The Pacific 10 Southern Division is, arguably, the best baseball conference in the country. Its champion almost always advances to the College World Series and, more often than not, wins. At worst it finishes second, third or fourth. Sometimes, even its second-place team qualifies.
This season, the conference again will be strong, but there's a distinct possibility that its best team will stay home when the NCAA tournament begins.
Arizona State, which has won three of the last four Southern Division titles and appears good enough to capture another, is ineligible for postseason play.
The school's baseball program has been placed on probation for two years by the Pac-10 for violating the NCAA's work-study rule. The Pac-10's investigation found that five players had received excessive financial aid.
In addition to the two-year probation, the Pac-10 also stripped the Sun Devils of their 1984 conference title, took away 14 scholarships over the next four years and declared the players--pitcher Doug Henry, left fielder Todd Brown, third baseman George Lopez, designated hitter Charles Scott and reserve first baseman Ted Dyson--ineligible.
However, the NCAA subsequently ruled that the players would have to miss only 25% of the season, meaning they'll become eligible after 16 1/2 games.
"We haven't decided what's going to happen in the 17th game," Sun Devil Coach Jim Brock said. "Do they become eligible in the fifth inning, or what? But the whole thing is extremely disappointing."
Brock said the sanctions have caused a greater motivation among the players, especially for Pac-10 games. "Our big goal is to end the year as the top-ranked team, as always," Brock said. "But if we're 30-0 in the Pac-10 and everybody else is 15-15, that would be nice. That's what we really want."
Brock lost some valuable players from a team that went 55-20 (23-7 in Pac-10 play), swept the West II Regional and placed fourth in the College World Series. The most notable was All-American center fielder Oddibe McDowell, who batted .405, hit 23 homers, drove in 74 runs, scored 101 runs and stole 36 bases.
But the Sun Devils still are loaded with talent. Among the key returnees are Barry Bonds (.360, 11 homers, 55 RBIs, 30 steals), who moves from left field to center; Brown (.366, 15 homers, 63 RBIs), first baseman Louie Medina (.318, 17 homers, 67 RBIs) and catcher Don Wakamatsu (.311, 5 homers, 44 RBIs).
Brock usually recruits well, and he has another good group. The top newcomers are Rick Morris, a second baseman from Scottsdale Community College who led the nation's JC players with 24 homers, batted .490 and had 59 RBIs, and shortstop Keith Bennett from Laney College, who batted .357 last season.
Henry, a hard-throwing right-hander who was 11-2 with a 3.20 ERA, saved three games and had 93 strikeouts in 112 innings. He heads a deep pitching staff that also includes left-hander Gilbert Villanueva (6-3, 3.10 ERA) and right-hander Jeff Roberts (6-4, 3.91 ERA).
Stanford (38-26-1) returns almost everyone from the team that finished third at 18-12 (USC also was 18-12, but the Trojans won the season series, four games to two, to take second place in the conference) and the Cardinal placed second in the West II Regional.
Usually one of the country's better defensive clubs, the Cardinal ranked seventh in team fielding last season. Among those back are second baseman Pete Stanicek and shortstop John Verducci, the league's--and perhaps the nation's--best double play combination.
Arizona was fifth last season at 11-19, its worst record since joining the league in 1979, and its overall record of 22-36 was the poorest in school history.
The Wildcats look to be much improved this year, but whether they will be good enough to move up in the standings remains to be seen.
Arizona does have one of the country's premier pitchers in left-hander Joe Magrane, who was 9-7 with a 4.21 ERA and led the league in innings pitched (126), strikeouts (111) and complete games (10).
California, fourth at 12-18 and 37-30-1 overall, had its best season since 1980, the year it finished second in the Southern Division and third in the College World Series.