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Small-College Athletic Planning, Part I: Studying the Great Predecessors

The struggle for most private, small-college athletic departments comes from an unsatisfied need for facilities to call their own. Even my alma mater, Division-I (and FBS) Kent State University, has had to deal with the chaos of disjointed athletic facilities over the years. Our "new" (1999) softball field was placed two miles east of the baseball field (1966); which, in its own right, is a mile south of the school's main gymnasium -- headquarters for the entire athletic department. Nothing was convenient. Winter baseball practices, held in the football/track teams' fieldhouse, were nearly a town away from the classrooms and dorms. I am told the weight room could also found there somewhere. 

Anyway, the reason for this sprawl is all too common across collegiate sports -- not just for the D-I mid-majors and those less than. Timing is everything. An institution typically builds when it can, where it can. Naturally, stadiums have different shelf lives and sometimes the older ones lie in a section of the college opposite contemporary expansion. In Kent, Ohio, the off-campus football stadium (1969) was lauded as the cornerstone of eastward growth that, as of today, has never fully materialized. Throughout the school's 107-year history, the focus of major development appears to have shifted on a series of whims: east of the library, then south of Summit, and now west of Lincoln. Nearly every president has laid out a strategy to stretch the campus perimeter in a different direction. The various heads of the athletic department did their best to anticipate where the next move would be made. Clearly, these men and women failed to rally the troops around a singular location. A few of the sports never even left their roots among the academic buildings. The result is a piecemealed map with scattered islands of athletic grounds from different eras. It's oddly glorious in it's lack of congruity.  

The elusive athletic "district" of new (or renovated) facilities is a tough one to pull off. The modern price tag of a single stadium/arena is a non-starter for many institutions. Asking a board of trustees or local government to finance more than one at a time? Not a chance. Thus, it takes serious forethought and restraint to execute a seamless network of new builds, specifically for sports. The master plan needs long-term buy-in, so any change in regime cannot derail the train; funneling the earmarked reserves towards a different vision. Sometimes this means convincing a large group of people that an empty lot should remain empty until the necessary cash for a stadium is present. When valued scholars have the right leverage -- teaching in outdated halls -- the proposition for a new ballfield or gym dies on the vine. Professors and deans will begin to picture that freshly-acquired university land as the shiny new home to their department -- for a fraction of the cost. Nine times out of ten, the academic wishes will be granted. At the end of the day, it is an institution of higher learning.  

The patience component comes into play as giant stadium projects take more time to complete than ever in history. Getting an in-house "yes" vote is not as much of momentous occasion as it used to be. Simply accruing the adjacent acreage can be a gauntlet of red tape. Good luck trying to manage the existing affairs of your displaced athletic teams -- and sell your school as beautiful to important touring families -- while also mobilizing cranes around campus. Ground breaking ceremonies sure are fun, but everything is going to be dirty and ugly for a long while. The final reward may not be truly capitalized for a decade. Sorry, high-school junior, it'll be built the year after you graduate from our university. 

Everywhere can't be College Station, Texas -- the perfect combination of room for expansion, a cohesive plan, an unrivaled affinity for sports, and the type of boosters/alumni that will stop at nothing to fund continued athletic success. Texas A&M is one of many big-name schools with a main campus that truly makes you question the administration's hierarchical importance of education and sport. I've colored their campus map red to show all the acreage that is devoted to athletics (below). It is a preposterous percentage of the total land owned by the university, and does not even include the parking lots created for the sole purpose of supplementing these stadiums and arenas. Certainly not the only offenders, Texas A&M's College Station campus begins to resemble a factory driven by collegiate-athlete revenue. The form follows its function: resources go to the line items in the school's budget that can show the greatest ROI. It's tough to hate on it; that's just good business.  

Combining Texas A&M's three largest sports venues, there are over 121,000 seats; a school of 69,000 
In the last decade, the highest echelon of collegiate sports has jumped even further down the rabbit hole. Collegiate facility upgrades have begun to make the less-fortunate professional teams jealous. The argument/absolution for an athletic architecture binge typically follows this consistent line of thinking: if a school desires to educate, train, and prepare a chemistry major to be the finest chemist in the post-graduate work place, then the laboratories on campus need to reflect the best physical resources at the "real world's" disposal. This tricky double-standard gets played against academia -- in favor of athletic infrastructure overhauls -- as more and more students join the workforce in the sports industry every year. The training ground has to look the part of the pros in all fields of study. 

