GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

March 19, 2013

Baseball Super Eight? Mistake

ON BASEBALL
Conor Walsh

---- — Perhaps more than any other high school state tournament, the baseball tournament is almost always filled with surprises.

Take, for instance, the 2009 Gloucester baseball team’s run to the Division 1 North title. The Fishermen were a good team that year, going 16-4 through the regular season, but few put them in the same class as the likes of Lincoln-Sudbury and St. John’s Prep.

Still, they knocked off each of those teams during their storybook run to becoming North champions and proved that they were in the same class as any baseball team in the entire state.

I’m sure plenty of you out there remember that run and remember it well. Hope you enjoyed it, because starting next spring, those kinds of stories may be gone forever, as the MIAA approved a new Super Eight tournament for baseball, passed by the MIAA last week and beginning on a two-year interim basis in 2014.

It’ll follow the same format of hockey’s Super Eight, which is perhaps the most riveting of all of the state’s postseason tournaments and has been proven exciting since its incorporation in 1991.

The difference? Hockey needs the Super Eight. Baseball doesn’t.

The separation between the state’s upper echelon and the rest of the competition in Massachusetts high school hockey is staggering. The Malden Catholics, Catholic Memorials and St. John’s Preps of the world are absolutely in a world of their own, and a Super Eight is really the only way to do things.

It allows the Catholic schools and public school powers like Reading and Hingham to battle against other truly elite teams, while lesser -- but still often very good -- teams battle for the Division 1 and Division 2 crowns.

As has been proven time and time again in baseball, though, that separation just isn’t the same. And, because of that, the tournament is always filled with drama. Last year, you saw a 10-10 Lynn English team knock off Peabody, a D-1 North favorite, in the first round.

You saw Gloucester plow through the North bracket in ‘09. You saw a 13-7 Amherst team -- champions of D-1 West -- claim the state title in 2010. In fact, since 2008, you’ve seen 11 teams seeded tenth or higher in D-1 North or South reach their respective tournament’s semifinals -- forming the proverbial “Super Eight” of eastern Mass.

And that’s what makes it awesome. Any team can catch fire and knock off a Catholic Conference power or high-seeded Dual-County League squad.

Look at Newton North last year. 10-10 in the regular season, No. 22 seed in D-1 North. Then it got hot and knocked off Lexington, Billerica, St. John’s Prep and Acton-Boxborough before dropping the North final.

Now, the case I’ve laid out could easily be turned back against me. One could argue that an “undeserving” team knocking off a power actually cheapens the product of the tournament and a Super Eight would ensure that the best of the best battle each other.

This brings me to my next point. With baseball’s obvious parity, how do you narrow down the top teams? Obviously, you’ll see many of the same biases that you see during the hockey selection.

A baseball Super Eight’s always going to have at least three, usually four or five, Catholic Conference teams. That’s a given. You’ll probably also see other private schools like Central Catholic perennially in the mix.

Beyond that, probably a few public schools. Bridgewater-Raynham’s usually a force. Franklin. Taunton. Lowell and Lawrence and Lincoln-Sudbury and Acton-Boxorough. Peabody. The list goes on.

I’d imagine that, like hockey, central and western Mass. will be largely ignored. In hockey, you’ll usually see one team -- St. John’s of Shrewsbury or Springfield Cathedral -- in the Super Eight.

But what about a team like Westfield, which wins the D-1 West baseball title seemingly every year? Will it get a look, or will its relatively weak schedule keep it out?

Or how about a D-2 team? Theoretically, Division 2 teams are eligible for hockey’s Super Eight, with teams like Wilmington this year getting some consideration. It never happens, though.

And it probably won’t in baseball, either. The difference is that there will be plenty more D-2 teams with resumes and the ability to compete with the state’s best.

There are plenty of Northeastern Conference teams, playing a schedule mixed with D-1 and D-2 opponents, that compete in Division 2 despite proving good enough to play with the best.

Case in point: Gloucester, which is now Division 2 in baseball despite winning D-1 North just four years ago.

Others include North Andover, Danvers, Masconomet, Beverly, Reading, Burlington and Lynn Classical. And that’s just in Division 2 North.

The current format just isn’t broken. Every year it’s exciting, and the single-elimination format of the brackets allow for a team to catch lightning in a bottle and pull off an incredible upset.

You lose that with a Super Eight. Not only does it cheapen the regular Division 1 (and 2) tournaments, but its double-elimination, nine-inning format favors the private powers so much it’s absurd.

In the standard high school season, a team can get by with three starting pitchers -- with the No. 3 coming largely out of the bullpen and serving as a spot starter during busy weeks.

You tack an extra two innings onto every game in a double-elimination tournament, and the teams that will survive will be the ones with five or six quality pitchers. That kind of depth doesn’t really exist in public schools. It hardly even exists with the private school powers.

This format simply doesn’t work for high school baseball. It’s too hard to differentiate between the top eight teams and the rest of the state, certainly much more difficult than it is for hockey.

All that this is going to do is create controversy every year and effectively water-down, if not ruin, one of the state’s best postseason tournaments.

The good news is that it’s only on a trial basis. Hopefully after two years, the MIAA will see the light.

I won’t count on it, though, and you can probably kiss the ‘09 Gloucesters of the high school baseball world goodbye.