A developing mecca of college baseball is Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, a town principally known heretofore by the ditty, "When love is cold, do not despair, try Ypsilanti Underwear." The underwear company has long since gone out of business but Eastern Michigan is just getting started, having dashed in out of the cold of oblivion last week.
There was a dash of despair, too, after EMU spent nine days trying to prove it was the best team in college baseball. In the end, it proved it was the second best, losing in the finals of the College World Series in Omaha to Arizona 7-1. But everyone expects schools in Arizona, Southern California, Texas and Florida to play first-rate baseball; nobody expects much from Eastern Michigan, largely because spring weather up there is the kind that makes baseball coaches put guns to their heads.
But weather didn't keep EMU from serving adequate notice on those hot-shots from milder climes that guys in the frigid zone know which end of the bat to hold. Even if it has been a decade since a northern team (Ohio State) won the college championship. Among those convinced by the Eastern Michigan performance was Arizona State, a team thought to be so good (the Sun Devils broke 12 NCAA season records this year, most of them their own) that players on other teams were somewhat in awe. But EMU upset State to hand the Sun Devils their first loss in the double elimination tournament, thus playing a key role in seeing to it that when time came for the Saturday night finals, ASU was back home looking at desert cacti instead of in Omaha looking at rising fastballs.
How did Eastern Michigan, which labors in the very long and dark shadow of the University of Michigan in next-door Ann Arbor, get so good? Meet Ron Oestrike, its rotund coach, who looks as though he is hiding three bases and a chest protector inside his jersey. But under his green and white cap he is hiding an all-conference mind. EMU doesn't have enough money for a big-time baseball program, which makes it incumbent upon Oestrike to dream up financial schemes. In the mid-60s, for example, he convinced his players that collecting bottles and turning them in for two cents each would be fun. The plan earned $500 and the players used it to make their first spring trip to Florida, where they were surprised to learn that earmuffs were not standard baseball apparel.
June 27, 1976
But Oestrike knew you don't get to the NCAA finals on bottle returns. Other projects ensued. Last year, Oestrike got the beer concession at a rock concert at the university. "I'm a country boy from Flat Rock," he says. "I didn't even know what a rock concert was. I'm still not sure I do." What he does know is that with the aid of booster club members the players sold enough kegs of beer to net the school's baseball program a total of around $13,000. That money was spent on a trip this spring to California, where EMU beat Arizona State in a tournament. At the time that seemed a bit like an all-star football team from the Pop Warner League defeating Notre Dame. After all, Arizona State was king of the baseball mountain this year, with 13 of its players drafted by the pros, including three who weren't even good enough to make the team that traveled to Omaha. Jim Brock, the ASU coach, modestly conceded, "We're a pretty good team that has had some success."
Indeed, most people were lulled into the belief that Arizona and Arizona State were it and the other six teams came for the ride. Lou Spry, the NCAA controller, tried to spice things up by saying, "The day of a turkey being in this tournament is gone." Maybe, but there still was a distinct sound of gobbling in the air during some of the early play. Oklahoma was not O.K., it played poorly and left early; so did Auburn, Clemson and Washington State. Spunky Maine made it to the top four before waving its good-bys, leaving only Arizona and ASU. Oh yes, and Eastern Michigan.
The tournament's early drama (and as it turned out, its best game) came in an Arizona-ASU confrontation, arranged by the NCAA to prevent the two clubs from the same conference from meeting in the finals. The schools had played six games this year, and ASU had won them all. Arizona's star outfielder, Dave Stegman, moped, "I'd say our frustration quotient is getting rather high." With two out, two strikes on the ASU batter and a three-run lead in the ninth, Arizona was in what might be called a generally favorable position to win—at last. At which time the Wildcats collapsed, losing 7-6 in 10 innings.
So Arizona State was rolling on toward the title with an I-told-you-so air until in midweek it met sneaky EMU. ASU ace Floyd Bannister (19-1 for the season and considered college baseball's best pitcher) threw well, if a shade off his past form, giving up only two runs. Unfortunately for him, Eastern Michigan's Bob Owchinko allowed only one run and the Sun Devils' victory express was derailed, but only temporarily, its fans believed.
Ah, but then Arizona, which had played splendidly and fought its way back up through the loser's bracket, drew ASU in the semifinals. By now State was highly amused by this game of shooting Arizona fish in a barrel. What State hadn't counted on was Arizona's Ken Bolek, who in the first game had gone 0 for 5, struck out twice and hurt himself trying to field a ball. Worse, in seven at bats in the tournament he had no hits. But in the second inning Bolek blasted a two-run homer to give his Wildcats a 2-0 lead; Arizona Pitcher (and designated hitter) Steve Powers threw smartly if not as hard as usual; and Stegman was, as usual, doing everything. ASU never challenged and lost 5-1.
ASU's Brock, having been whipped by both of the finalists, predicted, "Arizona will win going away." Believers from Ypsilanti pointed at Brock and snickered. They snickered too quick.
In each of the first two innings of the final, an Eastern Michigan base runner was picked off first. In the third, Arizona's Ron Hassey singled past Shortstop Glenn Gulliver, who fell down, and a run scored. Then came the fourth inning and four more runs for Arizona. Pete Van Home, who got 13 hits in the series to break Sal Bando's 11-year-old record, singled, and Powers homered. Two more runs scored on a Stegman double before Owchinko, in for starting Pitcher Bob Welch, got the side out.
Powers later singled in another run and Stegman tripled home a seventh. Eastern Michigan batsmen were baffled by Pitcher Bob Chaulk, who recorded his third tournament win. Chaulk said his coach, Jerry Kindall, told him one thing before the game: "You're startin'." EMU's only run was Gulliver's homer in the ninth, a bittersweet reminder of one he hit in the victory over ASU earlier in the week.
It is probably true that Arizona State was really this year's best team and Arizona really next best. But Eastern Michigan messed all that up, partly because it felt it fit in there somewhere and partly because its team members abide by Oestrike's dictum: "You do it my way or hit the highway." EMU got into the World Series in 1975 for the first time, but seemed slightly awed by the company it was keeping; 1976 found it unawed. So while Arizona savors its first national championship and ASU awaits another try (the Devils won their last title in 1969), both would do well to keep a wary eye on the Ypsilanti crowd.
What is Oestrike planning for his next money-raising project? "What I hope to do," he says, "is turn our fieldhouse into a Las Vegas-style casino for one night." You can bet your shirt, or underwear, that he'll clean up.