The dream of bringing back baseball to the University of Wisconsin dies hard.
Ever since UW decided to drop baseball, along with men’s and women’s fencing and gymnastics, in response to a $2.1 million budget shortfall in 1991, baseball boosters have been trying to find a way to revive the sport.
The latest effort is being led by Jeff Block, coach of the UW club baseball teams, who has put together a 14-page proposal designed to show the feasibility of restoring baseball to the UW Athletic Department lineup.
Since his proposal started making the rounds a couple weeks ago, Block said he’s received an outpouring of support, much of it coming from people who can’t fathom why UW is the only Big Ten Conference school without baseball.
“I’ve probably been asked 5,000-plus times why there isn’t baseball at UW,” Block said. “It’s dumbfounding to them. Why can so many (NCAA) Division III schools in the nation provide a team, but UW-Madison is one of the top revenue-producing athletic departments in the nation and they can’t somehow find a way to have the national pastime.
“It’s a crying shame that we can’t find a way to get that done. It’s been a passion of mine and I’ve done a lot of research on it. Now just feels like the right time.”
A number of UW baseball alumni will be recognized Saturday between games of a doubleheader between UW and UW-Whitewater club teams at Warner Park. Block said six or seven former varsity players are planning to attend, along with up to 50 former club players. UW club baseball debuted in the spring of 2000.
Block’s baseball proposal attempts to address all the major issues, from the cost of starting and maintaining the program to Title IX implications to facilities for the team.
He said expenses for Big Ten programs average $1.4 million a year and that a UW team could operate for less by using Warner Park as its home field. He’s also heard from a number of donors who would be interested in funding a new on-campus ballpark when the time comes.
Block, who also operates Block Consulting LLC, said UW wouldn’t necessarily have to add a women’s sport to satisfy Title IX. Since dropping the five sports in 1991, UW has added three women’s sports — lightweight rowing (1995), softball (1996) and hockey (1998).
And even if it was determined to match baseball with a women’s sport, Block said low-cost options would include sand volleyball or making the cheerleading squad or dance team varsity sports. Lacrosse is a sport with growing popularity that could offset the 11.7 scholarships for the baseball program, he said, estimating that two sports could be added for $2 million to $2.5 million.
“What I’d really like is for the athletic department to say, ‘This is the dollar amount we’d need per year, can you get an endowment together that would pay for this?’ ” Block said. “There’s no reason that shouldn’t happen.”
But that doesn’t mean it will.
Justin Doherty, senior associate athletic director for external relations, said the department planned to respond to Block’s proposal but there was no interest in adding any sports to the 23 it already has.
“There are a couple reasons,” he said. “One, there’s a lot of uncertainty in college athletics right now regarding costs. And two, for years we’ve taken the approach that we want to be as competitive as possible in the sports we already support.”
That is pretty much what athletic director Barry Alvarez told the State Journal a year ago, in generally dismissing the possibility of a baseball revival.
Block said generations of baseball proponents have grown accustomed to resistance from the athletic department.
“That’s what we’re trying to change,” he said. “I’ve tried to approach the athletic department in the past and haven’t really gotten any acknowledgement from it.
“We’re not here to annoy them. I really want to work with them. This is just trying to catch their attention and open up that line of communication. The No. 1 goal is to partner up with them, but you have to get the conversation started first.”
And even if this attempt strikes out, Block said he and other baseball backers will keep swinging.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “I really hope Barry sees the light on this and wants to work with it and make it part of his legacy that he brought baseball back.
“There is an indomitable spirit. Baseball is alive and well and people are excited about it. It’s not going to go away.”