At the College World Series, where the dingers actually do go ding, no team has ever hit more homers of more Homeric length than Louisiana State did last week. At the CWS, in which game scores traditionally resemble Senate votes, no team has ever scored as many runs per game as LSU did in winning its first national championship.
"LSU scored a thousand runs in their first three games," Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson estimated before his team lost to the Tigers 6-3 in Saturday's final. At least a thousand.
Or so it seemed before an audit revealed that the Tigers, in fact, produced only 42 runs in winning their first three series games in Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium—by scores of 8-1, 15-3 and 19-8. Their eight home runs to that point were already just one short of the series record. Rightfielder Lyle Mouton, who launched three of those smart bombs, had done what Chris Jackson, his former partner in the LSU basketball team's starting back-court, never could do, though not for a lack of trying: Mouton hit a 425-foot shot.
"I prefer quantity to quality," said Mouton's roommate, catcher Gary Hymel, who hit four home runs of slightly shorter distances in those first three games. So studly had Hymel been in hitting two homers against Florida on June 5 that when he was drilled in the head by a pitch in that game, he retrieved the missile and politely tossed it underhanded back to the mound on his way to first base.
June 16, 1991
Why then, with all this heavy-metal being played by the Tigers, was the crowd at Rosenblatt so startled when the team tied a series record with its ninth home run last Saturday, taking Wichita State starter Tyler Green deep in the second inning?
Perhaps it was because the Philadelphia Phillies had made Green the 10th pick overall in the major leagues' amateur draft June 3. Or perhaps it was because, later that draft day, many in this crowd had seen Green strike out 14 of the hometown favorite Creighton's batters, ringing up customer after customer like an express-lane cashier at the A&P.
Or perhaps it was because the Bayou Bengal who hit the two-run dinger on Saturday to give LSU a 4-0 lead, who exchanged unpleasantries with Green while crossing the plate, and who was promptly (and preemptively) plunked on the hip by another pitcher in his next at bat, was the 5'9", 162-pound Armando Rios, who had hit one fewer home run all year than Hymel, the series's Most Outstanding Player, had hit all last week.
"I'm running the bases," recalled Rios, "and [Green] is all mad, and he's looking at me, and the catcher says, 'Just wait until the next time you're up.' I went back to the dugout, and some of our guys told me to watch out, that I was gonna get hit next time up. I said, 'If they do it, I'll be glad. I'll take it for the team. And I'll score.' " Which is precisely what Rios, upon reaching first base after indeed being hit, told Wheatshockers reliever Doug Dreifort he would do. Moments later, he scored—on teammate Rich Cordani's triple.
In this aluminum-abetted game, in which even the Punch-and-Judyest of batters hit Willard Scott's weight, center-fielder Rios's average of .293 was average as averages go. And yet: "They tell me I'm a hot dog," he says. "And I am like that. I'm a Puerto Rican. We're like that."
And now, in a sense, the College World Series is like that too. Long the Billy Barty of major NCAA championships, the 45-year-old CWS is beginning to assert It-self in its own charmingly cheese-ball manner—stepping forth gingerly among the bowl games and the basketball Final Four as a big-time college sports spectacle. Though it is still an exhibition of the latest in rally-cappery and a show of uniformly ugly uniforms—Florida State's gold-and-maroon numbers should be legislated against—the series has become much more than that.
Saturday's crowd of 16,612, for instance, was a record for the final game. The crowd of 18,206 that watched Green and the Shockers win their 14-K marathon against Creighton, 3-2 in 12 innings, was an alltime single-game series record. If it seemed as if ticket lines were a mile long last week, it may be because they were. Literally. The games themselves were two miles long, averaging a record-tying three hours and eight minutes.
Television, with its obligatory commercials, has something to do with that last factoid. CBS has televised the final for the last four years, and it dictated that though this is a double-elimination tournament, the nationally televised final would be a single-elimination game for the title. Which is why Wichita State's only loss knocked them out.
CBS televised two games this year—ESPN did 11 more—and the cameras have begun to create Warholian stars. Long Beach State shortstop Rudy Rodriguez, for one, thought it would be cool to play with an unlighted matchstick dangling Bogie-style from his mouth, which he did. He should also have worn this warning: CLOSE COVER BEFORE STRIKING OUT. That's just what he and the rest of the 49ers did while being flambèed out of the eight-team series almost immediately.
Fresno State also got the hook early. "We're desert rats, so we can stand the heat," coach Bob Bennett boasted into a microphone one withering Nebraska day, before adding, somewhat less menacingly, "But we're not used to the humidity." Desert rats who can't take the humidity? As the LSU bench likes to say in another context, "Get outta here!"
Everywhere, it seemed, the players were going big time in Boys' Town. Mouton hyped Saturday's power-versus-pitching matchup as "a clash of the titans," as if the game were some pay-per-view wrestling extravaganza. And there was an equally trumped-up moment after Creighton was eliminated by Wichita State on Thursday night. Two mounted policemen rode onto the field, in imitation of their major league brethren, to guard either baseline should a two-fan mob pour onto the field.
