How do you know which college to choose? First, figure out which college not to choose. And then go learn about these schools and give them a chance. You might be quite surprised at what you find there.
We all have ideals when we are young of what the dream college is like, and what the dream college baseball program should be. We have certain criteria we say we will not deviate from. “No, I am not playing in the cold weather. No, I am not playing for that type of coach. No, I am not going to school in a large city.” Some of these that are close to our heart make sense to never deviate from. But for other criteria, we should keep a more open mind and not lose sight on what is truly important in making your college (baseball) experience great.
I ask of you when trying to decide where to play baseball to list out what is actually important, and what only seems to be important. So what is not important? To me… a football team, a Nike contract, maybe even the location. Now let me explain…
What makes a great college experience, and within that a great college baseball experience? I would argue culture. Go find a culture where you can fit in. Culture has a broad definition but in this context it means a place that shares your values. Some people for example may say, “I refuse to go to a college far away from a major city.” This is a mistake (and not a value!). Most colleges are cities in their own right (obviously above a minimum size). My point is to learn to look beyond the initial reaction to the inner workings and culture of the school.
So here is a list of what you should consider:
Criteria #1; Academics. Hopefully you are getting recruited to multiple schools which will narrow down your choices. If you are looking to walk-on, you may have a wider net. Regardless, cross off any schools not making your academic cut. Not challenging enough? It is a long term mistake to play down to the competition, this includes in the classroom. Only go if you are sure there are rigorous enough classes for you. On the contrary, if you are getting into a school that will be an academic challenge, think hard if you are ready for the grind. It may be a great play, but only if you believe you are truly capable (and believe me you most likely are.) Another thing to consider; is your area of study missing? You should be very sure you can find a major you will enjoy and that promises a job/career afterwards. If academics won’t work, baseball can’t work.
Criteria #2; Meet the students. Ugly buildings don’t matter all that much. They truly don’t. Some of you may get lucky to walk around beautiful University of Virginia and marvel at Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece. But don’t worry if you are not one of those. I promise you an architectural vomit of boring concrete slabs erected in 1973 will not ruin your experience. It is the people in that building that could though. Make sure you can get along with the players on the baseball team. Are they all from a privileged area and a far cry from your youth? Can you see yourself hanging out with these kids on an idle Saturday night? Go find people who can become your friends.
Criteria #3; Baseball. Ok we can’t ignore baseball the whole time. I mean this will be your non-paid full time job to go along with that other full time job; school. The program should be at a level that extends your ability. This isn’t to say that it can’t be a place where you shine right away and become a freshman star. But it should still be a challenge. Go and push yourself. Look at their schedule over the last few years. Are they playing a lot of games in cold weather states? Do they travel a lot? Is that a good thing or bad thing? Can your parents watch you play? Is that important to you?
Criteria #4; Money. School costs money. Maybe going to a state school is a fair sacrifice despite the reputation not being quite as high (which certainly isn’t always the case). If you get a chance to play somewhere, and can afford it (and like the culture), don’t get caught up on the outdated dorms you will be living in freshman year. Being able to afford school is important. Work with financial aid and the coach recruiting you to find a package/option that works. Maybe it is athletic money. Maybe it is academic. Regardless, going to college is an investment into your future. Make sure you are getting a good value for it. (That doesn’t mean cheap. It means getting what you want out of your college experience though.)
So what are things that I did not mention as part of the criteria? Well this too has a list and is by all means not comprehensive. My point is simply to get you to understand what I believe is façade and not the actual substance.
Don’t ever go for a coach. Assume he will leave.
Don’t ever go just because you got a scholarship. It can be revoked at any time and it will end badly if the culture and academics are not a fit.
Don’t worry about a campus that doesn’t 100% fit your style. You will be far too busy being an athlete-student (gulp), student-athlete, to have time to worry about such small matters. Your time will be spent playing baseball, studying, lifting, going out on occasion, and playing baseball (yup more baseball). Let others spend time criticizing the lack of computers in the library or the fountain that you swear hasn’t worked since your first week on campus.
Not having a football team is a good thing. It means more resources for you and fewer 280 pound guys getting in the way in the weight room.
This is not to say you should be happy or not fight like heck to avoid/attract these things. The point is to be careful letting them be the dictating factor. Going to a football game on Saturday afternoon in the fall feels like it is a must for any college experience. But being in a good program and winning on the baseball field surely trumps this. In an ideal world most of the pieces of the puzzle fit. But do not be alarmed if not every piece comes together perfectly. You will be Ok as long as the criteria you hold true and dear remain. And so make sure when you visit a school you look under the surface. Don’t just read the two paragraph blurb and SAT scores and assume you know the school. Study it. Find out what a real “week in the life” really is.
The issue with all of this of course is that most of this you can’t know for certain. You may take a visit to the school, but how much does one night in the dorms really tell you? How do you really know what the culture of a school is? How bad will it really be having to train indoors for the first week of the season as the rain (or snow) continues to pound the campus with relentless force? The answer, do your homework and be at peace that you’ve made the most educated decision you possibly can. But please do your homework first. Treat this as the huge decision it is. And know that there is no right decision. Academics, baseball, finances, and culture all matter when selecting a school but there is no magic formula.
I personally claimed that from Connecticut I was not going to play ball anywhere north of Virginia. I ended up 3.5 hours further north in Upstate, New York. This is in the Snowbelt! But I found a place that had a great business program and who was offering me a Division I scholarship. The town was 50 years past its prime, but I found a group of guys on the team I knew I could get along with. Plus 3.5 hours was doable for my family to come up for weekends. The pros outweighed the cons.
Was it the right decision? I say yes. And this is after a very up-and-down four year career where many times I probably should have transferred. But it was because of all these pros that I stuck it out after our assistant coach, the one who had recruited me, left. Baseball became rocky at times, but despite the drawbacks I loved being there. I loved the balance of baseball, school, and social life. I loved being a Division I athlete.
I wish you the best of luck as you head to your next challenge in life. Remember, keep an open mind and trust your ability both on and off the field. Aim high, have plenty of good backups and wish upon the Baseball Gods that it will work out.