Within the ranks of the NCAA's third division, it is literally a different world. But the endowment sure ain't the issue. Hell, some private D-III schools could buy a Texas A&M if they wanted. Instead, they stockpile their immense wealth so young people can have access to advanced job training -- just like the big boys. The distinction is that the student's future career is far more likely grounded in math and science. Able to match ambitious master plans of their SEC and Big Ten counterparts, these money-rich small colleges wisely choose to stay in their respective lanes when it comes to sports. 

At a Division-III institution, one doesn't have to keep up with the Joneses in quite the same manner. Locker rooms and athlete lounges that rival palatial hotel lobbies -- all done to lure five-star blue chippers -- are unnecessary expenses. Without a single dollar in athletic scholarships able to be dulled out, future stars of the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball are beyond a rarity. Since the student-athletes have an undeniably lower athletic ceiling, there's a similarly modest bar for student-body enthusiasm in attending games. This means no need for that 100,000-seat football stadium or 25,000-seat arena. The games remain purely extracurricular, amateur activities. The over-arching focus of the small private college is (justifiably) placed on the academics. 

This doesn't mean that nicer sports and recreation facilities are not as important to Division-III coaches from a recruiting angle... or university presidents as an enrollment enhancer. 

With athletic venues as the catalyst, Western Pennsylvania's Washington & Jefferson College and southeast Michigan's Adrian College discovered a path to increased academic interest. Since the turn of the century, both
 have achieved major student population spikes due to a similar sports-based "admissions yield" model. The new concept had a simple -- yet radically against the grain -- order of operation for future capital improvement: stadia, first; academic buildings and student housing to follow. 

Though the endpoints appear alike, the institutions arrived in two distinct ways. W&J chose the Swiss-Army approach; a striking, singular facility that could be configured several unique ways. Adrian, on the other hand, had an abundance of old farm land under control. This allowed them to opt for a volume scheme; a greater quantity of new fields/courts/rinks than the school even had offered sports. 

These excellent case studies, on small-college success, played out in areas of the country I'm quite familiar with. W&J is a mere 60 miles from my boyhood home in Ligonier, PA, while my parents have resided in Adrian, MI since 2001. Too small for most folks to know of their existence, these liberal arts institutions were actually quite present in my consciousness growing up. And I do recall hearing rumblings about their plans for "wild spending" on recreational facilities. After all, my father was in the industry (an executive director at several YMCAs) and I was an aspiring architect (with a passion for stadium design). But in both examples, I fell a day late and a dollar short on fully appreciating the brilliant work done by Jeffrey Docking and Rick Creehan -- right in my "backyard".      

The tandem first came together at W&J in 2002, with the arrival of a Creehan as the school's new athletic director. At that time, Docking was the dean of student affairs. As luck would have it, the region was experiencing a bit of a sports boom. Independent professional baseball was coming to town. The Frontier League's Canton Crocodiles, renamed the Washington Wild Things, had a new ballpark under construction -- four miles southwest of W&J. The 3,200-seat stadium, off I-70 in North Franklin Township, became a magnet for the business development interests of Washington & Jefferson College. Like so many American communities (Arlington, TX; Kansas City, KS; Bridgeview, IL; Glendale, AZ; Sandy, UT; Cumberland, GA; and dozens more), a stadium placed in a once-vapid industrial setting suddenly became an oasis of activity in a desert of major interstate exchanges. For western Pennsylvania, Falconi Field (now CONSOL Energy Park) was that nexus for supplemental growth (hotels, restaurants, etc.) around its confines. 

