Big-time winning begets big expectations, regardless of sport. Arkansas basketball went through this with the Nolan Richardson era only to be followed by too many seasons of mediocrity. And with expectations comes varying degrees of fan base reality, supported by a litany of unattainable game-by-game results whether for the team or player.
In the big picture, Arkansas baseball has reached an all-time high with fan interest ranging from the don’t-miss-a-pitch diehard to those who have jumped on the bandwagon in the last few seasons. Similar developments have happened at LSU, Mississippi State and other tradition rich baseball schools.
For all the success Razorback baseball has experienced, especially of late, the consistently highly-ranked Hogs’ performance apparently isn’t good enough from what’s become an outspoken group of naysayers on social media. Check out any of the social media channels after the admittedly perplexing 5-0 Game 3 loss to Vanderbilt on Sunday and it’s remarkable how many “Keyboard Coaches” opine about Razorback baseball.
Fans are entitled to opinions, frustration, etc. but the volume of rants and second guessing of the coaches and players has grown tiresome. Sometimes, it seems like particularly vocal fans are complaining about a run rule versus securing yet another win.
The Arkansas baseball players themselves have taken notice, as evidenced by former ace Patrick Wicklander’s tweet after the Hogs’ series loss to now No.6 Texas A&M in College Station:
His Twitter feed is littered with retweets and comments coming to defense of the program and his former teammates because the negativity from the fanbase, sometimes even after a win, has become a lot to handle.
Current players on the roster are paying attention too. Check the below tweet from Jalen Battles regarding the social media criticism of Jaxson Wiggins after a rough start against Ole Miss. Proving once again that the fan base needs to trust Dave Van Horn, Wiggins has been very effective against a hot hitting Auburn squad and a peaking Vanderbilt team. The stuff is there and he is growing as a pitcher. If fans will recall, Isaiah Campbell was similar in his first couple of seasons then turned into a bonafide ace as a junior leading the Hogs to Omaha.
FEEDING THE MONSTER
College baseball has reached the point where teams are slotting themselves into a handful of categories in regards to the race to Omaha. There are the “locks” that are playing for home field advantage as long as they keep winning. Then we’ve got the teams firmly in the tournament but looking to improve their lot and avoid the national seeds. There’s another group trying to creep into the field over these last couple of weekends and get on the right side of the bracket bubble. And finally, the teams out of the postseason picture with players either ready to move on to summer baseball and/or the transfer portal.
The #7 Arkansas Razorbacks (37-14/17-10), coming off a tough series loss to Vandy, would fall into that first bucket. Coach Dave Van Horn has steadily built the Razorback baseball program to a point where it is a legitimate national powerhouse hunting a coveted top 8 national seed year after year after year. The momentum of the back to back trips to Omaha in 2018 and 2019 and spending nearly the entire 2021 regular season ranked #1 has carried over into 2022 with the Hogs firmly in the top 10 (and mostly in the top 5) since opening day.
The Diamond Hogs currently sit atop the SEC West standings tied with Texas A&M. If DVH’s charges can handle Alabama this weekend in Tuscaloosa, this will be the Hogs fourth straight SEC West title. Texas A&M plays the red hot Ole Miss Rebels in Oxford to close out their regular season.
Four straight SEC West titles would be a remarkable feat. Especially given the number of quality teams that were on that side of the division the last handful of years. Mississippi State went to Omaha in 2018, 2019 and of course won it all last season (after being swept in Starkville by the Hogs during the regular season). Auburn was at the College World Series in 2019. Ole Miss has been strong, some may also say underachieving, in that time frame. LSU is LSU although they’ve been below their standard. Alabama has been gaining some ground with an upgraded stadium and talent level.
HATFIELDS & McCOYS
The social media channels have brought two factions within the fan base to the masses. Wins bring out the optimistic, always cheer for the Razorbacks contention. The trust in DVH is strong, win or lose. By their view, his track record over the long haul gets him a free pass when a hit and run fails or not electing to bunt runners over ends up in a scoreless inning.
Then compare that to the comments after the game 3 and series loss to Vandy. There you will find the contingency that critiques every coaching move and player performance with a surplus of nearly insufferable second guessing with all the conviction in the world they have a better feel for things than DVH and his staff. Anyone reading those comments would think Razorback baseball was on par with the bottom third of the SEC versus a perennial contender for a SEC and/or national championship.
Social media has created what amounts to a fantasy world where if you read the postgame comments from the fan base, the Hogs should hit every pitch, catch every ball and never walk a guy. The way some fans appear to see it, all the other teams should just hand the Hogs victories because we’re Arkansas and they aren’t. Anything short of Omaha is considered a bust.
The odds Coach Van Horn cares about what “Joe Public” has to say about him or his coaching moves on social media is slim. He’s a veteran coach and knows fan criticism comes with the territory. The fan base loves you when you’re rolling and your biggest critic when you aren’t. Coach Eric Musselman has likely felt the same with some of the Hogs early season struggles the past two seasons only to end up in the Elite Eight each time.
The players, on the other hand, live heavily on social media. If you don’t think they see the over the top criticism and negative jargon, you would be mistaken.