And if all of the preceding did not augur the event's new importance, there was this: Earlier on Thursday evening, a pair of middle-aged knuckleheads showed up bearing two professionally counterfeited press credentials that identified their bearers as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writers. The duo made it into the stadium and to the front row of the press box before their manic applause for Creighton and their clean and stylish clothing betrayed the men as impostors among the press.
But before the perps could cover the losers' locker room for this reporter, they were nabbed by Jim Wright, the media coordinator for the NCAA, which has had to incorporate a counterfeit-proof hologram into its basketball Final Four press tags. "This is a [CWS] first," said an almost exuberant Wright. "I guess we've finally made it."
In fact, the NCAA has hindered college baseball's growth. In announcing reductions in scholarships and coaching positions in various sports last January, the NCAA pared baseball scholarships from the current 13 per team to 11.7, effective in 1992. "If we had more scholarship aid, we could keep in school the kids who are now going to pro ball early," says LSU coach Skip Bertman. "What bugs me is, Why punish us because a football team got nailed? Because Barry Switzer was not honest at Oklahoma?"
Maybe it seemed like the CWS had arrived because Creighton, whose campus is five miles from Rosenblatt Stadium, finally made it to the series and the site that has hosted it since 1950. Last year some of the Bluejays worked the series as gofers for ESPN; this year they helped the network get some high ratings. The Jays' first game against Wichita State drew a 2.5 share, just slightly lower than ESPN's average for its highest-rated major league telecast, Sunday Night Baseball.
Creighton was also responsible for the line of general-admission ticket holders that snaked for nearly a mile around the Rosenblatt grounds before the Bluejays' second, and final, game against Wichita State on Thursday, an 11-3 embalming. "This town has been great," Creighton second baseman Mike McCafferty said afterward. "We're down eight runs in the eighth, and the bleachers are still chanting, 'Blue Jays! "
"It's too bad we were in the same bracket [as Wichita State]," said senior Scott Stahoviak, the Bluejays' All-America third baseman and a first-round pick this year of the Minnesota Twins. "It's too bad we couldn't beat them. I'm still not sure they're a better team." Stahove, babe, smell the Java. Wichita State beat you eight times in eight tries this season. CU, later.
The loss did let some air out of the series. It was fun, fun, fun until the Shockers took the Bluebirds away. About that time, the Miami Maniac, a neon furball who traditionally delights the fans at Rosenblatt even when the Hurricanes aren't in the tournament, also bolted. Refused a pay raise this year, the Maniac left town three days before the final game, telling the Omaha World-Herald on its way out of there, "Business decisions have to be made."
Indeed. Business decisions have to be made. Mouton, a 6'4", 230-pound junior who left the hoops team to concentrate on baseball following the 1988-89 season, called his time in Omaha "a business trip." He will sign with the New York Yankees, who chose him in the third round last week, rather than return to Baton Rouge next season.
Green, also a junior, will eventually dial for big dollars with the digits he uses to throw his singular knuckle-curve. He discovered the pitch accidentally as a high school freshman while playing catch with his father, Charley, in their Denver backyard, squeezing out a ball that broke so sharply, straight down, that it struck the senior Green, an erstwhile Oakland Raider quarterback, on the knee.
The pitch neither knuckled nor curved on Saturday, when Green was thoroughly outshone by Louisiana State starter Chad Ogea, who gave up three hits in seven-plus innings. Green's three-inning outing, however, was not for a lack of preparation time during the previous week. There was plenty of downtime in the Big O.
"We scheduled a bunch of activities," said LSU's Bertman. "Eat, rent a movie and, of course, a lot of lobby sitting."
"We walk over to the mall every day to get some food," Green said of Wichita State's schedule. "Other than that, there's not a lot else to do." A civic cheap shot, that. Had they wanted to, for instance, the Shockers could have toured a replica of the Omaha house in which Gerald R. Ford was born.
Instead, on Saturday at Rosenblatt, they saw up close the Omaha house in which a more charismatic star was born. Sophomore Rios transferred this spring to LSU from North Carolina—Charlotte and played the season in obscurity. Until, that is, "they gave me a pitch to hit," as he put it. "And I swung at it."
He swung, and ping went the strings of a proud 19-year-old's heart. "That is the Puerto Rican style," said Rios. "You can hit me. You gotta kill me to stop me." In conversation, it appears, as well as in baseball. And why not? It was undeniably his day.
His father, an accountant, was watching the game on TV in Puerto Rico, where Armando will return on Father's Day weekend. "This is like a dream to me," Rios said. "My dad told me, 'This is it. This is your dream. You're gonna be live. Everyone in Puerto Rico will be watching you.' And I did good. I can't wait to go home."