Creehan and Docking rode this wave of local athletic investment to roll out their Enrollment-Growth Model 1.0 -- establishing men's and women's lacrosse, men's water polo, and field hockey as new W&J offerings. It was the first of several instances where these two men would lay out a path to consistently larger freshmen classes, beginning and ending with expanded sports programs. The next move was to create a new home for men's and women's soccer, baseball, and the freshly-minted lacrosse teams. In two short years, Ross Memorial Park (baseball) & Alexandre Stadium (soccer/lacrosse) -- then the largest continuous expanse of FieldTurf on the planet -- was completed. The multipurpose complex, in the shadow of CONSOL Energy Park, adapts its 233,000 square feet (5.34 acres) to accommodate the five varsity sports. Setting up for various practices and games throughout the year is a choreographed dance. But even with temporary fencing for the outfield wall, the facility truly looks the part. So much so that the site has been frequently called upon to host the Mideast Regional of the NCAA D-III baseball tournament. 

From strictly a cost-saving perspective, Ross Memorial Park is not unlike the "cookie cutter" days of American stadium architecture. The 1960s and '70s gave us the nearly-identical Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium (Washington, DC - 1961), Shea Stadium (New York - 1964), Fulton County Stadium (Atlanta - 1965), the Astrodome (Houston - 1965), Alameda County Coliseum (Oakland - 1966), Busch Stadium (St. Louis - 1966), Jack Murphy Stadium (San Diego - 1967), Riverfront Stadium (Cincinnati - 1970), Three Rivers Stadium (Pittsburgh - 1970), Veterans Stadium (Philadelphia - 1971), and the Kingdome (Seattle - 1976). Throw in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium (1931) and Minneapolis' Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome (1982) and nearly half the U.S. cities that had an NFL franchise and an MLB club erected one of these ghastly multipurpose concrete donuts. Print them all out as flashcards and watch your grandkids fail the "Who's Who" quiz.  

Model of Efficiency: W&J maximized every inch of their six off-campus acres   
Together, this collection of fields is a testament to pooling resources and having an underlying ecological consciousness. But, from an functionality perspective, Ross Memorial Park & Alexandre Stadium couldn't be further from those atrocities of the past. Each college program is furnished with a standalone, top-notch Division-III facility. This couldn't be further from the case in the '70s. Even in their heyday, multipurpose stadiums were less than the sum of their parts. The baseball configuration was a purist's nightmare, while the football setup was a minefield for career-ending injuries. 

Furthermore, Ross Memorial Park's small scale becomes another saving grace in setting it apart from the past. There are 400 chairback seats in Washington & Jefferson's athletic complex, not 60,000. The placeless symmetry of all the aforementioned professional stadiums existed because of a simple revenue-optimization formula: get the most butts sitting around an adaptable field using the least amount of material. A circular footprint will get you there every time. But sports should be about so much more than that. The character and charm -- abundant in modern baseball stadiums especially -- were noticeably absent, as none of the design elements needed to respond to contextual site constraints. The sites were all empty. 

In short, multi-sport does not have to mean bland. With a little creativity each tenant can be provided with individualized care and attention. Whether its lacrosse, soccer, or baseball, the goal is to place the spotlight on game/match day. Make the sport du jour feel like it is being played in a detached venue and have the others fade to the background. The genius of Ross Memorial Park & Alexandre Stadium is its orientation and overlapping. The three pitcher's mounds -- two bullpens and the main stage -- are never in conflict should the soccer or lacrosse teams need two concurrent fields. Thus, the "bump" doesn't need to be a portable turf variety. It is constructed with honest-to-goodness dirt and clay, as is the home plate circle. A rarity in today's synthetic sports world, having hitters actually dig in and catchers get dirty is the way it should be. The whole place feels quirky like the Golden Age of Ballparks, rather than stodgy like the forgettable multipurpose days in the pro ranks. 

The true testament to a successful element of sports architecture is if the quality of design/construction trickles down to the players. Look good, play good [sic]. If that's the accepted standard, then you can officially call Ross Memorial Park a success. In May, W&J's baseball team fell one win short of a D-III National Championship, losing two games to one in the final series. It was the school's first College World Series appearance, and only the second sport to finish as National Runners-Up -- the top honor in the W&J trophy case. They are a program on the rise in more ways than one.

Washington & Jefferson College was a nice appetizer for Docking and Creehan, but Adrian College was the real pièce de résistance. As Dr. Docking said, "The problem was that I wasn't the president there [W&J], and neither was Rick, so we couldn't convince the administration to put the entire plan in place. When I got the presidency at Adrian [in 2005], one of the things I said to myself and to Rick was, 'I'm the decision-maker. We're going to put this entire thing in motion.'"