Rest of the column is below:
BEFORE THE MADNESS
Thank goodness social media wasn’t around when I played for the Hogs in the early 1990s. We were making the transition from the old SWC to the SEC and frankly were just OK. The style of baseball between the two leagues couldn’t be more opposite and we weren’t built to hang where the three-run homer ruled and first-round draft pick pitchers loomed. We couldn’t compete with the likes of LSU (who won it all when I was a senior in 1993) and Mississippi State. They beat our brains out for two seasons. 0’fer. Auburn was pretty decent in those days so we battled for the middle of the pack ahead of Alabama and Ole Miss.
My mother’s feelings likely would have been hurt if she read things about me after a rough outing like some of the stuff that is out there nowadays.
Of course the fan interest wasn’t where it is today back then. Plus, there was no way to watch every game. We were lucky if we played on television once or twice a season. We weren’t the household names some of today’s players have become. (This isn’t a jealous take from an old head: I am proud and entertained by how far the college game has come.)
But with all the access and stardom comes the “analysis” by the fan base. Some on target. A lot is way off.
ARKANSAS BASEBALL ACROSS THE BOARD
The Arkansas baseball fan activity online isn’t unique to Fayetteville. Just think how the fan base at Ole Miss is feeling about their players and Coach Mike Bianco who was #1 early in the season only to fall into last place in the SEC West until a recent hot streak. Still, Ole Miss lacks the tradition of the Razorbacks as Bianco is the longest tenured coach in the SEC with one trip to Omaha (2014) to his credit. DVH has been six times at the U of A and twice while he was at Nebraska. All hat, no cattle as the saying goes.
Or what about the fan base at Mississippi State? The defending and tradition rich national champs are likely outside looking in on making the tournament after losing their last nine SEC games. Yes, they lost their ace Landon Sims early in the season. But so did Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee just got their ace back. And now Florida lost friday night starter Hunter Barco is lost for the rest of the season. Sims, Palette, etc. would have changed their team’s respective seasons but none are entirely to blame for where their seasons have been.
Given Mississippi State’s spiraling downward season of late (losers of 9 SEC games in a row and a recent midweek loss to Samford (not Stanford), they likely fit into the previously mentioned bucket nobody saw coming after winning the national championship last year. I don’t dare read their fan base’s social media outrage. My screen may catch on fire.
Arkansas Baseball Fans: HAVE YOU NOT BEEN ENTERTAINED?
Interestingly, there have been eight different SEC teams ranked in the Top 10 this year. Ole Miss was once number one. Mississippi State was ranked #3. Georgia, Florida, Vanderbilt and now Texas A&M have all spent time in the top 10. Then there is Arkansas who has spent all 12 weeks within the Top 10 (coming off a 2021 season where they essentially were #1 the entire regular season). The Razorbacks also have led the SEC West from the get go until the final weekend. I’d say that is living up to the hype thus far.
If it wasn’t for Tennessee having a stratospheric season, the Hogs would be in striking distance of a repeat as overall SEC regular season champs.
The Razorback baseball team continues to be at a level that countless programs around the country would love to replicate. Golden Spikes award winners, conference championships, all conference players, high draft picks, former players in the big leagues and routine Omaha trips.
Until this past weekend’s series loss to a very, very good Vandy team, the Razorbacks had not lost a conference home series since 2019. My younger son, who works for the Razorback Communications Department, just finished his junior year and had never seen the Hogs lose a home SEC series since he was a wide eyed freshman. That’s quite a run. But for some, that doesn’t seem to be good enough.
CHASING THE NCAA BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
The only thing lacking is that elusive national championship. Mississippi State was in the same boat last year as a premier program that hadn’t won the big one. Florida State has been to Omaha 22 times and hasn’t won a natty. Clemson and North Carolina are other powerhouses that haven’t raised the trophy yet either.
The lack of a national championship has created an element of the Razorback fan base that won’t be happy until that happens. With no real perspective on just how hard that is to do. That missing championship has likely created this vocal, negative segment of fans. Hard to make people happy these days I guess.
A common theme I’ve seen is with those facilities, DVH should have multiple national championships by now. Facilities don’t win national championships. They help with attracting and developing players, but just because you have a nice one doesn’t entitle a team to a championship. I do wonder how many people that lean on that angle actually gave any money to build the Baum-Walker or the Hunt Center in right field.
Uniforms don’t matter (see Oregon football). Pepsi instead of Coke at the concessions doesn’t matter. How many skybox suites there are doesn’t matter. The highest ranked recruiting class doesn’t matter. National championship teams, regardless of sport, are a combination of so many things (including luck) that the premise the Hogs should have multiple national championships because Baum-Walker is a premier stadium and the Hunt Center is state of the art is mind blowing. Sports don’t work that way.
Arkansas may not win the Alabama series to finish the regular season. Arkansas may not win the SEC West. The SEC matchups are a coin toss every single weekend. Throw the records out the window. Just ask Tennessee who looked unbeatable, then ran into Kentucky who was having an OK season up to that point and followed that performance with a series to floundering South Carolina this past weekend.
