College baseball and its fans have gotten what they asked for,
and it's no good. Runs. Runs. More runs. So much offense that
Howard Stern looks tame in comparison. So much juice that
Orangina is obsolete. All of you who moaned about 2-1 pitching
duels? Congrats. The game now scores like football, smells like
slo-pitch softball and plays like Tiger Woods with a 100-mph
wind at his back.
This is an article from the June 15, 1998 issue
On the bright side, free balls. On the downside: USC 21, Arizona
That's not a Trojans-Sun Devils football score but the
eye-popping, record-setting tally in last Saturday's College
World Series final, an affair that gave Southern Cal an
unmatched 12th NCAA baseball title and, sadly, transformed one
of the national pastime's most treasured events into what Long
Beach State coach Dave Snow appropriately called Arenaball. The
Series was high-scoring, high-flying, high-octane--and highly
"The whole thing is a joke," Arizona State third baseman Andrew
Beinbrink said after the last ball had left the yard. "Baseball
is about strategy, not how many home runs you can finish with.
It's gotten out of hand."
Waaaay out of hand. Consider the following: During the nine days
at Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium, the eight teams hit 62 home runs
to smash the old College World Series mark by 14. Homers were
hit long. Homers were hit short. Homers were hit with the wind,
against the wind and through no wind at all.
Louisiana State belted eight home runs in one game and then came
back to hit six two days later. In the title game Sun Devil
Michael Collins--a 5'10", 170-pound twig of a shortstop--blasted
a grand slam in the second inning that easily cleared the
leftfield wall. He was outdone only by series Most Outstanding
Player Wes Rachels, the Trojans' second baseman and
front-running candidate in the I Will Never, Ever Hit With Power
sweepstakes. Rachels went 5 for 7, with a deep home run of his
own and seven RBIs.
Somewhere, Mark Belanger is smiling.
Depending on whom you ask, college baseball is either fantastic
(NCAA pencil necks), oversupplied with tiny stadiums (fans
without seats), too pitching-lite (USC coach Mike Gillespie) or
too dependent on the head-bashing water pipes that the folks at
Easton have taken to calling bats. To its credit, the
NCAA--which usually deals with this sort of thing about as
smoothly as Keanu Reeves handles a dramatic role--announced a
joint research effort with the Sporting Goods Manufacturing
Association to examine high scoring. That's nice, really. But,
considering Rosenblatt's 332-408-332 outfield dimensions, it's
also a waste of time. The answer is obvious: Play baseball in a
shoebox with large metal sticks, and this is what you get.
"Someone has to start regulating these bats and making them like
wood," said Rod Dedeaux, the legendary former Southern Cal
baseball coach, who was waddling around the infield after the
final--smiling from dimple to dimple. "I mean, this was a great
game. A really great game. Another great game was in 1931--USC
16, Notre Dame 14. But that was football. It's become ridiculous."
The lone saving grace of this competition gone batty was the
spirited Trojans, who gleefully bounded from game to game like a
pack of Cub Scouts at the Pinewood Derby. USC set a school
record with 114 homers this year, including postseason play, but
it achieved its 49-17 record mostly with good pitching, solid
defense and a scrappy style. The fourth-seeded Trojans dropped
their Series opener to two-time defending champ LSU but went on
to oust No. 1 Florida and No. 8 Mississippi State in elimination
games. Southern Cal then did what zero fans thought it could
do--win back-to-back games against Louisiana State, which had
hit 14 home runs in its first two games of the series.
"Put LSU in the Pac-10, and it's just another team," Southern
Cal closer Jack Krawczyk said after the Trojans' 5-4 win over
the Tigers last Thursday and before their 7-3 victory on Friday.
"A lot of the Eastern schools rely on small stadiums and the
bats to win games. They hit home runs and get by without other
skills. But when it comes to playing, they're nothing too
Southern Cal and Arizona State, heated Pac-10 rivals who were
clearly special, had met six times in the regular season, each
winning three games. While Sun Devils coach Pat Murphy often
relies on head games and motivational tricks to rally his
players--last Friday night he accused USC players and coaches of
stealing signs, saying, "They're probably the best at it of
anyone we see"--Gillespie takes a more restrained approach with
his senior-laced team. If response to accusations of the sort
Murphy made was a test, Gillespie and his gang are A students.
Gillespie simply denied the charge (no elaboration) while the
Trojans' motivational leader, Rachels, just shrugged it off. "At
least Coach Murphy said we're good at it," he said, chuckling.
Even Krawczyk, a loquacious eccentric nicknamed Fish because he
throws a lot of changeups, passed the exam. "The ultimate word
comes on the field," he said. "Nothing matters except how we
The next day Krawczyk's words rang true. First baseman Robb
Gorr's home runs in the first and second innings lifted the
Trojans to an early 8-0 lead, an advantage that USC, though
challenged repeatedly, never relinquished. It was sort of like a
steroid-tainted game of Ping-Pong: You hit it hard, fine. I'll
hit it harder. USC scored five runs in the top of the second.
The Sun Devils answered with five in the bottom half. USC scored
three in the seventh, so--naturally--the Sun Devils came back
with five more. By the time Southern Cal designated hitter Jason
Lane smashed a ninth-inning grand slam, the game's ninth and
last home run, many spectators were in a state of disbelief. The
slugfest featured 89 at bats, 39 hits, 10 pitchers and a huge
dose of Rachels, who entered the game batting only .238 in the
series and left it hitting .357.
When he was a kid, Rachels, a Los Angeles native, would sit in
front of the television with his father, Arthur, a
family-practice physician, watching baseball games and analyzing
hitters. "He was always pushing me, pushing me, pushing me,"
says Wes. "It wasn't so much that he needed me to be a baseball
player, but he really wanted me to reach my potential as a
Arthur developed prostate cancer in the mid-1990s, but he still
went to Wes's college games, which he watched from atop a
parking garage behind the rightfield fence at Southern Cal's
Dedeaux Field. In February of last year, while Wes was playing
in Hilo, Hawaii, Arthur died.
"I know that he's watching right now and that he's proud of me,"
said Wes on Saturday afternoon, after looking skyward in tribute
before each at bat. "My dad wanted me to work hard and to try my
best. This moment, for him, would've been unbelievable."
Just as it was for a game that--welcome to the 21st
century!--has somehow lost its way.