When Mark Kingston last met with his players on March 12, they all believed they would be starting SEC play the following day in an empty stadium at Founders Park.
Then, on Friday, March 13, they learned that they wouldn’t be playing for at least two weeks. Then, as they headed home to do their part to battle the spread of the deadly coronavirus, that date was pushed back to April 15. Eventually, with big events like the NCAA Basketball Tournament and the College World Series already canceled, they had to endure the traumatic news that their season was officially over.
“I think everybody has been dealing with it differently,” head coach Mark Kingston said Wednesday. “Disappointment obviously is an emotion that our team has.”
But, like all of his coaching colleagues, Kingston quickly switched into mentor role and reminded his players of the bigger picture.
“My message to them has been, there are much bigger things going on in the world and people are fighting for their lives and that is much more important than us playing baseball right now,” he said. “Their passion is baseball, baseball is a big part of their lives, but this is one of those moments in life where you get a reminder that there are much bigger things than baseball.
“So I encouraged our guys to understand that and use this to make them appreciate their gifts and their ability to play the game and some day we will be back on that field together, but until then we just need to do our part to help make this go away as quickly as possible.”
When they do return to campus and baseball activities, their team might not look all that different — which, strangely, will be a surprising and perhaps unsettling development.
Nearly half of Kingston’s players expected or hoped to be playing professional baseball next year, either after getting selected in the 2020 MLB Draft or signing a free agent contract. But for most, those plans are likely out the window now.
Thanks to COVID-19, which has wiped out the first month of the major league season, MLB is also making drastic changes. The draft is expected to be delayed at least a month and likely will be reduced from 40 rounds to as few as five. That means more than 1,100 players who expected to get drafted won’t, many of them college players. And while the players selected will still get the expected signing bonuses, free agents might be capped at $20,000, forcing many high school players to go to college and collegiate players to return to school.
The NCAA provided some much-needed relief for college players and an incentive to return to school by granting all spring sports athletes an additional year of eligibility, a move Kingston called “the right decision.”
The challenge, though, for college baseball programs will be managing what will be increased rosters. Seniors and grad transfers who decide to return to school won’t count under the NCAA’s roster and scholarship limits, but programs like South Carolina could still have way more players than normal.
“It’s a challenge for every coach around the country,” Kingston said. “There will be a lot more players in college baseball [next] year that would normally have been in professional baseball because of the draft being chopped down to such a small number compared to what we have done in the past.”
South Carolina could have four players return under the NCAA waiver in seniors George Callil and Graham Lawson and grad transfers Dallas Beaver and Bryant Bowen. Though all four hoped to move on to professional baseball, they have the option to return.
The bigger challenge is the potential return of more than 15 draft-eligible sophomores and juniors who had hoped to enter the draft but will now likely return. While Friday night ace Carmen Mlodzinski, a projected first-round pick, will likely move on to play professionally, juniors like Noah Campbell, Andrew Eyster and several junior-college transfers may now return for one more year. Kingston said he also expects draft-eligible sophomore Brett Kerry, a freshman All-American in 2019 and one of the team’s best pitchers, to return.
While that’s good for the 2021 team, it creates a maddening numbers crunch with a new top-five recruiting class also on the way. Some of the highly-rated recruits who might have gotten drafted may now choose to play college ball, a boon for the program but a problematic issue for coaching staffs.
Kingston and other coaches are having to tackle those problems under the same scholarship (11.7) and roster (34) restrictions as in the past. While returning seniors won’t count toward those limits, it will still leave a glut of players looking for playing time.
Kingston is hoping the NCAA will address those concerns as well by increasing roster sizes and possibly scholarship limits.
“We’re holding out hope,” he said. “We are still hoping the NCAA and the baseball council will understand the uniqueness of our sport. We are the only sport that has so many roster restrictions and has to deal with the major league draft out of high school, after their sophomore year, if they are eligible age-wise, and after their junior year. Now we are dealing with the coronavirus and there are so many factors involved, we are hoping the NCAA sits back and says, even if it’s only for one year, we need to try to help these players and these coaches manage an unprecedented situation.”
While the numbers crunch will work itself out, Kingston says the availability of more college players will increase competition and only enhance the game.
"Great players love competition," he said. "I think overall it will raise the level of college baseball around the country and as always the best players will play and you are going to get on the field because you’re playing at a very high level. That part I don’t think has changed.
"When you have a good program, you have more than one good player at a lot of positions anyway. I just think the challenge for coaches and players is to make sure that everyone is maximizing their ability and then the best players will play."