And for reference, the Razorbacks didn’t have the worst weekend in the top 5. Last week’s #2 Oregon State, who many experts deemed the only club that could defeat Tennessee, lost 2 of 3 to Arizona. But former #3 Oklahoma State topped that going 0-4 including being swept at home by Texas Tech. Week to week in baseball is a grind. Really good teams don’t play well and when that happens against a decent to good team, they lose. Nobody is immune to that. Not even our beloved Razorbacks.
Arkansas may not be one of the eight national seeds. It will take a dominant series win at Alabama and a SEC Tournament run to determine where they land in the seeding process. The Hogs’ RPI is down 10 spots to No.29 so they have work to do. But hosting doesn’t mean fans should book their hotel room in Omaha. Hogs hosted in 2006, 2007, 2010 and 2017 and didn’t advance to the College World Series.
If fans haven’t learned by now…nothing is guaranteed in baseball. The overall #1 seed going into the tournament hasn’t won the national championship since 1999. Vanderbilt went an amazing 25-3 in the SEC in 2013 and didn’t even make it to Omaha. So be wary of handing Tennessee the trophy so soon as the odds aren’t in their favor.
Fans also would also benefit by coming to realize Arkansas isn’t a shoe-in for an annual trip to the College World Series. The 2018 team that played for the national championship lost all five SEC road series. The 2022 Hogs seem to be torn to pieces for losing a road game, much less a series. FYI fans…Texas A&M is really, really good and the Hogs lost two one-run games. Florida is no slouch either with high draft pick prospects all over the diamond. And Vandy looks to be playing as good as anyone in the league right now with loads of talent.
The over-the-top expectations and rampant criticism puts undue pressure on a team that already plays the hardest sport to succeed while competing in the toughest conference in the country. Former All SEC outfielder/DH Matt Goodheart spoke about it recently on a podcast with John Nabors.
Remarkably, Razorback baseball is 237-92 (72% winning percentage) from 2017 (including the shortened 2020 COVID season) through today. That’s not one season…this is over 4.25 seasons. That’s an incredible amount of success that any coach would covet. Top five rankings abound and two College World Series trips while one run away from a third.
RAZORBACKS’ FUTURE IS BRIGHT
A national championship in baseball is coming to Fayetteville. When? Who’s to say. There’s no timeline on that kind of thing. But there is no question the program is knocking on that door and ready to kick it down.
Coach Van Horn would love nothing more. He surely isn’t coaching, recruiting and strategizing to push a championship off to sometime in the future. DVH wants one sooner than later for him, his assistants, his players, former players, the fans and his alma mater.
The assistants want the same. That is why they are at the University of Arkansas ducking other offers including Major League Baseball. Coach Nate Thompson’s offense is under fire like nothing I’ve ever seen from a winning program. Nevermind the Hogs have been an offensive juggernaut under his tutelage every season since he’s stepped on campus. Including leading the nation in home runs last year. The offense hast taken a slide back this year but hitting is also down across the MLB. The advent of the shift, analytics and desiring the three run homer over bunting and running has it fair share ups and downs.
Questioning Thompson’s ability to lead the Razorback offensive attack is simply ludicrous. If he stacks up multiple underperforming seasons…let’s talk.
Same can be said for the players. Every kid in that lineup wants to be on the first Razorback team that hoists up the trophy. They aren’t striking out with the hopes of skipping Omaha. They aren’t walking batters to end the season sooner.
When the Hogs win one…will the expectation be back to back? Nevermind how rare that is.
Remarkably difficult expectations to meet are nothing new to sports and aren’t going away anytime soon. Arkansas players are already held to a high standard by the program itself.
Van Horn recruits a certain kind of player with skills that align with the successful players before them. Pressure to perform and keep the program at the highest level is real. The players know the expectations of DVH’s program from the classroom, to the weight room to the diamond. Otherwise they wouldn’t have signed on with Arkansas baseball. The pressure to perform and compete for wins, playing time, etc. is as high as anywhere in the country.
All without a fan base coming out of the woodwork to castigate the coaches, team and players without prejudice.
Having a portion of the fan base unrealistically elevate the expectations and perceived requirements to play for this proud program is not productive for the long run. Failure is big part of baseball and the Razorbacks aren’t immune to it. That’s reality. The Hogs have shown the ability, year after year, to minimize the failure part of the game (ultimately that’s winning and losing) a lot less than a vast majority of the D1 programs.
In other words, there are a lot of athletic directors, coaches, players and fans who wish their baseball program was as good as the Arkansas Razorbacks.
RISE ABOVE, RESIST THE URGE
Let’s be better than that, Razorback fans. Next time someone boots a ground ball or strikes out with the bases loaded, resist the urge to peck away on that smartphone and vilify the offending player.
You and the program will be better for it.
Brent Birch was a four year letterman under legendary Coach Norm DeBriyn and including the Razorback’s 1990 Southwest Conference Championship team. Birch was also on the first Razorback team to play in the SEC in 1992. He won the Bill Dickey Award in 1993 that was traditionally awarded to the top senior at the University of Arkansas. Birch still ranks in the Razorback’s career top 10 for games started (42) and innings pitched (272.2). He currently is the Executive Director of the Little Rock Technology Park.
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