They arrived on a warm spring Friday afternoon symbolically dressed for a funeral. Black hats. Cleats. Stirrups. Undershirts. The gesture, while futile in the big picture, represented a declaration of mourning. For history. And for themselves.
They were there to play a college baseball game, of course. But they also were there to find a cathartic release, to cope with the unthinkable and spend just a few more hours lingering by the field they had called home.
Arrogance and youthful naivety had convinced each player this day would never come. How could a Big Ten athletics department drop one of the signature sports in American culture? How could the University of Wisconsin cut baseball, the oldest athletic program at the school, after 116 years?
“As an athlete, it’s kind of the last thing you think that could possibly happen,” said Kris Hanson, a freshman pitcher for the Badgers during that final season. “You fear getting injured. You fear potentially being cut from the team. But the last thing you fear is that the entire program itself is going to be cut out from under you.”
Yet here they were, 34 baseball players and a handful of coaches at Guy Lowman Field, trying to fend off the inevitable during a doubleheader against Purdue. Badgers players desperately hoped the games would somehow push past darkness and force a continuation the next day, however remote the possibility.
But when Wisconsin third baseman John Vanden Heuvel’s fly ball nestled into the glove of Purdue’s center fielder in the ninth inning, the end of a doubleheader and a program had unceremoniously arrived with a 1-0 defeat.
It was 5:40 p.m. on May 10, 1991. Wisconsin’s players cried and hugged in the dugout.
“Nobody wanted to step outside the lines into reality,” recalled Jason Beier, the Badgers’ first baseman.
Reality hadn’t been kind to Wisconsin baseball. One month earlier, a plan to drop baseball and four other nonrevenue sports was approved, 8-3, by the athletic board for financial reasons. The cuts helped eliminate a $1.9 million athletic department debt. Dropping the five sports would save $3.3 million over a four-year period, create a $500,000 reserve for other sports and go a long way toward satisfying the needs of meeting Title IX demands for gender equity in athletics at Wisconsin.
More than two decades later, the decision remains one of the most controversial moves the Wisconsin athletic department has ever made. Each spring, there are pleas to bring back baseball, but hope dims as the years pass. Instead, the lasting image of the program remains that somber group of players silently shuffling off the field in black, grieving and protesting to no avail.
Wisconsin — along with Syracuse, Colorado and Iowa State — is one of just four BCS-level schools without a baseball program. The Badgers also are the only Big Ten school without the sport.
Wisconsin’s athletic department has improved its financial and gender equity status considerably since 1991, which leads some to believe baseball is in position to be restored. Football, for example, has gone from a laughingstock to a national powerhouse the past two decades and generates millions of dollars in revenue. But whether baseball’s reinstatement is possible and whether it is probable are two entirely different stories.
Pat Richter did not want to make this decision. Richter, a three-sport letter winner at Wisconsin in football, basketball and baseball in the 1960s, had taken over a floundering athletic department in 1989 that was losing more money than it brought in.
At the time, Wisconsin offered the third-most sports in the Big Ten with 25 but had a budget that ranked only sixth in the conference. Given that the department was $1.9 million in debt, a proposal began circulating to drop baseball, men’s and women’s gymnastics and men’s and women’s fencing. The idea was that Wisconsin would be better prepared to fund 20 sports instead of 25.
“We were just kind of limping along,” said Richter, Wisconsin’s athletic director from 1989-2004. “We were able to compete, but we weren’t competitive. So that just isn’t right. They believed we needed a smaller program with better resources for those remaining.”
Richter said baseball was selected for a variety of reasons. Weather in Wisconsin made it difficult to play home games the first two months of the season, which increased travel expenses. Home attendance was sagging, the team’s facilities were below average and baseball didn’t have a corresponding female sport.
But another part of the equation centered on an investigation by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. An anonymous complaint had been filed relating to the lack of progress involving women’s sports as it pertained to student-body proportionality.
Richter believed the OCR singled out Wisconsin over a lone complaint. When the organization visited campus to follow up and revealed the school did not have a near 50-50 gender split of student athletes, however, Richter knew something had to change to comply with Title IX. The financial and gender equity issues were simply too much to allow him to maintain the status quo.
