It’s no secret the Houston Astros rebooted the Shriners Hospitals College College Classic (or Houston College Classic, as it has been known for most of its history) because of dropping attendance numbers. So gone were the two major college baseball teams located in Houston. In were regional college baseball powers known for attracting crowds. And the results for 2017 were outstanding.
The classic set a record for a total attendance, bringing in a total of 53,495 fans for the three days, breaking the record of 48,839 set in 2006. And those crowds were loud and rowdy and full of fans of LSU, Texas A&M, TCU, Baylor, Texas Tech and Ole Miss. The game were competitive. And for this year, at least, the results appear to have been worth the effort of the reboot, though in the years to come, it won’t be that attendance number that will be remembered as much as it will be the epic nearly six-hour 15 inning game won by the No. 1 TCU against No. 15 Texas A&M to close out the action on Saturday night.
The Aggies led TCU 10-5 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, but the Texas A&M bullpen imploded. TCU scored five runs on just two hits to tie the game. Aggie relievers walked the first five TCU batters to come to the plate before getting one out. Then came a single, an out, and a single and a throwing error.
TCU clearly had the extra inning momentum, and threatened often to score, including when they loaded the bases with no outs in the 12th inning, when they had a runner forced out at home, a batter strike out and the next one fly out to left. The TCU bullpen fanned 10 of the 19 batters they faced in extra innings. The Horned Frogs finally won in the bottom of the 15th on a shot off of the bat of shortstop Ryan Merrill that plated a runner from second base, ending the longest game, by time and by innings, in Houston College Classic history.
“You like to say no because you’d hope to play a little clearer baseball game,” TCU head coach Jim Schlossnagle said on whether he expected this bizarre of game between TCU and A&M. “But anytime these two teams get together, you’re pretty sure it’s got a chance to be a zoo. And that’s what happened.”
TCU dominated this year’s tournament, winning all three games against ranked opponents and showing all of college baseball just why the horned frogs are the top-ranked team in the country. The Big 12 also showed dominance over the SEC, winning seven of the nine games (the seventh Big 12 win was in dramatic fashion as Baylor shortstop Tucker Cascadden slugged a two-out grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning to give Baylor the 6-3 win over the Aggies in the final game of the tournament). The Most Outstanding Player of the tournament was TCU first baseman Luken Baker, who hit .455 with three RBI and six runs scored.
The College Classic can’t depend on games like that to generate interest every year. That’s where the matchups come into play. The Astros set up this year as a contest between the SEC and the Big 12. And the fans bought into the plan. Especially the fans of LSU and Texas A&M, who overtook the ballpark every day. The Astros generally have good luck getting Big 12 squads involved in the tournament, and they’re working with the SEC to establish a rotation that will bring squads like LSU and Texas A&M in on a consistent basis.
“We’re working with the SEC and the Big 12 teams,” Steve Grande, senior manager of media relations for the Astros, said Sunday afternoon. “They’ve been really open to coming in here every other year or every three years. So you’ll see that quite a bit for the next few years. SEC teams in a lot. Big 12 teams. Those are kind of the teams that we’re looking at as well as factoring in Rice and UH and Sam Houston State.”
As it was, the Astros were pleased with the crowd totals for the weekend, going so far as to state that they exceeded expectations. Saturday’s attendance alone topped the total turnout for the entire tournament in 2013, 2014 and 2016.
“The crowds that we got here were more than we expected, and we set high goals for this tournament,” Grande said. “The crowds were able to surpass that. We’re really proud of the LSU fans. Texas Tech showed up in force. Texas A&M [on Saturday night] was well-represented. It was more than we could ask for.”
Whether the reboot of the Houston College Classic continues at the same pace next season is yet to be seen. The participating schools will be Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Mississippi State from the SEC and Houston, Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Lafayette. There are some good teams in that list, but none of them are truly marquee names known for attracting huge crowds like LSU or Texas A&M. Which raises the question: Can what was revived this year stay revived without the big names and level of competition?