Reviews

It wasn't supposed to end this way.

In 1999, the baseball diamond was swept away at Providence College, ending 80 seasons that may have not made a huge impact in the athletic record book or in Major League Baseball -- the most famous pro player, Birdie Tebbetts, retired in 1952 -- but gloriously faded into the shadows of Hendricken Field through the incredible heart and soul of 25 players who put together an amazing run under the setting sun.

strike9
Author Paul Lonardo meticulously chronicles the final season in Strike IX: The Story of a Big East College Forced to Eliminate its Baseball Program and the Team that Refused to Lose (November 2009, Infinity Publishing, buybooksontheweb.com). Lonardo takes the story from the fall campaign into the 56 regular season games, the Big East Tournament and the Regional Finals in the NCAA Division I Men's College World Series.

"They would be practicing outside on frozen fields in the winter and on muddy infields and damp grass in the spring. They would help prepare the field for play, raking out rocks and filling in holes that were missed by the school's groundskeepers," writes Lonardo. "They did not expect much and they did not complain, even when they were given old lockers that were hand-me-downs from the basketball team a generation before.

"The team was coming off a 31-22-1 record in 1998, and though they fell short in the Big East Tournamnent, Head Coach Charlie Hickey saw great promise for 1999. The nucleus of the team was returning, and there were several outstanding recruits that had been added."

But as the 1998 academic year was starting, rumors were floating around campus that some men's programs would be eliminated so the college would be in compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Renamed in 2002 the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act (to honor the principal author), Title IX is a federal law that states: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance....."

It is important to note that while the impact of Title IX has focused on high school and college sports, the original statute made no explicit mention of athletics. Lonardo tackles the issues surrounding the creation of Title IX -- with particular emphasis on the 1979 "three-prong test" for compliance that was instituted by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare -- how it has impacted college athletics and the controversies surrounding the implementation, including an analysis of Cohen v. Brown University, a federal case that lasted eight years and helped shape the decision made by administrators at Providence College.

Under the prongs, compliance is met by institutions providing athletic participation opportunities that are substantially proportionate to the student enrollment (the "proportionality" prong), demonstrating a continual expansion of athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex or instituting full and effective accommodation of the interest and ability of underrepresented sex.

"Critics of the three-prong test argue that it operates as a 'quota' in that it places undue emphasis on the 'proportionality prong' and fails to take into account the differing levels of interest with regard to the gender of athletes," Lonardo writes. "Defenders of the three-prong test, however, claim that the sexes' differing athletic interest levels is merely a product of past discrimination, and further contend that the three-prong test embodies the maxim that 'opportunity drives interest.'"

The sleuthing by two school journalists -- including clandestine meetings with a well-placed source -- broke the story in the October 1 issue of the student newspaper, which then spurred interest by the national sports media. The administration no longer controlled the timing of any announcement concerning the cuts.

"It also rattled the cages of college administrators, who threatened to shut down the entire newspaper if the source was not revealed," Lonardo writes. "It was determined that before they made any public statements they should first sit down with the coaches and athletes of the sports programs that were going to be impacted by the cuts, and that it should take place as early the following week as possible. They would need Monday to finalize all the details, so the college set Tuesday, October 6, as the day of reckoning."

Though the golf and tennis programs received a reprieve to raise funds to continue, the ballpark lights were quickly dimmed on baseball. The travails and triumphs on the field has special meaning for the players as frantic work by alumni and fans try to save the program. The parallel lines converge in the NCAA tournament, as the Friars face perennial power Florida State.

"The college informed everyone who wanted to donate money that they were free to do so, but that the institution would be obligated to disburse the money equally among all PC athletic programs, not just baseball," writes Lonardo. "It seemed as if the powers that be at Providence had written the sport off long ago, so there would be no knight in shining armor that would come to save baseball at Providence College."

But in the end, it is how each player handled the final season by stepping into the batter's box with three strikes that has made them forever's team.

AHP Rating: 4 Balls

AtHomePlate.com writes its book reviews with the following rating scale in mind:
Four Balls: An exceptional book that truly earns a walk straight to the local book store to get a copy.
Three Balls: This book stands out from its peers and is highly recommended.
Two Balls: A book worth reading/owning and is usually above average.
One Ball: This book has something to say but is nothing special.