I still don't quite believe it: Iowa baseball is really in the NCAA Tournament. I'm not sure it's really going to sink in until Friday, when I see guys in black and gold, covered in tigerhawks, block Is, and baseball Herkys running around a field adorned in NCAA logos. Will it seem real then? Maybe? I don't know. Maybe it will still seem like the next part of a long, crazy hallucination that refuses to end. I mean, Iowa baseball in the NCAA Tournament? Are you nuts?
This NCAA Tournament appearance is about scratching an itch that I didn't even know existed. Being a sports fan is about longing and anticipation, about the journey as much as the destination. The triumph is always good, but it's always sweeter when obstacles have been defeated, when barriers have been surmounted, when hardships have been overcome. As Iowa fans, we know all about the ache of anticipation. Iowa basketball's demolition of Davidson in the NCAA Tournament would have been intensely enjoyable under any circumstances, but it became so cathartic because of the 15 years we'd had to wait since Iowa's previous NCAA Tournament win. Likewise, when Iowa football finally returns to the Rose Bowl (a wait that's 25 years and counting now), the celebration will be euphoric -- there's a lot of pent-up excitement and longing for that trip.
iowa baseball's return to the NCAA Tournament doesn't feel quite the same way... mainly because it's hard to anticipate something that you didn't even realize was a possibility. As we've noted on several occasions, it's been 25 years -- a cool quarter-century -- since Iowa baseball made an appearance at college baseball's premier event. How is that different than the 25-year span since Iowa made the Rose Bowl? It's a good question, and I think there are a few explanations -- at least for me.
One, the myth-making machine around Iowa football is very potent -- much moreso than any similar apparatus around Iowa baseball. Iowa football is a bigger, more meaningful enterprise for fans; simply put, more people care about Iowa football than Iowa baseball. More people watch it, more people talk about it, more people write about it. I remember watching Iowa in the 1991 Rose Bowl (regrettably)... I have no recollection at all of Iowa baseball's appearance in the 1990 NCAA Tournament. I doubt I'm alone in that regard, either.
Two, Iowa football returning to the Rose Bowl has always felt plausible from watching the team over the years. Part of that stems from memories of watching them in past Rose Bowls -- if they could do it then, why not now? -- but more of it results from seeing good Iowa teams over the last two and a half decades come close to making the Rose Bowl. But for bowl politics in 2002, Iowa's streak of not appearing in the Rose Bowl would already be over. Iowa won a share of the conference title in 2004, but they team they shared it with (Michigan) got the Rose Bowl trip, thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker. Iowa was a whisker away from a Big Ten championship (and accompanying Rose Bowl bid) in 2009 as well. They came up short, but they came close enough to make you think that with a different result here or there that they could get it done in the future.
Conversely, while following Iowa baseball I never really got the sense that this team was on the verge of big things, that with a better result here or there Iowa could land themselves in the NCAA Tournament. The only time I can recall thinking that they might make the NCAA Tournament was in 2010, when Iowa lost in the finals of the Big Ten Tournament after an improbable and thrilling journey through the bracket. That's what I thought it would take: Iowa getting hot during the Big Tournament and riding that to a tournament championship and accompanying automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
The idea that they could make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection? That they could have such a spectacular regular season that they would be a no-brainer selection into the field of 64, even without the security of an automatic bid granted by a conference tournament championship? Yeah, that never really crossed my mind. Of course, part of that is down to the fact that the Big Ten is not exactly a baseball powerhouse most years. This year is a glorious exception, with the league sending a record five teams, but it wasn't that long ago that the conference was fairly regularly a one-bid league -- there was just one Big Ten representative in the entire field of 64 in 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2011.
I remember watching Iowa games when I lived in Iowa City in the early and mid '00s. Iowa didn't necessarily win a lot of those games in those seasons, but they did play some rather entertaining baseball (if you liked hitting, at least; if you were a pitching partisan, your soul was very sad). Look at some of the scores from 06-07: 17-13, 10-8, 9-7, 12-7, 16-7, 15-10, 17-12. They had a four-game series with Minnesota that year where the teams combined for 52 runs. 52! Of course, Iowa lost three out of four games.
And I still fondly remember a particularly insane game between Iowa and Minnesota from the following year: Minnesota won 17-14 in 11 innings, but Iowa managed to tie the game in the 7th inning with a 7-run rally that involved one -- one! -- ball being hit beyond the infield. How'd they do that? Well, six (!) walks and two consecutive wild pitches by Minnesota pitchers certainly helped. It was one of the strangest innings of baseball I can ever remember watching. (Speaking of wild pitches... I also swear that I saw an Iowa game around that same time that the Hawkeyes managed to win with a walk-off wild pitch. I can't find any evidence to confirm that in the Hawkeye Sports archives, but still: it happened. (I think.)
But now we have an Iowa team that's not just a lovable loser or notable for winning in weird ways (although this year's squad did win a game with a walk-off walk...). We have an Iowa team that's actually good. We have an Iowa team that's won a jaw-dropping 39 games so far, including a sparkling 19-5 record in conference play. We have an Iowa team that has very strong pitching and defense, which is a great foundation for success. We have a team that's fun to watch, that runs the bases hard and does all kinds of little things to improve their chances of winning. And we have a team that makes you rethink what Iowa baseball is capable of -- which is really fun.
So let's enjoy this team for just a little bit longer, whether their run ends this weekend, next weekend, or (in a truly wonderful world) in the College World Series in Omaha. Rick Heller is getting phenomenal production out of Jack Dahm's players and he's recruiting well, too, which gives us hope that this might be the beginning of continued success for Iowa baseball. But that success may not be as sweet as this first taste of glory that was so surprising and so unprecedented. For the first time in a very long time, Iowa baseball is back in the NCAA Tournament. Go Iowa Awesome indeed.