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Monkey Off His Back With one of his lesser clubs, Miami's Jim Morris finally got an NCAA title

June 28, 1999
June 28, 1999

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June 28, 1999

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Monkey Off His Back With one of his lesser clubs, Miami's Jim Morris finally got an NCAA title

Whenever Miami baseball coach Jim Morris sees a replay of gimpy
Kirk Gibson hitting his dramatic game-winning homer in the 1988
World Series, Morris never thinks about the joy it brought to
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. Instead he ponders
the heartache it caused Oakland A's skipper Tony La Russa.

This is an article from the June 28, 1999 issue Original Layout

Morris's reaction harks back to his own Gibsonian tragedy. Three
years ago at the College World Series in Omaha, Louisiana
State's Warren Morris belted Hurricanes closer Robbie Morrison's
first pitch, a curveball, for a two-out, two-run homer in the
bottom of the ninth inning to seal a stunning 9-8 victory and
steal the national title from Miami.

During the ensuing endless summer, Jim Morris endured a
recurring nightmare in which he found himself trapped under the
bleachers at Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium, unable to escape.
Nowadays, whenever he picks up the morning paper and scans the
major league box scores to review the progress of his former
players, he can't resist also checking what rookie second
baseman Warren Morris did the day before for the Pittsburgh
Pirates. "I still haven't gotten over that homer," said Jim
Morris, choking up at the memory last Friday evening. "Warren
Morris could see that curveball 100 more times and never hit it
out again."

So the next afternoon in Omaha, during the championship game of
the 1999 College World Series against Florida State, the
eeriness was almost too cruel to bear. Once again Morris sat in
the Miami dugout, one run ahead with two outs in the ninth
inning. This time, however, the Hurricanes got the third out.
This time Miami won, 6-5. This time Morris got his championship.

As Morris, 47, neared the end of his title quest last week, he
couldn't stop dwelling on its beginnings. He reminisced
repeatedly about the day in October 1993 that he came to Miami
to interview for the coaching job, which was open after the
one-year tenure of Brad Kelley. During Morris's tour of Mark
Light Stadium, the clubhouse bathroom was being cleaned, and its
door was propped open by the Hurricanes' 1974 national runner-up
trophy. At any other school that hardware would be revered, but
at Miami, which has now made 18 trips to the College World
Series, it was a doorstop.

A few weeks later, after Morris had accepted the Miami job, he
met Ethel Light, whose family donated the money to construct the
stadium. Morris remembers being introduced (as if Kelley's stint
had never happened) with the following words: "Mrs. Light, this
is Ron Fraser's replacement." Before shaking Morris's hand,
Light responded coolly, "Nobody will ever replace Ron Fraser."

In 30 years at Miami the legendary Fraser had a 1271-438-9
record and had won national titles in 1982 and '85. Morris's
office is located in the Ron Fraser building on Ron Fraser Way,
and it was because of Fraser that not much was made last week of
Morris's being the first coach ever to reach the College World
Series in his first six years at a school. The more commonly
heard factoid was that the Hurricanes had finished fifth, third,
second, third and fifth, respectively, in Morris's first five
visits.

Even Morris acknowledged that the team (41-13 in the regular
season) he brought to Omaha this year wasn't his best. Gone from
the 1998 squad were Pat Burrell, Jason Michaels and Aubrey Huff,
the three best hitters in the history of the program, all of
whom were chosen in the first five rounds of last year's draft.
Six Miami players suffered season-ending injuries, including
catcher and cleanup hitter Russ Jacobson.

Yet in some ways Morris considered himself lucky. He replaced
Jacobson with Greg Lovelady, a walk-on who was the Hurricanes'
bullpen catcher a year ago. Lovelady hit .358 over the last 26
games of the regular season. Morris converted junior college
transfer Mike Neu, a righthander, from a starter to a closer and
watched him lead the nation in strikeouts per nine innings
(14.9). He was surprised to still have righthander Alex Santos,
drafted in the third round by the Dodgers in 1998 and the only
pick (of 27) Los Angeles couldn't sign. Santos went 13-3 for
Miami this year. Morris also welcomed back third baseman Lale
Esquivel, who played for the Hurricanes in 1997 but transferred
to Alabama and then North East Texas Community College before
returning to Coral Gables and hitting .354 with 13 homers and 58
RBIs this season.

"Last year we had bigger stars, but we were divided into
cliques," Lovelady says. "This year we've been through so much
adversity and so many injuries, but we've hung together as a
team."

In this Aluminum Age of college baseball, Morris's teams are
throwbacks to the days when teams won with pitching and defense
and weren't afraid to burn outs with sacrifice bunts. Morris had
no grand expectations for this year's small-ball club until the
afternoon when Fraser, now a Hurricanes television broadcaster,
told him, "It's not always the most talented team that wins it
all. I really think this is your year." Fraser had been
particularly impressed by Miami's five wins in six
regular-season games against the archrival Seminoles, including
four gritty one-run victories.

The familiarity between the two Sunshine State schools spiced up
Saturday's reunion. The two teams were meeting for the 205th
time in the last 48 years (Florida State leads the series
106-96-3), and there were 41 Floridians on the title-game
rosters. Unfortunately for the Seminoles, they had exhausted
their pitching staff by using seven hurlers in an arduous 14-11,
13-inning elimination-game win over Stanford on Friday. So while
Morris enjoyed the luxury of starting Santos and backing him up
with a 12-game winner, righthander David Gil, Florida State was
forced to counter with freshman righthander Blair Varnes, who
was hobbled by a torn left knee ligament suffered during a
celebratory pileup after the Seminoles' clinching victory over
Auburn in the superregional.

Taking advantage of Varnes's immobility and adhering to his
small-ball philosophy, Morris ordered two of his first three
hitters to lay down bunts. But Miami would not have to rely on
station-to-station offense this day. It built a 6-2 lead on the
muscle of first baseman Kevin Brown, who hit his 22nd homer in
the second inning and had a bases-loaded double to right in the
fifth.

Florida State crawled back to within 6-5 after eight innings. To
a man, the Hurricanes admitted that in that tense top of the
ninth they thought back to 1996. Brown checked and rechecked the
scoreboard in disbelief. Junior shortstop Bobby Hill looked to
the sky and asked for help. Darin Spassoff, a fifth-year senior
pitcher and the only player left from the '96 team, retreated
from the dugout's top step, where he had giddily anticipated a
title three years earlier, and sat on the bench. Meanwhile,
Morris calmed his nerves with his one and only fond memory of
'96: Athletic director Paul Dee came to Morris's hotel suite
after the wrenching defeat and consoled him by saying, "At least
we've got another doorstop."

On the mound Neu inspired himself with thoughts of the only game
he had ever saved before this season, when he closed out the
California junior college championship last spring. Neu then
reared back and struck out Kevin Cash on a 3-2 count to end the
game. Neu's last pitch was a curveball. "Finally, we leave here
crying good tears instead of sad tears," Hill said afterward.
"Now people will stop asking Coach, 'When? When?' Maybe they'll
even quit showing the highlight of Warren Morris and replace it
with today's last strike."

--Tim Crothers

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Backed by Hill, the peripatetic Esquivel was well placed to make the penultimate out.COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Lovelady and closer Neu, the battery that helped put a charge into Miami, celebrated the win.
"Last year we had bigger stars but were divided into cliques,"
Miami catcher Lovelady says. "This year we've hung together."