“There were a lot of unhappy people but not a lot of solutions, either,” Richter said. “Some sport was going to get cut regardless. Baseball was a tradition, and I played it, so it was difficult. There was lobbying that went on from friends and former players. There just weren’t a lot of alternatives other than just saying, ‘Well, cut somebody else.’ “
The move did not sit well with many, who believed more could have been done to save the sport. Athletic board member Gerald Kulcinski had proposed charging a 5 percent tax on football, basketball and hockey tickets to help fund other sports. And Beier said the Dugout Club, Wisconsin’s baseball booster organization, had offered to pay for baseball for another season to see whether a different solution could be reached.
Richter did not believe those plans to be feasible in the long run. Baseball at Wisconsin was done, and nearly the entire team, including Hanson and Beier, transferred to play for other programs.
In the 22 years since baseball disappeared in Madison, 22 Division I colleges have followed suit, either for budgetary reasons, Title IX concerns or both. Among them: Colgate, Colorado State, Denver, Drexel, Duquesne, Iowa State, New Hampshire, Northern Iowa, Tennessee State, Vermont and Wyoming.
But for those seeking a reason to believe in a Wisconsin revival, there is precedent for a school committing to reinstating a dormant college baseball program.
Pat Kilkenny is the former athletic director at the University of Oregon who helped bring back baseball to the school following a 28-year hiatus. Much like Wisconsin, Oregon had been the only school in its conference, the Pacific-10, not to field a baseball team. The Ducks last had a team in 1980-81 and were relegated to club status because of budget cuts until Kilkenny built a plan to reinstate it in 2009.
“I’d say in most cases, baseball is considered to be an all-American sport,” said Kilkenny, who served as Oregon’s AD from 2007-09. “How can you compete in major college athletics and not play baseball? That was my feeling about it.”
The moves to restore baseball at Oregon were swift and controversial. Kilkenny dropped wrestling, calling it a “niche sport the conference really didn’t support at all,” and he added women’s competitive cheering to remain Title IX compliant.
Baseball at Oregon required considerable funding because the team didn’t have a stadium, so Kilkenny rounded up a group of supporters to secure money from boosters and sponsors. Some donated in the hundreds of thousands and even the millions.
“Our baseball community had been disenfranchised,” Kilkenny said. “Baseball was the first sport ever played at Oregon. There were a lot of people that really didn’t feel like they were a part of Oregon anymore because we didn’t compete in baseball.
“We received in certain cases very meaningful gifts from some donors. They were able to feel like they were a part of the university again. Was it easy? No. By no means. Like everything, you need to have people champion causes.”
Kilkenny, who made substantial money in the insurance business, contributed $4 million himself toward the construction of the baseball stadium, now named PK Park in his honor. Oregon raised $11 million up front from donors and sponsors, Kilkenny said, and borrowed $10 million to cover the entire cost of building its $19.2 million baseball park and starting a program.
Kilkenny noted he wouldn’t have pushed for baseball without the full support of the school president and a desire to compete at the highest level of the sport. He also was confident the baseball program would eventually make money rather than be a drain on the athletic department.
But while Kilkenny’s sentiment sounds like a nice story brimming with optimism, the financial realities reveal a far more complex tale. Only football and men’s basketball generate a profit at Oregon, much like at other major universities.
According to NCAA Equity in Athletics Data Analysis (EADA) numbers for the 2011-12 school year, Oregon’s baseball program suffered a net loss of $1,179,782. The baseball program brought in revenues of $1,007,238 but had expenses of $2,187,020. According to Craig Pintens, Oregon’s senior associate athletic director, the net loss is expected to be similar in 2012-13 when the final numbers are tallied.
And those numbers, Pintens said, do not include debt service on PK Park.
Ron Krohn continues to live with the pain of losing Wisconsin’s baseball program. Krohn played for the Badgers from 1959-63 and was Richter’s roommate on the team all those years ago. Though he recognizes why his good friend ultimately dropped the sport, it is a decision with which he does not agree.
Krohn spent 19 years as president of the Dugout Club after baseball was cut. Much of his time was devoted to championing baseball’s return to the university as a full-fledged NCAA sport. In recent years, he said the athletic department had rebuffed any interest.
