The other seven teams in the College World Series at Omaha last week should have seen it coming: it was Arizona State Week everywhere in baseball. First, Reggie Jackson who played for ASU in 1966, drove in 14 runs in two games for Oakland. A couple of days later Gary Gentry, a Sun Devils' pitcher in 1967, threw a two-hitter for the Mets. It was hardly surprising, then, that the 1969 team, with a clutch of players who could be up in the majors in the next year or two, took over. Recovering from an opening-round loss. State swept five consecutive games and won its third collegiate championship in five years.
With titles in 1965, 1967 and now 1969, Sun Devils Coach Bobby Winkles has made odd-year victories a routine at Omaha, but hardly anything else was as predictable at this year's series. First-ranked Southern Illinois and UCLA were both knocked out of the double elimination play after two games. Texas and Mississippi, ranked third and fifth in the country, soon followed. And rising out of the wreckage of all four were Tulsa and New York University, two teams that were supposed to put in brief appearances and then depart gracefully for home. Both, skillfully coached, stayed around until the end.
By the time the Sun Devils finally cooled the upstarts by defeating Tulsa in the title game, ASU had made it emphatic that its combination of exceptional talent, a regular schedule of over 60 games against opponents ranging up to major league clubs and Winkles' tough coaching regimen builds a team that is not prone to upsets. Tulsa and NYU had had a good old time rapping Texas, Mississippi and UCLA, but when they ran into Arizona State they lost by scores of 11-3, 4-1 and 10-1. In those games ASU pitchers allowed only 16 hits while the hitters stroked 35.
Winkles, whose team won 56 games this year, the most by any club in 111 years of collegiate baseball, draws his players from all over, outhustling the major leagues for the ones the scouts know about and finding a few they have overlooked. Rangy curveballer Larry Gura, who led the ASU staff with a 19-2 record and clinched the series with a six-hitter, comes from Joliet, Ill., and Left-fielder John Dolinsek, the outstanding player at Omaha with a .476 average, lives in California. Lerrin LaGrow, a 6'5" righthander whose mother picked his name out of a magazine, had scouts beating a path to his door in high school. "I told them that Coach Winkles convinced me I should play for him," says LaGrow, "and they didn't bother to draft me." The scouts never even saw ASU's best player, Centerfielder Paul Ray Powell. The seventh man picked in the major league draft this month, Powell went to high school at Eloy, Ariz., a desert town of 5,373 people that only Winkles bothered to visit.
June 29, 1969
A former shortstop in the White Sox organization, Winkles is a cheerful man and an admirer of Vince Lombardi. He has problems reconciling the two. "I like to go out on the field and play pepper, take my turn in batting practice and just be in there with my players," he says, "but I believe you have to make kids work to be good. I guess my boys understand that there are times I must be tough. Still, it's hard to do that and keep the closeness I enjoy."
To Winkles, work means running. After the first-round loss to Texas and an 11-inning 2-1 win over UCLA, he decided his team was not putting out so he drove it through 30 50-yard wind sprints. In the next four games the Sun Devils ripped their opponents 29-7.
Until it ran into the Sun Devils, Tulsa—not just the team but the whole town—was enjoying the biggest laughs of the tournament. With 12 of the club's 20 players Tulsa natives, the competition seemed to be less Tulsa against UCLA, Texas or NYU than north side Tulsa players against boys from Tulsa's south side.
"This team is a real personal thing to our city," said Coach Gene Shell. "Many of these people have coached these boys or at least watched them all the way up from Pee Wee League and they all feel they helped build the team. And they say so. In the district playoffs one of our players went to the bathroom at the park and a fan in there said, 'I'm up there with your grandmother and if you get in the game you better do something for her.' The boy pinch hit a grand-slam home run and that guy was yelling he told the boy to do just that."
The north side, with Outfielder Roger Whitaker leading the team in RBIs and Third Baseman Les Rogers hitting .400 until the dismal last game, probably can claim intracity honors, but the big winner was Shell. A Tulsan himself, he informed the school's athletic director in a memo that "this is the best baseball team we have ever had. If we do not get it out of them, it will be my fault." The only faultfinding, finally, was that Tulsa ended up the second-best college baseball team in the country.
NYU coach Larry Geracioti also made his first trip to the series and, coming all the way from the Northeast, there was no way he was supposed to bring his team past the second round. Spring showers may be nice for the Forsythia bushes in New York but they play havoc with baseball schedules and Eastern teams regularly get in only about a third as many games as clubs in the West. No Eastern entry has won at Omaha since 1952. The last representative from that area to advance as far as NYU did this year was Penn State in 1957. But Geracioti's team, with the series' second leading batter in Dodger draftee Jim Cardasis—he hit .421—and the series' slickest defense—NYU committed only four errors in five games—came in third.
"I'm from a small town and the NYU players are from a big city and I didn't know whether I'd even like them," said Powell. "But I thought they were the best guys I met here and just as good players as anybody. Their only problem was they didn't believe that themselves."
The Texas players did not believe it either. After losing 3-2 to NYU's No. 4 starter in a game that ended with a close call at first, the Longhorns put on a boorish display that was remarkable in a series that otherwise was a model of old-fashioned, cheer-your-opponent good sportsmanship. Larry Horton, Texas' barrel-shaped relief pitcher, charged the first-base umpire after the call which ended the game. As the teams left the park one Longhorn yelled at the NYU players, "I hope you guys lose real bad. You don't deserve to be where you are anyhow." The mother of another Texas player came up to Geracioti and addressed him with a two-word obscenity that the troops in Vietnam usually reserve for the Viet Cong. Replied the NYU coach, who wears rimless glasses and has a priestly look even in his baseball uniform, "Madam, you must not be a Catholic."
The cheerful Bobby Winkles laughed when he heard that one, but his Lombardian side was already thinking of the work ahead. "There's a reason we've been winning every other year. Each time we win the championship the majors sign most of our team and we have to start rebuilding. They've drafted six so far this year. It takes a year to get the team into shape and then you can figure to be a challenger again." So good news Tulsa and NYU, Texas, Ole Miss, UCLA and Southern Illinois: you've got a year to fight it out among yourselves.