There is a sense of excitement around the Long Beach State athletic department these days. The 49er baseball team is having one of its best seasons with a Big West Conference championship and a No. 4 national ranking.
As a result, school officials feel there should be a reward. In college baseball, that means being selected as one of the 16 host sites for the NCAA regional playoffs that will begin next weekend. Those sites will be determined today after the Division I baseball committee convenes in Indianapolis.
There is also a nervous feeling attached to that excitement. Long Beach has never been selected to play host despite being one of the most consistent programs in the nation. And when nearby Cal State Fullerton is ranked third with a successful track record in hosting regionals, there is a feeling below the bubbly optimism that the 49ers will be denied again.
“The reaction would be ... outrage may be a strong word, but certainly there would be claim of unfairness,” said Bill Shumard, Long Beach State’s athletic director. “We think we’ve done everything we could this year as much as any year that I’ve been here and maybe over the last 15 years.”
On the surface, it appears that four Western teams -- Long Beach, Fullerton, Stanford and Arizona State -- are not only in position to be regional hosts but also garner four of the eight national seedings when the field is announced Monday. If they are selected, it would be the first time regionals go to four teams in the West since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1999.
Long Beach and Fullerton have strong cases. The 49ers are 39-19 while playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules and won its first conference title in six years. Fullerton (43-13) finished one game behind the 49ers and won four of six meetings this season.
Both programs submitted bids over the NCAA-required minimum of $35,000. Long Beach is believed to have submitted a $50,000 bid to host, where in previous years it bid the minimum amount. It also has a tournament-ready facility in Blair Field, which has received a number of upgrades over the last decade.
USC Coach Mike Gillespie wonders whether the committee will reward both.
“Certainly both Long Beach and Fullerton could host and should host,” Gillespie said. “I’ll be dumbstruck if Long Beach doesn’t host this year. Everyone anticipates that it’s way overdue for them.”
The concern over the Long Beach bid runs from the generally low attendance figures at 49er home games this season to the fear that if both Big West schools were granted regionals, the turnstiles would be affected and the chances for a profit evaporate.
Though a robust home schedule helped bring out the second-largest season attendance this year, Long Beach averages a modest 1,160 in 3,000-seat Blair Field. By contrast, Fullerton averaged 1,730 -- the best among area teams -- and also has the knowledge that it will likely sell out Goodwin Field in the postseason as it did in the NCAA super-regionals two years ago.
Longtime Louisiana State baseball Coach Skip Bertman, who is now the school’s athletic director, is a member of the committee. Bertman said the allure of six-figure paydays from college baseball hotbeds can be tough to ignore and acknowledges that schools with a good track record in hosting carry some weight.
“If you take a school like Mississippi State that puts in a much higher bid than the minimum, knowing they will sell 7,000 tournament booklets before the thing even begins, the NCAA knows there’s no risk because they’re going to fill the house. It’s the same in places like LSU, Florida State or Texas.
“The draw is an attraction to the committee members. On the other hand, there used to be eight regionals and now there’s 16. Teams that never had sites before have had them the last two years. I think [the committee] wants to give them to the most deserving people.”
Shumard is confident people will come out to see the 49ers at home.
“This is Southern California,” he said. “I’ve worked this whole marketplace and I know how terribly difficult it is with so many different things to do. But it’s a good baseball town. I think our fans would recognize the significance of this.”