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Despite successful season, UI club baseball team lacking in support

BY DAN BETTENHAUSEN - SPECIAL TO THE DAILY IOWAN | JULY 27, 2011 7:20 AM

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Tim Lane and a handful of his teammates piled into his mother's Honda Odyssey, elbowing aside bat bags and luggage as the Iowa club baseball team began a long, cramped, uncomfortable journey to Columbus, Ga.

Fifteen hours and 900 miles later, the team arrived in Columbus to seize an extraordinary opportunity — the chance to play in the Club Baseball World Series.

"If it weren't for the parents, we wouldn't have been able to go," said Lane, a UI graduate and former president of the club. "I was one of the only people driving a van, and it was hard for people to spend on gas money.

"It was still cheaper than six days of university van use, [though]."

Even if it meant not using university vehicles and paying all expenses out of their own pockets, former pitcher and UIgraduate James Ferguson-Mahan said there was never any doubt the team would play in the club World Series.

"We knew we were going to Columbus, but we just weren't always sure how," he said. "We had to work not just to train but to afford to play as well."

Last spring, the team reached new heights when it defeated Colorado State in the Midwest Regional.

The Rams were the No. 1-ranked team in the country and, up until the game against the Hawkeyes, had never lost a regional tournament.

Iowa's victory translated to the first trip to the club World Series in team history. Although the team was eliminated after its third game, it recorded its first club World Series win by defeating Massachusetts-Amherst, 9-5, on May 28.

Despite achieving unprecedented success on the field, though, the club baseball team struggled to get students in the seats and to raise funds — not only to reach the club World Seris but also to last a full season.

Financial support and raising funds

In the current UI system, Recreational Services allocates funds to teams based on seniority. This places the baseball club at a distinct disadvantage, because it's one of the youngest of the roughly 40 clubs at the university, and the possibility exists that older clubs will receive more funds even if they have fewer members and lower costs.

Recreational Services' limited budget doesn't help matters. The university allocates only $35,000 to be distributed among the 40 clubs, and Ray Beemer, the associate director of the Field House and club operations, decides how the money is divided.

"How it works is that teams will receive money based on seniority," he said. "Every year, teams submit budgets, and we work from there to decide what money is given to them. And though baseball has been working up the ladder and received more funding after it made it to the World Series, it probably will only be able to receive what it got last season, if only a little more."

Former coach Jamie O'Meara doesn't agree with that system.

"While I understand why [officials] do it that way, I feel need should take precedent over length of existence," he said. "I'm not saying that we deserve the most money; the Hockey Club has more expenses than we do. All I'm saying is, it doesn't seem right that smaller clubs with fields or facilities they don't have to rent are getting the same funds as other clubs with more needs."

The baseball club received close to $1,100 for the full regular season. With a 27-man roster and $20,000 budget, that money covered little, and the team had to ask for $450 from each player. As a result, some players could not afford to play and left the team.

The team required more money to make up for those losses and for such expenses as equipment and gas for travel. However, driving the players' own vehicles saved money compared with renting university transportation.

With all of these financial constraints, raising funds became necessary.

"Our main sources of fundraising came from working at other university athletics events," said senior Greg Lagan, the team's current president and right fielder. "We had to work at the field hockey, soccer, volleyball, gymnastics, and swimming events — and even then, the team only made $50 per game or meet."

During periods when other sporting events weren't occurring, players asked their parents, grandparents, and other family members for donations. Once those outlets diminished, they resorted to begging and badgering.

After the team won the Midwest Regional, Lane and the other club presidents wrote letters and emails to Recreational Services and university President Sally Mason's office asking for money. The team received $1,000 from each office, but with more than $3,000 in travel expenses alone, the players still had to tap into their personal resources to make it down to Columbus.

"After the season was all said and done, we were still a little more than $600 in the red," O'Meara said. "I personally covered those costs so the players didn't have to."

Field use and fan support

One constant symptom of the team's financial troubles lies in where the it plays its regular-season games. For the past few years, the baseball club has driven more than 30 minutes to Cedar Rapids' Xavier High to play what are supposed to be home games.

While the players spoke highly of the good field conditions at Xavier, they admitted it's a struggle to play there every weekend — especially because the commute reduces the number of student supporters able to cheer them on.

"It made sense that, when the varsity team was playing the same weekends we were, that it got to use Duane Banks Field," said Wayne Horak, a graduated senior and the club's former club vice president and first baseman. "What I didn't understand was why we couldn't use it when our schedules didn't conflict."

Other players agreed with Horak.

"I never dreamed home field would be so far away," Lane said. "When I found out four years ago that we couldn't use the fields or batting cages because they didn't trust us to take care of them, I was insulted — I mean, we just wanted to play baseball. The only consolation is Xavier's fields are not only great to play on, they also are not terribly expensive to rent."

Junior third baseman Nick Peterson also found the continual weekend journeys frustrating.

"These games are supposed to be home series, but when you have to drive 30 minutes every weekend, it gets hard mentally," he said. "It also would be nice to be able to play at a field where more friends could come and watch. Hopefully, this trip to the World Series improves that."

Ferguson-Mahan looked elsewhere in the Big Ten to find a blueprint for a potential compromise.

"At the University of Indiana, the [varsity team] uses the club team as sort of a minor-league thing," he said. "I think something like that could work."

The future

The team faces another obstacle in addition to the field and finance problems. After last season, the Hawkeyes graduated 10 senior players, which means 12 of the 27 players next season will be juniors or younger.

O'Meara said he finds the youth of the team beneficial instead of a detriment.

"This has been a system that has proved itself to work," he said. "When I first started coaching, it was these seniors who were my first players, and I taught them a system they passed down to the younger guys."

O'Meara said he also hopes the World Series experience will translate to more success for the team in the future. He did, however, acknowledge the team still has something to prove.

"These guys are smart players," he said. "If they can take what I taught them and continue playing at a high level, not only will they be given more financial support and more fans, they will have the means to stay successful for many years."

Recently graduated seniors Lane, Horak, and Ferguson-Mahan said they also are confident about the team's future.

"Never in a million years would I have thought we'd make it to the World Series," Lane said. "While the young guys still have to learn the administrative side of the club, they now have a reputation to keep. [The club has] proven we aren't just a team here to throw a ball around."

Ferguson-Mahan agreed.

"[The team is] something to advertise now," he said. "This team is legit and is one of the most competitive clubs out there. I want people to come out and watch, not just to support their friends or their school. I want them to come watch a team that is out there to win a World Series."


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