Inside Pitch: How did you develop your passion for baseball?
Baseball was just one of those things that was always there. My mom would tell me that from the time I was little, everything that I could throw, I would throw; that wasn't necessarily a good thing. I had kind of a unique situation growing up- my dad would always play catch with me when he got home, but my mom would do it during the day if I wanted to, at least when I was little.
The College World Series also played into it because we went every year – my grandparents had tickets years ago, and they've been passed down to my dad. We posted up there for two weeks from the time I was born, basically.
IP: How does a kid from Nebraska end up at Stanford?
It happened because I had to recruit myself. It wasn't the way it is now with the Perfect Game showcases and everything else. It wasn't like you could go jump on YouTube and go look at somebody's video. I sent letters to about 50 schools, and just said 'here's who I am, here's my GPA, here's my stats.' I did that, and I would call them. I figured out what the long distance code was at our school, and I would go sit in the training room during my off period and I would call these places. Around three weeks later, there was a sign outside the teachers' cafeteria that said 'Who made these phone calls?' and it was Stanford, California; Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Fayetteville, Arkansas – every school I wanted to go to.
My dad was really good about it. We went to a few different camps – Georgia Tech had a camp that we went to, and we went to Stan Meek's in Oklahoma City – Stan is currently the Vice President of Scouting for the Miami Marlins. There were a few coaches that said they couldn't see me, but they trusted Sam's eyes and they asked me to go to one of his camps. I ended up going out to Stanford's camp and when they showed interest, it was a hard place to say turn down.
IP: As a freshman at Stanford, you threw 142 2/3 innings and 10 complete games. How big of a jump was that for you?
It was a huge jump for me. I don't know what the number was my senior year and in legion ball, but I bet it was 50 innings max. I had a back injury that kept me out for a few weeks, and it's not like the high school season in Nebraska is six months long anyway.
In retrospect, if I had to do it all over again, ten complete games was probably not the smartest thing in the world for me to do. At the time, I had the mindset that 'you have to come grab me to take me off the field' and I think you need that mindset. But for a kid that threw 50 innings the year before, [142+ innings and 10 complete games] is probably a little too aggressive.
People didn't think about it as much. You went out and you pitched and when you were done you were done, and whatever the pitch count was, it was. Thankfully, through studies and everything else that's been done, we're not seeing that nearly as much. I would love to see it come into the college game, where there has to be a pitch count for everyone to follow. It takes it out of the coaches' hands and I say that in a positive way. A lot of times, coaches are put into tough positions – leaving a guy out there might give you the best chance to win, but leaving a guy out there to go 125, 135, 145 pitches really isn't in the best interest of everybody. If you take that option off the table, I think it benefits everybody.
IP: Is baseball in the North/Midwest getting better or has it always been this good?
The common start date matters, but athletic department commitment is what matters most. If you look at the way Nebraska built theirs, when they brought Dave Van Horn in, they were still playing at an old-school park. When they moved into [Hawks Field at Haymarket Park], it recruited everyone else. I lived 50 miles away from Lincoln and I hardly got recruited by Nebraska. At the time the mentality, even from local kids, was totally different. Dave changed that, and he changed it immediately.
I use Dave because it's an easy example because I saw a lot of it, but then you look at what Gene Stephenson did at Wichita State when he got everything started. When you look across the country at the places that have made a commitment from a stadium and facilities standpoint, it's not a given, but it makes a difference. You look at Indiana and the run they they've had, the athletic department commitment made a big difference. Recruiting budgets go up, you can hire different coaches, and facilities go up. The kids that were going south because they didn't think some places cared about baseball are now taking a look at it, and the Midwest schools are getting a lot of those kids they didn't get before.
The talent was there before, but a lot of those players were leaving because they didn't think that option would be a true commitment to the game. That's changed.
IP: You made it all the way to the big leagues; why has your passion continued to stay with college baseball?
It's the best baseball memories that I have from age 18 on; significantly better than professional baseball. It's a little jaded just because I enjoyed the experience a lot more, but the other piece is just growing up around it more. That was our World Series, if you grew up in Omaha. The college guys, we were waiting by the bus, we were trying to figure out where teams were practicing, and whose hat we were going to buy that year. That's just what you did. Because of that, I paid attention to college baseball a lot more. My experience when I was actually playing was incredible, to be with Stanford and make it to Omaha. There was a significant pull to go back to college.
