Columbia University’s sports teams are probably still best known for two things: Lou Gehrig played baseball there and the football team couldn’t win a game in the early 1980s. Today the football team remains a work in progress thought it’s always tough to see if there’s actually much progress being made. The Lions’ basketball team pulls off an occasional big victory — last season the Lions defeated Villanova — but never challenges for an Ivy title and an NCAA berth.
But the baseball team is another story, a different kind of story at Columbia. A winning story. On Saturday the Lions hosted Dartmouth in a best-of-three showdown for the Ivy League title, the winner earning the spot in the NCAA tournament, which won’t begin until the end of May.
I again made the three-minute walk from our apartment to the Columbia baseball field. In the first game Columbia won 6-5 in 10 innings, squandering a ninth-inning lead but then escaping a bases-laoded, no-out jam in the top of the 10th before winning it in the bottom of the inning. The second game, played under blue skies and in perfect weather — sorry, Minnesotans. Put a sweatshirt on — took place in front of a packed stadium.
Even in college, spring sports occupy an odd spot on the intensity scale, particularly in places that actually experience winter weather. Back in high school our spring sports seasons never seemed as…important as fall and winter offerings. Part of that has to do with the weather, which can shorten an already-short season into a month. And even when the weather warms up, there somehow seems to be less on the line when it’s a leisurely outdoor baseball game in the middle of the afternoon, which doesn’t compare — or at least doesn’t in my biased mind — with the atmosphere you get on those cold fall nights under the lights at a football game or in a packed gym during a playoff basketball game. We’re so happy to simply have weather that’s fit for humans and insects that the on-field results don’t seem as critical.
I had a similar feeling sitting in the stands Saturday, but certainly the players took it as seriously as any player in a bowl game or a Sweet 16 battle. Columbia was looking for its first title since 2008 and only its third-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament.
The second game didn’t have the drama of the first, even though Dartmouth took a 2-0 lead and still led 5-4 entering the top of the seventh. That’s when Columbia pounded out double after double in a decisive six-run inning. The crowd enjoyed the final two-and-a-half-inning coronation, especially a group of little kids near the field who were apparently in the process of working off the dozen energy drinks fed to them before the game by their parents. In college baseball no deficit is too large, but Dartmouth never threatened after Columbia’s outburst and the crowd savored the final innings. (If you’re wondering if Ivy crowds have more creative ways of insulting umpires, no. Eyesight taunts were common, as were pleas for the men in blue to figure it out, even though they were wearing black.)
The game ended 12-5, Columbia’s players stormed the field and now the Lions wait to see where they’ll go in the NCAA tournament.
Chances are the Lions won’t make it to the College World Series in Omaha. The Lions went 0-4 in previous appearances in 1976 and ’08. Columbia was the first team to earn a berth in the tournament, thanks to the Ivy League’s early championship series. The Lions are hardly a perennial power in the Ivy League — Dartmouth, for instance, was making a sixth straight appearance in the championship series. But this is now two NCAA appearances in five years. A few more of those and Columbia baseball might very well be known more for its success in the 21st century than its most famous player from the early parts of the 20th century.