In more than 30 years as a college baseball coach, Ed Servais has never had to inform players about the death of a teammate. He imagines what he was forced to do Thursday was the next worst thing.
Many in the room full of Creighton student-athletes had already seen the news on social media. But tears filled the eyes of many Servais had never seen so emotional as he verbalized a once-unthinkable notion — it’s mid-March and baseball season is over.
“For some of them, a little bit of them died today,” Servais said. “Because maybe they’ll never play baseball again, and they weren’t prepared for it.”
College baseball — like nearly every other professional and collegiate sport in a 48-hour whirlwind — absorbed an unprecedented blow from the coronavirus pandemic that culminated Thursday with the NCAA announcing the cancellation of all winter and spring championships. That includes the College World Series, which has run uninterrupted since its inception in 1947. It moved to Omaha in 1950.
Servais, like most in the sport, felt a dread of inevitability Wednesday evening as NCAA basketball league tournaments around the country were called off. Creighton lost at Minnesota 5-4 that night, with players lethargic and the crowd unengaged. In more than 30 years of coaching, he had never felt anything like it.
ESPN college baseball analyst Kyle Peterson, who lives in Omaha, was shocked when the announcement to nix the CWS came just after 3 p.m. There may eventually be a need to wipe out the championship, he said, but that decision shouldn’t be made 93 days before the start of the sport’s showcase event. Five days ago, the coronavirus was barely on anyone’s radar. So who can predict that far into the future?
“I would like it to be a fluid discussion instead of a blanket no,” Peterson said. “That just seems fair to everybody.”
If public health risks return to normal in 4-6 weeks, he added, he and the baseball community aren’t ready to throw away the 2020 season just yet. They could ramp back up and still crown a champion in the summer.
“And if the NCAA doesn’t want to call it the College World Series, we’ll come up with a different name,” Peterson said. “That’s fine. That’s an easy social media discussion to figure out what we’d call it. But I know that the kids deserve it if it’s safe.”
If, however, the season really is over, it creates “millions” of questions. What happens with player eligibility? At the least, Peterson said, seniors should have the option to return in 2021. The NCAA would conceivably need to increase roster size from 35 to around 40-45. A scholarship bump from the standard 11.7 would also seemingly be necessary.
Servais said every immediate question should center on the players. At Creighton, all students are asked to leave campus and go home to take online courses until April 13. That means no team workouts and no face-to-face support in the aftermath of a shocking turn of events.
Creighton (5-10) has seven seniors while UNO (10-4) has 10. Nebraska (7-8) has six, including pitcher Gareth Stroh, who sat out all of last season as a transfer for one chance to compete for his home-state team.
UNO coach Evan Porter wrote on Twitter Friday that he is "heartbroken" for the seniors on the Mavs' roster.
"(NCAA) — when making upcoming decisions on eligibility, roster size, scholarships... please do what's right and put the student athlete's interest first. Please be understanding and creative. When college baseball comes back, make it even better," Porter wrote.
Nebraska asked coach Will Bolt to decline interviews until more details become known.
A variety of Husker players voiced their reactions on social media. “This can’t be real ...” said infielder Jaxon Hallmark. “Worst day of our lives,” shortstop Spencer Schwellenbach wrote.
And sophomore pitcher Cade Povich: “Whether it’s for a day, a year, or the rest of our life, a piece of everyone who loves the game has been taken away from them.”
Servais met with each of his seniors individually, telling them he would support them however he could moving forward. What will he do the next few weeks without baseball? Try to get over the shock, for starters.
This blow could actually help the sport find meaningful change in the long term, Peterson said. It brings attention to the limited scholarship total. It could lead to permanently bigger rosters. It might galvanize fans and schools if a return to action is possible this year.
But college baseball won’t be played this March or April, which Servais said “hurts desperately.” And he’s certainly not ready to experience Omaha without its biggest annual summer tradition.
“It’s never good to disappear, and basically college baseball is going to disappear for a few months,” Servais said. “It’s going to be so strange to have a June without the College World Series in Omaha. I can’t even imagine how it’s going to feel. It’s going to be eerie.”