IP: Explain the wild ride you've been on as a college baseball analyst.
I got released in '03, and I had a job lined up to go work on the trading floor for Piper Jaffray back in Minneapolis. I couldn't play anymore – I wasn't good enough – and it seemed like a good opportunity. On a whim, I had my agent (Scott Boras) put in a call to ESPN. They happened to be doing the Super Regionals for the first time ever, putting them on Pay Per View.
Stanford was playing Long Beach State when Jered Weaver was there. They sent me out to do those two games and I thought that would be it. I did that but ESPN came back and asked me to come back and do the College World Series, and that was 12 years ago.
It's been kind of a weird ride because in the beginning there wasn't that much to do. In 2004 I did 50 major league games; I would do sidelines for one, be in the booth for another, do a game Monday and a game Wednesday, and I did the NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals and the Little League World Series.
Then the NHL strike hit in 2005, and they had all these windows that they had to put baseball on TV, because they didn't have hockey and there really wasn't a lot else to put on. So we would do games all over the country during the regular season. That was the first time I was doing a ton of games all over the college side, because there just wasn't anything else.
Then ESPNU came in a few years later and the growth of it continued to go, and it went from there. In a weird way, the NHL strike – from a college baseball standpoint – really helped get college baseball exposed on ESPN and ESPN2. Now you look at Pac 12 Network, the Big Ten Network, the SEC Network- they all need programming and in our world, that's a beautiful thing. It means that more and more games are going to be on.
The growth of it has been cool, and the other thing that's been cool is that ESPN and others have started to throw a lot more resources at it. The Bases Loaded thing we did last year was expensive – they had to put crews in a bunch of places that they otherwise wouldn't have, and it was a huge success. Fans liked it and I think the folks internally have decided to do more of it this year.
Of course, you've got to have a good, exciting product on the other side. Fans had to be interested in it. But at the same time, ESPN also had to have an interest in it too. Whether it was the NHL strike, or ESPNU, or a combination of everything else, it's just kind of all worked out pretty well for the last five or six years.
IP: Where is the college game headed?
KP: I think the biggest thing the NCAA has to get figured out right now is they need to realize that action and offense sells interest. That’s the way that the world works. They have deadened the game far too much by what they did (changing the bats). I don’t know if everybody knew how it would end up, but those changes have made it a game that is not nearly as interesting to fans as it was three or four years ago.
Changing the ball is an important step, and you can’t go back to the old days where guys are hitting 20 home runs and just flipping them out of the ballpark. You also can’t get to the point where your second baseman is a pretty good player but he doesn’t have a chance to hit a home run. That’s not the way the game was intended to be played either.
There’s somewhere in the middle. I don’t think we were that far off of it, honestly, the year LSU won the national title (2009). With the new ball, we’ll see, but that’s the one thing we’ve got to be careful of. It feels like we built up fan interest, the exposure’s better than it’s ever been from a media standpoint, stadiums, money and everything else that grows it...and now the games are boring. We don’t want to get in a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ kind of situation, and my fear is that if we don’t bring the offense back, we’re going to get there.
IP: If you were NCAA president for a day, what would you do?
I would make the NCAA as transparent as possible. I think there’s a bunch of mistrust from the NCAA. I would open every door possible so that everybody could see it. I would turn TD Ameritrade 90 degrees – I would move home plate to right field, switch the entire field. I would make sure that we seed [national seeds [ 1-16 instead of 1-8 ]. Sometimes two west coast teams are playing because they’re the closest, or two Texas teams are playing because they’re the closest.
It would be awesome if you could fully fund, but the college baseball scholarship piece is kind of a two-way sword. The biggest schools and the ones with the most money would be able to fund 20 or 25 [full scholarships]. Cal State Fullerton head coach Rick Vanderhook made a really interesting point last year that I had never heard anyone else make. He said he liked the scholarship level right where it’s at, and that if it went to 20 [full scholarships[, all the biggest athletic departments in the country ‘would crush us,’ because they’ve got money to do whatever they want.
I would love to have more scholarships because it would give kids more access to the game, but I also think that limited scholarships have brought in parity that at the end of the day has increased fan interest across the board. If there was a way to keep the parity and increase scholarships, I’m all in.