Sport gets little support in Md.

Players like UM's Pfinsgraff struggle for attention in state where lacrosse is king

College Baseball

May 12, 2006|By PAUL MCMULLEN | PAUL MCMULLEN,SUN REPORTER

COLLEGE PARK -- Have waiters ever forgotten your drink order? Do the kids acknowledge your existence only when they're demanding more cash?

Nearly everyone in life can relate to being overlooked and unappreciated, but it's unlikely any group of athletes experience those kinds of feelings more regularly than college baseball players in Maryland.

Despite a legacy that extends from Babe Ruth to Cal Ripken, lacrosse is the official state sport. That seal of approval, courtesy of the Maryland legislature in 2004, reflects lacrosse's standing in certain ZIP codes and the weight it carries on campus, where defensive midfielders get more recognition than guys who could be pitching for pay in the minors this summer.

No one understands that dynamic as clearly as Ben Pfinsgraff.

On a pleasant Saturday night in April, Pfinsgraff took the mound for the University of Maryland against national power North Carolina State. The crowd at the Terps' Shipley Field consisted of a few hundred. At the same hour, 35 miles to the north, nearly 10,000 saw Maryland play lacrosse at Johns Hopkins.

Pfinsgraff is considered Maryland's top pitcher and a pro prospect, but he is not a big man on the state system's flagship campus. That social order came as a shock when he moved from New Jersey to the Broadneck Peninsula in 2000.

"Some of the friends I made in high school had never thrown a baseball," Pfinsgraff said. "I had to ask myself, `Is this not America?' I'm serious. I have friends from Severn who played big-time lacrosse, but they did not know how to throw a baseball."

Pfinsgraff prepped at Severn, an old-line lacrosse school that has a baseball team but no diamond. The Admirals played their home games at a recreation field off Ritchie Highway. Pfinsgraff feasted in a lower conference in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association, but fell in with the right baseball crowd in summer 2001.

Pfinsgraff fancied himself a shortstop until his American Legion coach, Severna Park High's Jim McCandless, convinced him that his future was on the mound. The next winter, Pfinsgraff's mechanics were refined by Clayton Jacobson, who has tutored several generations of players. After a year at a Division III college outside Pittsburgh, Pfinsgraff transferred to Maryland for the 2003-04 school year.

In no other state does college lacrosse overshadow college baseball as it does here, so it was just like being back at Severn.

"I went to a lacrosse [high] school for two years, so I knew it was popular in this region," Pfinsgraff said last month. "Everyone here says, `The lacrosse team's so good,' but how many teams are trying to win the NCAA title, 20? Very few people appreciate how good the baseball is around here and the caliber of the competition we face."

In the aftermath of the Duke scandal, the Atlantic Coast Conference is down to three lacrosse teams, not enough for a real tournament. Football-driven expansion, meanwhile, left baseball with too many. Only eight of the ACC's 12 will go to the conference tournament in Jacksonville, Fla.

Miami, one of the ACC newcomers, has won four NCAA titles. This season's Top 25 has included as many as eight ACC teams, and Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State and North Carolina have all been ranked No. 1.

Over the years, B.J. Surhoff, Nomar Garciaparra and Mark Teixeira were among the visitors who banged balls over the short fence at Shipley Field, which was finally raised to 20 feet last year. The Shipley upgrade included new dugouts, but the fixes are temporary, as the Terps will get a new facility in the coming years. That will mean less of a contrast on the road, where they get close to a Double-A experience.

"When we go to Clemson and Florida State, it seems like the baseball team is the only game in town," Maryland coach Terry Rupp said. "They've got the warmer weather and no lacrosse. Our lacrosse team is certainly deserving of the attention it gets, but it's not just lacrosse. You throw in the Wizards, two NFL teams in the draft, the Orioles and the Nationals, we've got to compete with all of that for media coverage."

The competition and the worst hitting lineup in the conference meant a long spring for the Terps and Pfinsgraff, who started in the marquee Saturday night slot, in the middle of each three-game ACC series. A win over Georgia Tech in Atlanta, when the Yellow Jackets were ranked No. 3, was the high point in his 3-7 record.

Seven wins over ranked teams and a solid strength of schedule had the Terps talking at one point of an at-large invitation to the 64-team NCAA tournament, but Maryland failed to make the ACC tournament and quietly completed its fourth straight losing season yesterday with a 7-0 win over Coppin State.

Pfinsgraff started, allowed four hits, threw one pitch in the eighth and left to a standing ovation. It came from a crowd of family and friends, a fitting finale in a state where - at least on campus - lacrosse comes first.

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

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