Titled "Renaissance", the bold, two-phase campaign called for an immediate shopping spree on new athletic facilities: an on-campus football stadium with its corresponding practice fields, soccer/lacrosse field, dedicated stadium for track and field, baseball and softball complex with indoor batting cages, twelve tennis courts, and ice arena. Sounded reasonable for a small school hemorrhaging $1.2 million a year. 

Cue up the Ray Kroc monologue to open The Founder; where Michael Keaton (fellow Kent State alum) speaks directly to camera: "Increase supply, demand will follow. Chicken and the egg. Do you follow my logic?" Fortunately for all involved, the Adrian College board of trustees did. They signed off on the "forward-thinking" idea.

The results paid off in very short order. It only took six years for the size of the student body to double -- now over 1,670 students. In that same span, the operating budget moved north of $55 million -- up from $25M. Fundraising has continued to experience all-time heights. Most notably, Adrian College received a $20 million gift (the single-largest in the school's history) in December of 2011. U.S. News & World Report has taken notice of the transformation; ranking Adrian as a Regional Top Baccalaureate College in the Midwest every year since 2009. On three separate occasions, Adrian has been named the "#1 Up-and-Coming School in the Midwest".

As for the athletics -- the focus of all that initial investing -- one of the worst-performing colleges in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA) saw unprecedented success. The improvements of their baseball team, specifically, worked their way into my life one spring day in 2012. New to the Division-III landscape, I was checking the national rankings on my computer. My jaw dropped to see Adrian College two spots ahead of the Washington University in St. Louis team I was coaching. The last time I knew anything about Adrian baseball, they had endured a three-year stretch of dreadful results; a 45-76 record (.371 winning percentage) from 2000-2002. During that same time, my American Legion baseball team shared Adrian's Riverside Park with the college. Had there been an in-house competition, it is fair to say our collection of talented high schoolers would have won quite handily. Yet, in 2012, there Adrian College was: 20th out of 220+ competing schools.    

The correlation between Nicolay Field's inaugural season (2008) and the school's nine consecutive MIAA Championships cannot be ignored. The Bulldogs have now won 30+ games each season for ten straight years. They didn't make a coaching change. They didn't overhaul their practice routines or abandon their old philosophies. They did, however, change the entire culture of athletics in that town through mass construction of new facilities. A top-tier venue garnered a sizable increase to the number of high-quality D-III athletes in Adrian's recruiting class. The rest has snowballed off the positive inertia; that first taste of success bred even more to follow. 

To date, the school has had eight players earn All-American honors; each played for Adrian College after the "Renaissance" project was completed. More than any other tier of organized team sports, coaching in college is more about "Johnnys and Joes" and not the "X's and O's". A program can experience a total turnaround with the right bodies among the incoming freshmen class. And the data is finally out there to substantiate a long-held claim: athletic victories pile up for the schools with the stadiums and uniforms that are annually deemed the most attractive by 17 year olds. 

Asked if the "admissions yield" model could have worked by fast-tracking a science building instead of a football stadium, Creehan once told Athletic Business Magazine no. "The problem is that science professors don't typically sit at their desk night after night making recruiting calls to future scientists. But it's in coaches' DNA." Of all the offices on a college campus, those belonging to each sport's recruiting coordinator are the most active contributors to a sustained enrollment base. With each new athlete comes a new student with an area of study and its healthy volume of classes. Label the schooling a "side effect" or an "afterthought" all you want, but the number of minds for professors to mold does increase. At the Division-III level, this model is certainly taken more seriously. Create more small-college athletic venues -- to house these narrow-focused coaches -- and the academic side experiences a win as well.     

Small World: St. Louis-based Hastings + Chivetta did the Adrian College master plan
One such facility request made by Docking was especially puzzling to Adrian's hiring committee. The college had never sponsored any ice sports in its then-146 years of existence. Essentially, Docking was suggesting "build what you don't need now... because someday soon you will." All told, "Renaissance I" proposed eight new varsity sports, with three requiring a sheet of pristine indoor ice. 

