The NCAA Tournament for baseball is one of the more unusual brackets used to crown a national champion. Save for softball, it's the only one that uses a double elimination format, meaning teams can lose games en route to a championship.
It's the only one with a standing location for its national champion. Where the location for the champion changes for football, basketball, soccer, and hockey, baseball crowns its champion every year in Omaha, Nebraska, a small city sandwiched just ahead of Rochester, New York and just behind Flint, Michigan in terms of media market size. The only thing that's changed is the venue, with TD Ameritrade Park Omaha taking over in 2011 after 60 years at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium.
Baseball's always been kind of unique in this regard, and it's one of the things that the sport embraces at the college level. So in case this is your first foray into the NCAA baseball tournament, here's a look at how it's changed through the years.
The first Division I national champion was crowned in 1947 in an eight-team, single elimination playoff. Eight teams qualified that year, including the conference champions of the California Interscholastic Baseball Association, the Southern Conference, the Big Nine, the Big Six, the Southwest Conference, the Metropolitan New York Conference, and the Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League. Yale, led by George Bush, beat NYU in the Eastern Playoff to advance to the championship, where they were swept by a California team that defeated Texas in the Western Playoff. Jackie Jensen played for those Golden Bears.
It changed to double elimination the next year, but the formatting would vary until 1954. After one more year of Eastern and Western Playoffs (where Yale once again lost in the College World Serie finals), the format changed to four "regions," then changed to districts not managed by the NCAA in 1950. Starting in 1954, the tournament consisted of eight districts, although different districts had different amounts of games.
For example, Connecticut automatically qualified as the District 1 team in 1959, but Penn State had to beat both Temple and Ithaca to advance from District 2 in single elimination games. District 3, meanwhile, featured four teams in double elimination format, and Districts 5-8 played best of three series. Only the College World Series was managed consistently, with all eight teams playing off in double elimination format. It remained this way until 1975.
The 1975 season introduced the first year of regional format, a more traditional predecessor to today's field. The official field had 32 teams broken down into eight double elimination regionals, with the winners of those regionals advancing to Omaha.
The field expanded by two teams the next year, with one regional consisting of six teams instead of four in the other seven. Ironically enough, the region with six teams was the Northeast Regional for the first couple of years until the regionals shifted to a different geography. After six years of this 34-team format, two more teams were added in 1982, giving the tournament two regionals with six teams against six regionals with four.
The NCAA finally introduced consistency in 1988, 41 years after the first title series was held. They expanded the tournament to 48 teams with eight regionals. Each regional featured six teams in double-elimination format. It was incredibly confusing - for example, in the first year, fourth seeded Rutgers lost to Kentucky yet advanced to play top-seeded Clemson, who had beaten Fordham, 3-2. But at least there was some consistency.
Finally, in 1999, the NCAA fixed everything. They introduced four-team regionals and best-of-three "super regionals" which would be hosted by the eight national seeds, provided they advanced as far. The College World Series championship game, at that point, was winner-take-all, although it changed in 2003 to a best-of-three format.
As you can see, the College World Series and championship tournament has always been something of a weird, weird, weird format. The way the tournament looks in 2016 makes it substantially harder for a team to qualify. Geography no longer plays as much of a role as who you beat, and playing in actual conferences now resembles more about the rest of college sports.
In 10 years will the tournament look the same? It's hard to tell, but if history tells us anything, it's to expect the unexpected. College baseball has always handled itself differently. Why should the future be any different?