Chicago Cubs players who competed at big-time college programs decry conference realignment: ‘It’s just a shame’

When Nick Madrigal was evaluating his options to play baseball collegiately, he weighed two parameters heavily.

He wanted to stay close to home in Elk Grove, Calif., and the opportunity to play against some of the top talent in the country within the conference. Oregon State and the Pac-12 became the perfect fit for the Chicago Cubs infielder.

Those factors similarity influenced second baseman Nico Hoerner during his recruitment process that led the Oakland, Calif., native to Stanford.

The Pac-12 historically has served as a pipeline to Major League Baseball as a dominant conference. Five of the top six schools to produce MLB players are in the Pac-12, according to Baseball Reference. Stanford ranks fourth.

Conference realignment moves within the last month sparked by lucrative football TV deals carry massive implications beyond the gridiron. Nonrevenue collegiate sports and athletes in the Pac-12 will take a brunt of the fallout.

“It’s just a shame and something that doesn’t really line up with the intentions of college sports, I feel like, as far as being dominated more so by revenue than by the sports experience itself,” Hoerner told the Tribune. “It’s not generating the same amount of revenue, but just as far as the history of baseball players that have come from all those places, it’s pretty incredible and just really strange to picture what that’s like without the conference.

“That’s a shared experience for a lot of guys that I played against growing up and then played against in college and then now in the big leagues.”

Hoerner and Madrigal developed into first-round picks during their three seasons in college. Madrigal would prefer seeing the Pac-12 stay intact and let the conference’s football programs leave to realign elsewhere if they choose.

“It’s a shame to see it all being blown up,” Madrigal told the Tribune. “I understand that football brings in most of the money, especially at some of these big-time schools, but I don’t know if it’s worth hurting all the other sports, at least for Oregon State. If they were to go to, like, the Mountain West, that would be a huge jump down to competition level, just from the recruits to everything. It’s going to affect it big-time, so I don’t know what they’re going to do.”

USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon are joining the Big Ten next year and Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah are heading to the Big 12. That will leave Oregon State, Stanford, Cal and Washington State as the only teams remaining in the collapsed Pac-12.

“The Pac-12 has just so much history behind that league, and for it to get blown up in a quick amount of time, it’s a shame,” Madrigal said.

Patrick Wisdom spent three seasons at St. Mary’s, a Division I program in the West Coast Conference, and became a 2012 first-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals. The Gaels might be best known for their men’s basketball rivalry with Gonzaga, but their location created opportunities for Wisdom to play Pac-12 schools such as a freezing cold series at Oregon or facing Trevor Bauer and powerhouse UCLA.

“It definitely prepared me for the big leagues in terms of the high-intensity games and high-energy games,” Wisdom told the Tribune. “That college experience helps out more than just the baseball aspect. It’s also learning how to live with other people, a lot of time-management skills, the travel but also getting your homework done. So you’re learning a lot of life skills that prep you for pro ball for sure.”

As long as the emphasis remains on the student part of student-athlete, coast-to-coast conference expansion will present challenges when game travel requires longer trips and more time off campus. Non-revenue sports don’t all benefit from chartered flights, either, adding to travel complications, particularly for midweek series.

For the Cubs players who lived that balancing act, they struggle to envision how realignment will make the school part any easier.

At Stanford, two of the three academic terms fall during baseball season with their winter and spring finals overlapping. Hoerner recalled his girlfriend’s field hockey team at Stanford being part of a conference that included teams on the East Coast.

“The things that they had to do through finals and just academically in general was a really tough ask, traveling coast to coast,” Hoerner said. “It’s really, really tough, especially in baseball, playing four games a week and supposedly keeping up. It was a lot already, and adding more to that would be really challenging.”

Dansby Swanson’s time in the SEC shaped him into the player who went No. 1 to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015 out of Vanderbilt. He remembers not being highly regarded out of high school and how his three years of college ball molded him, providing “the ultimate growing experience” on and off the field.

The disregard of the impact on nonrevenue sports in conference-realignment discussions and the breakup of the Pac-12 had Swanson searching for the right words to avoid saying something that would get him in trouble.

“It’s a little ridiculous, I think everyone can see that,” Swanson told the Tribune. “Think about just even what we do when we go on a coast-to-coast trip and the toll it takes on you. Add on top of that the classroom responsibilities to make a few extra bucks is a little ironic to me because of the constant push of being an amateur athlete right now. It’s truly gotten to a professional aspect.

“I’m a traditionalist, like, it’s just odd. But if they want it to happen, it’s going to happen.”


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