"We have to [build the rink]. This is cold-weather country up here; there is not a whole lot going on between Halloween and the spring thaw in April. Secondly, we have the Red Wings, a dynamic organization, an hour and a half down the road, and there are tons of kids who play hockey up here. There aren't enough places for them to play. If you build an ice rink and tell kids they can play hockey at Adrian, I'm telling you, they'll come out of the woodwork." 

It was a little different mindset than the famous Field of Dreams adage, because this model focused on creating demand rather than satisfying one that was unknowingly out there.

Docking's rationale behind the $6.5 million Arrington Ice Arena remains a huge takeaway for me; something able to be applied in my current hometown. Take his quotes on the reasons why a hockey rink was a natural fit in Adrian. Replace the "cold-weather" with "100%-humidity", then "Red Wings" with "Cardinals"; shorten the distance of said pro team and flip the sport to "baseball". The modified result is just as pertinent as a battle cry for something this community desperately needs. St. Louis is a baseball town -- but one without enough high-quality fields. As it currently stands, you either need to be a Dragon (St. Mary's H.S.) or Billiken (the high school or college version) to play amateur baseball on an above-average adult-sized field in the City of Saint Louis. 

I believe I have located the perfect location for a local institution to strike a joint venture with the City Parks Department. But who? Saint Louis University (D-I), Lindenwood University (D-II), Maryville University (D-II), the University of Missouri-St. Louis (D-II), Washington University in St. Louis (D-III), Missouri Baptist University (NAIA), Harris-Stowe State University (NAIA), and St. Louis Community College-Meramec (NJCAA) all have on-campus facilities for baseball. 

That only leaves Fontbonne University and Webster University as "homeless". The former rents Field #7 inside municipal Shaw Park, where Clayton High School is the primary tenant. It is not even close to sniffing modern collegiate standards. The latter splits time with the Frontier League's Gateway Grizzles and another college (Lindenwood University-Belleville) at GCS Ballpark. The 6,000-seat stadium's only drawback is its location -- a 14-mile commute for ballplayers and fans from Webster Groves, MO to Sauget, IL. Pick the wrong time of day and the trek across the Mississippi can take close to an hour. Fontbonne could have far better and Webster could have much closer. They just need the knowledge of precedents set by peers like W&J and Adrian, paired with an out-of-the-box concept.   

Step 1: Add a local high school to the mix. The cost of a new facility is more palatable if more shoulders are present to bear the brunt. There are too many in the area that play on municipal fields with dirt infields. It's the 21st-century, people. Brentwood High School rents Brentwood Park. Bishop DuBourg High School plays on Boeing Aviation Field inside Forest Park. Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School travels to Deer Creek Park. If any of those neighborhood athletic programs joined the fold, it would be a win-win. The prep athletes get a major upgrade in playing surface and the college collects a rent check for very minimal overlap. High school baseball doesn't have a fall season and the one in spring only lasts two and half months.     

My plan doesn't suggest either member of the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SLIAC) should build a hockey rink, so clearly I'm not as adventurous as Docking/Creehan. However, it does generate a hybrid of their "Renaissance" playbook. Call it a little of Column A (Washington & Jefferson College's venue adaptability) and a little of Column B (Adrian College's image reinvention). 

Ross Memorial Park & Alexandre Stadium showed the D-III world that a multipurpose stadium can be as beautiful as it is efficient. In a level of the NCAA where sports don't generate revenue, a facility like the one in Pennsylvania provides the blueprint to an exception. You can print money as a regional host in several sports, as well as a non-stop summer camp machine. One continuous playing surface becomes a blank slate for nearly year-round recreational functions. 

Meanwhile, Nicolay Field, Arrington Ice Arena, et. alia proved that small colleges need to flip the cart (new athletic facilities) and the horse (winning sports programs). As backwards as it sounds, D-III athletic departments with low on-field success need to be the ones pacing the field with swanky new buildings. Locally, this describes Fontbonne to a "T" -- one shaped like the cross of Saint John  

The school is down to an undergraduate enrollment of only 893. Their varsity athletics compete in NCAA Division III. The baseball, softball, track and field, and soccer teams currently pay a fee to practice/play off-campus. Not a one has any future plans on the books to build a university-owned stadium. Any (all) of this sound familiar? Talk about the perfect candidate for the tried-and-true Docking/Creehan Enrollment-Growth Model 2.0. 

