 14 games this season, the lowest output at the CWS since the NCAA adopted the eight-team format in 1950.
Leech, a former football player at Princeton, indicated he will take a conservative approach in addressing questions about how to put more juice in the offense in Omaha.
“I know it's the en vogue thing to just say we just need to bring the fences in,” Leech said. “One, that's not a cheap or easy thing to do. You start digging up the field, you change the way the ballpark plays and you change the angle of the seats in the outfield. That is not a simple solution.
“Certainly, we recognize it and we see the stats, and the three home runs are pretty notable. On the flip side, there has been some tremendous pitching, and that's exciting to watch.”
Leech said the NCAA will continue to study trends toward less scoring in the college game. Offensive numbers have declined the past three seasons with the adoption of more restrictive rules governing metal bats.
He said one of the final meetings he had in Omaha was with members of the NCAA's baseball rules committee and Dennis Farrell, chairman of the Division I Baseball Committee.
“We talked about the baseball itself and things we might do with it in the future,” Leech said. “There's nothing we're going to do right away.”
It's been suggested that using the professional model baseball, which features lower seams, might be one way to increase offensive production.
“We don't want to mess with the insides of the ball because that impacts things like exit speed, and that's a path we don't want to go down,” Leech said. “Lowering the seams is intriguing, and it's something we'll continue to explore. We certainly want to dig into the research a little bit more and find out what exactly the impact is. When we find out the impact, we have to decide whether that's what we want the game to be about.”
Leech said the NCAA also will continue to study the sale of alcohol at the CWS site. For the first time in decades, the NCAA allowed the sale of alcohol in a private hospitality tent in the FanFest area, as well as on the club level at TD Ameritrade.
The NCAA does not allow alcohol sales to the general public at any of its championship events.
“It's something we'll continue to monitor, and what we particularly monitor is what our campuses are doing during the regular season,” Leech said. “If anything, that's what is going to drive our championships.
“If our fans are getting used to some sort of an experience at the regular-season level and we're not offering it in the postseason, it becomes notable. As more and more campuses start to offer it with greater regularity, that will force the conversation at the national level. We are by no means pushing it.”
What makes the question delicate in Omaha is that some see the sale of alcohol going against the CWS' core values. Leech is sensitive to the issue.
“The College World Series is just a little bit different, and just because it might work at lacrosse or the Final Four that it's going to work at the College World Series ...,” he said. “I think we always have that conversation before making any decision in regard to this event.”
Overall, Leech said, he thought the 2013 CWS went extremely well. The event drew a record attendance of 341,483 for the 14 games. There were no weather-related postponements or suspensions of games.
“We didn't even have a rain delay,” Leech said. “We did have to abbreviate the opening ceremonies, which was disappointing, but the student-athletes still got the experience of coming onto the field and the Olympic welcome.
“That's always a highlight for them.”
At a press conference before the CWS, Poppe and other baseball officials teased Leech that his biggest challenge is to keep the finely tuned car that the CWS has become from crashing over the cliff. Poppe has said his only advice to Leech was not to mess it up.
Leech said he recognizes that the event is far different from when Poppe took it over 26 years ago. Then, the CWS was just starting to blossom as a national event.
“There was a lot more room to grow when Denny took over than when I'm taking over,” Leech said. “My goal is not to try to grow this event in size, to say we want 50,000 people at a game. My goal is to increase the experience and enhance the experience for the student-athlete and for the fans and for the community of Omaha.
“Whatever way that takes form, great. It's sometimes more challenging to put the icing on the cake than to just bake the cake itself. We'll figure that out.”
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