California's Orange County, where housing tracts long ago replaced most of the citrus groves, is best known for Disneyland, far-right politics and the good sailing on Balboa Bay. But last Friday night baseball was king. The California Angels beat Detroit 6-4 at Anaheim Stadium to go 1½ games up in the American League West. And 1,600 miles away in Omaha, another home product, the heretofore little-known Cal State Fullerton Titans, won the College World Series, edging Arkansas in the championship game 2-1.
Fullerton High produced Hall of Famers Walter Johnson and Arky Vaughan, but it was the first NCAA Division I title in any sport for the 19-year-old university, a victory made all the sweeter because the team had had several brushes with elimination. In the West Regional, the Titans lost their first game, then came roaring out of the losers' bracket to twice beat powerful UCLA. At Omaha, they were whipped 6-1 by Mississippi State in their opener and then rattled off five straight wins. In six of their nine tournament victories, they had to fight from behind, swinging their aluminum bats with wicked effect.
Everyone knows that California is as rich in major league baseball prospects as it is in avocados. Cal State Fullerton has a lineup full of the former, many of them already sporting all-star mustaches, spitting professional-quality streams of tobacco juice and dreaming of multiyear contracts. First Baseman Tim Wallach, a slugging senior who was twice the MVP in the Southern California Baseball Association, was the 10th player picked in last week's major league draft (by Montreal). Outfielder Salvatore (Sam) Favata breezed into Omaha batting a gaudy .432 and was racing Pepperdine's Tim Gloyd for the national lead in stolen bases. The four starting pitchers had a collective 45-8 won-lost record before the series got under way.
Coach Augie Garrido knew he had a deeper, more talented squad than the one he had in 1975, the only other year the Titans had made it to Omaha (where they were eliminated early). But he felt that the team would need some unexpected heroes to survive the double-elimination competition.
Those heroes emerged, especially in Thursday night's penultimate-game victory over a California baseball power, Pepperdine. Both teams had won three straight after dropping their openers and were playing for the right to meet Arkansas in the final. The Razorbacks were also once beaten (by Fullerton) but had gotten a bye into the final because they had remained undefeated longer than the other two teams.
Mickey Palmer, banished to the bench because of a batting slump late in the season, started against Pepperdine because the regular rightfielder was injured. He went 5 for 6, scored a run and knocked in a pair in an 8-5 victory. Catcher Kurt Kingsolver, whose father played for Oklahoma State in the 1954 College World Series, threw out three base runners and picked another off first. Kingsolver was batting .264 before Omaha but hit .476 in the series. Unfortunately, his father wasn't there to enjoy it. He is a geothermal engineer and was in China studying geysers.
Sophomore Tony Hudson, once a highly recruited high school veer quarterback, pitched the last 2‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings against Pepperdine, allowed only a walk and a ground-ball single and recorded his third save of the series.
Arkansas was a much less likely finalist than Fullerton. At least Fullerton had won its league championship and was ranked third in the final college baseball poll. The Hogs had finished second to perennially strong Texas in the Southwest Conference and had been shunted off to fill a slot in the East Regional, qualifying for the series by virtue of a 4-3 victory over Delaware in the eastern final.
Razorback Coach Norm DeBriyn originally had been hired by the school to teach driver education, and he was the second choice when the baseball job opened up in 1970. Nevertheless, he has built Arkansas into a perennial challenger of Texas.
"They used to say we couldn't have a serious baseball program...because of the weather," DeBriyn told the newspaper Collegiate Baseball. "That's a rationalization. If that were true, there wouldn't be any baseball north of Missouri. We've played earlier every year and people come out and watch us in March, when the weather is certainly not too comfortable. I grew up in northern Wisconsin. To me, Fayetteville, Arkansas has great baseball weather."
Not bad hitters, either. Freshman Outfielder Kevin McReynolds, swinging a 36" aluminum bat (Pete Rose uses a 35" bat, Rod Carew, a 34½"), was merely hitting .714 going into the final. His home run, double and three RBIs had helped upset Texas 9-4 earlier in the week. (Pepperdine eliminated the No. 1-ranked Longhorns the next evening, 6-4.)
"I think the longer bat's got a lot to do with it," said McReynolds. "I had asked the coach to get one all year. Before the World Series, a manufacturer gave us one. It lets me stand back a bit and get my arms extended."
Perhaps the Razorbacks' finest all-round player was Shortstop Larry Wallace, who has been almost totally deaf since age two. A fine fielder, he was also hitting .533 going into the final. He doesn't wear his hearing aids in games because his batting helmet interferes with them. When he calls for a pop fly his teammates have no choice but to stand clear.
Arkansas had never won an NCAA team championship in any sport, so there was plenty of tension in the championship game. Adding to the drama, thunderheads were massed over Rosenblatt Municipal Stadium, but no raindrops fell, nor was there the kind of outpouring of runs that both teams had been producing. Fullerton had scored 46 times in five games, while Arkansas scored 34 runs in four. That's what's called getting good metal on the ball.
Indeed, the final was a pitchers' duel, Arkansas' Steve Krueger against Fullerton's Dave Weatherman, who had been knocked out in the first inning by Pepperdine the night before. This time he was sharp, and so was Krueger.
The game was decided in the bottom of the sixth. With the score 1-1, the fleet Favata reached first on an error. He stole second (his 66th theft of the season) and continued to third on a throwing error by the usually accurate Hog catcher, Ronn Reynolds. Power-hitter Wallach drove him in with a sacrifice fly. It was Wallach's 102nd RBI of the season, tying the unofficial NCAA record set last year by Arizona State's Chris Bando.
Weatherman finished strong, facing the minimum number of batters in the last three innings. The rubber-armed Hudson, later named the tournament MVP, warmed up a bit in the bullpen, but Garrido didn't need to call on him.
"What a heck of a job Weatherman did," said Kingsolver. "They're such a good hitting team, and for him to hold them like that—just super. Weatherman can't do any better than this. He can't pitch any better.
"We're tough. You can't beat a team like ours, a team with guts. I'll tell you."