Expansion is tough enough for small colleges, but doubly so for universities that call major metropolitan areas their home. A more densely-built neighborhood means places like Fontbonne are hamstrung on perimeter growth. Moving off-campus is an unfortunate inevitability when you become figuratively boxed in. The property values of the professorial mansions -- that cozied up to elite private schools in the beginning of last century -- are now too astronomical to acquire. There is no chance city institutions like these will ever gain the rights to bulldoze a row of gorgeous houses to put up a pad of concrete and some chalk-lined grass and dirt. Even a staunch athletic complex developer like myself admits that's probably for the best.  

The balance must be struck between movement and staying rooted in a community. Image is everything. If satellite campuses are a must, relocation shouldn't drastically alter the college's existing epicenter. Rumors are currently circulating that Fontbonne University is interesting in buying the recently-closed John F. Kennedy High School in Manchester, MO. From a sustainability (and humanity) perspective, I applaud the efforts in saving education facilities in this country. Use of the existing buildings would bolster Fontbonne's offerings to West County adults, who generally require nights and weekend classes if they are to go back for that degree. 

As you read below the fold, however, you come to find that Kennedy High would also become the new home to several athletic teams -- baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse. One point for trying to consolidate sports that are littered all over town, but negative 50 points for grabbing at the low-hanging fruit. "They have old fields, we need fields" is too easy of a solution. And when an answer is that simple it usually means it's wrong. Heading west on I-64 the necessary 15 miles is the same problem (in reverse) that currently plagues Webster University baseball players. We've got the West County school going to Illinois and the St. Louis City-ish school going to West County. Someone explain to me how that makes sense to anyone. 

If I'm a future Fontbonne athletic recruit, I have to be told that my practices (six days a week) are -- on a good day -- 20 minutes away. That sure doesn't seem to be a satisfying message. If I'm going to spend that much time out in Manchester, why would I even bother showing up to class? I'll live out there (in an apartment or with mom and dad) and take the courses online. That, or I'll just go to Maryville or MoBap; they have on-campus athletic complexes and I would pass them twice a day on my commute to our fields.

In either case, admissions will struggle to get new bodies to actually step foot in Fontbonne's main-campus buildings. The Clayton location could fade away altogether. At small colleges, especially, the full-time enrollment relies heavily on a student-athlete population. Combine the men's soccer, basketball, and baseball rosters together; you'll have 86 of the 445 undergraduate males at Fontbonne. That is an insane proportion, but not unlike that of a high school. To put these numbers in the context of a large university, The Ohio State University would need an additional 4,193 roster spots -- if it was required that 19% of the school's undergraduate men played those three sports. Bringing in student-athletes is more vital to a Fontbonne; they account for a greater percentage of desks in a classroom.  

If Fontbonne moves athletic facilities even further west, the well of out-of-state candidates will slowly dry up. You see, student-athletes are also heavy contributors to every school's geography diversity. The opportunity of playing a sport collegiately makes incoming freshmen more willing to cross a few borders. Young adults tend to move to places far away for the fun things (pro sports, museums, big concerts, beaches, etc.) they can't get back home. Fontbonne's been dealt a great hand in that department. They are situated in the most desirable location of any school in their conference; easily top 50 in all of Division III. A legitimate city is hard to come by in a landscape full of faith-based private colleges -- with their woodsy beginnings in 6,000-person towns that haven't evolved. But Fontbonne brass seems dead set on giving up this lone marketing chip. Soon, a Griffin student-athlete will be spending a bulk of their extracurricular time in unimaginative suburbia; a place that is readily available at a hundred other Division-III schools. Pizza Hut after practice, anyone?

Fontbonne needs to think long and hard before it decides to run to West County full go. Manchester, MO is just another Greenville, Eureka, Carlinville, Elsah, or Jacksonville -- towns in Illinois that are home to SLIAC rivals. Become just like them and I'll bet recruiting's competitive edge flies right out the window. If this essay has taught nothing else, it is this: Fontbonne has one shot at overcoming the distance. They must build an athletic complex grand enough to make student-athletes forget all about it's lack of convenience and connectivity. Hey, it worked for us at Kent.     

For my take on what and where they should be building, please read Part II of this article. Spoiler alert: it's three minutes from my house.

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