At this advanced point, the Atlantic Coast Conference’s
expansion efforts might be likened to some sort of bizarre baseball game
with the Big East. There’s two out (Syracuse and Boston College) and an
unusual full count (7-2) in the bottom of the ninth. Virginia Tech has just
stolen home but no one is sure what that means in terms of the score.
It all depends on Miami. The Hurricanes stepped up to the
plate on Thursday evening — and backed out and called time. They’ve
conferred with managers — from both teams — and are expected to step back
into the batter’s box at 4 p.m. today.
Miami’s at-bat is like the premise of a home run derby — all
or nothing. It’s either out of the park and out of the Big East or anything
else is an out and a loss for the ACC.
Managers Johnny Swofford of the ACC and Mike Tranghese of
the Big East are poised for one of the all-time Maalox moments. With one big
swing from Miami president Donna Shalala, one skipper will be a hero; the
other, a goat.
Several factors have made this game highly unusual. When the
first pitch was thrown, Virginia Tech was in the Big East dugout. The Hokies
were spitting sunflower seeds and riding the ACC with their Big East
teammates. In a rare move, Virginia governor-turned-sports-entrepreneur Mark
Warner cut a sweet deal for Virginia Tech to become a free agent and join
the ACC — in the middle of the game.
This game has had an abundance of switch hitters. Although
no one can match the Hokies in that regard, N.C. State’s Marye Anne Fox has
given a great individual effort. Miami appeared to be swinging from both
sides in the on-deck circle before its critical turn at the plate. But
whatever Miami does, the Hokies will go home winners.
Another factor that makes this game unusual is that Syracuse
and Boston College, the first two outs in the bottom of the inning, have
returned to pitch to Miami. The Hurricanes have a uniform hanging in the Big
East clubhouse. Make an out for the ACC and Miami will be welcomed back into
its old locker room with a hefty new contract to boot.
No one is sure how the specter of Notre Dame may impact
Miami’s at-bat. Swofford and Fox apparently have hopes of getting the Irish
into the ACC lineup. The ACC would love to bring in Notre Dame as a pinch
But Tranghese may have the Irish warming up in the bullpen,
which, like much of this unusual game, is obscured from public view.
The umpiring crew, the NCAA, has long since departed. On the
first call of the game, crew chief Myles Brand threw up his hands and
abdicated all responsibility to mediate. The sanctioning body that has
become the administering force is the bowl championship series. Its pockets
are full of television money and that’s a big part of why this game is so
important. In another unusual circumstance, Duke and North Carolina have
argued against every call that has gone in favor of the ACC expansion team.
The game, of course, is being played under protest — a
lawsuit in Connecticut is challenging the ACC’s recruiting practices and no
one is sure what effect that might have on the Hurricanes.
Being played on a growing national stage, the game — the
part of it that the public can see — has attracted some highly-interested
observers. The fan base of every practically every Division I-A college team
is watching because the repercussions from the outcome could be far-reaching
in their consequences.
East Carolina’s leadership is trying to figure who it should
If Miami goes to the ACC or stays in the Big East, they’re
wondering how each of those scenarios would impact the Pirates. ECU
chancellor William Muse has only said that North Carolina political
interests should check on the rewards involved in getting the Pirates into
the ACC lineup. But he knows it’s a long shot.
Muse knows the Pirates might look pretty spiffy in a Big
East uniform, too, and that appears to be a stronger possibility. Several
Conference USA schools apparently have been getting measured privately for
Big East jerseys. Some say Louisville has all but tied its shoes in Big East
togs. There would be a lot of room for ECU to grow in a Big East uniform and
yet it would still be a good fit.
One thing ECU fans can count on is that Muse knows how to
play this game as well as anyone the Pirates could have in his position.
North Carolina governor Mike Easley and UNC system president
Molly Broad are both in attendance but neither seems concerned about what’s
happening on the field. Easley is chatting on his cellphone and the snippits
of conversation from his end are largely dominated by comments such as, “No,
no, no ... veto” and “ ... they haven’t called me.”
Wait, the Governor is putting on his sunglasses. No, those
might be blinders. Maybe he doesn’t want to see what’s going on. Broad keeps
giving her coaches and players the same obvious sign, it’s — “you’re on your
own.” Now she’s giving the same sign to Muse.
People have been trying to steal signs the whole way
because, with the playing field obscured, it is one of few means to
interpret what’s going on. Virginia president John Casteen has been in the
influential position of coaching third base. He gave the Hokies the sign to
steal home, perhaps hoping they would be called out. It didn’t happen and
now the focus is on Miami.
Some old-timers say this game reminds them a lot of one
between the Big Eight and the Southwest Conference years ago. The Big Eight
became the Big 12 and the Southwest never played again.
The consequences of hardball between the Big East and ACC
may not be so severe but regardless of what Miami does — home run or out —
another strange dimension of this game is that it’s probably going to extra