As it stands, in-state high school athletes have only one Division I baseball option: the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The rest of the state’s talent plays at the Division III level, where schools cannot offer athletic scholarships, or at Division I schools out of state — a situation Krohn deems unacceptable.
Krohn said the Dugout Club met with former Wisconsin deputy athletic director Shawn Eichorst, who worked at the school from 2007-09. The Dugout Club asked for the opportunity to try to drum up money to restore baseball. But the department’s reply was it had so many other issues that it would find another place for the money even if the Dugout Club could obtain considerable cash to endow the sport.
“There’s still a groundswell of people that are trying to get it back,” Krohn said. “Most of the people we talk to are for it, but they don’t know where to go and how to try to get it back.
“It’s almost embarrassing now that we have Rutgers and Maryland joining the Big Ten. That’s 14 schools, and 13 of them have baseball. We don’t. That’s embarrassing, I would think. But if it’s all about the bottom line, we don’t have much to talk about. It’s not going to make money.”
And therein lies one of the central points likely preventing Wisconsin from reviving baseball. There is little evidence to suggest the athletic department would make any money, leaving next to no incentive to restore the sport.
Indiana, for example, has one of the top baseball teams in the Big Ten this season. According to EADA reports submitted by the school for the 2011-12 school year, Indiana baseball suffered a net loss of $1,175,803 when including coaching compensation, player scholarships and sport expenses.
In fact, four Big Ten programs lost more than $1 million on baseball the same school year: Indiana, Michigan ($1,445,925), Ohio State ($1,139,340) and Iowa ($1,009,227). Big Ten teams collectively lost $9.1 million on baseball. As a means of comparison, Big Ten football programs generated a profit of more than $294 million, which helps to cover the bulk of nonrevenue sports costs. Wisconsin’s football program generated a profit of $24 million, which contribute to nonrevenue sports funding.
In addition to the net loss Wisconsin’s athletic department would almost assuredly take for baseball, Justin Doherty, Wisconsin’s associate athletic director for external affairs, said the athletic department would have to add a women’s program to remain Title IX compliant. Whether that sport was rugby, field hockey, lacrosse or cheerleading, it would likely double the expense of adding baseball and generate little revenue.
Men’s teams already receive 55 percent of athletically related student aid at Wisconsin compared to 45 percent for women, and the 11.7 scholarships available for baseball would tip the balance even further out of line. Those numbers are supposed to be proportionate to undergraduate enrollment. Women made up 51.6 percent of the undergraduate student population for the 2011-12 school year.
Wisconsin currently has 12 women’s sports and 11 men’s sports to make it Title IX compliant, having added women’s lightweight rowing (1995), softball (1996) and women’s hockey (1998) since baseball dissolved without adding a men’s sport. Doherty said there are currently no plans to revive baseball in the near future.
“The department has operated on a philosophy of trying to do what’s best to fund and fully support the sports we have,” Doherty said. “Once you start to stretch that, how much more difficult does it become to be as good broad-based as we want to be?”
Doherty noted the average number of sports offered at the 11 other schools currently in the Big Ten is 24.3, and four schools (Illinois, Nebraska, Northwestern and Purdue) offer fewer sports than Wisconsin.
Even if Wisconsin decided to add baseball, Doherty said, there would still be the matter of building a place for the team to play, which would cost millions and require several large donations from alumni — much as it did at Oregon. The softball team now occupies the old baseball stadium.
The cost for a stadium wouldn’t have to be $19.2 million as Oregon spent, but it would still be substantial. Minnesota began play this season in 1,420-seat Seibert Field. The total cost of the project was $7.2 million.
Though Wisconsin is no longer $1.9 million in debt as it was during Richter’s tenure, Richter said the department is essentially self-sustaining like most in Division I college athletics.
In 2011-12, Wisconsin’s total revenues and operating expenses each exceeded $100 million for the first time — one of 13 athletic departments to surpass that mark in 2011-12, according to USA Today. Wisconsin made a profit of $1.5 million.
So what do all these numbers mean for baseball’s return at Wisconsin? Will the final image of the program ever be different from the grieving group in black 22 years ago?
“Let’s put it this way,” Richter said. “It’s possible. But it’s not probable.”