To Jim Brock, Arizona State University's rookie baseball coach, his team's 1-0 loss to Southern California last Friday in the championship game of the 26th annual NCAA tournament at Omaha meant more than just some heartbreak for his men; it was a sorrowful setback for the fast, crisp, "modern" style of play he preaches.
"It does seem like the things we try to do are always on the side of right," Brock had said after his Sun Devils beat Southern Cal 3-0 in their first meeting of the lose-twice-and-you're-out tournament. This was not an allusion to the fact that State had a remarkable .331 team batting average for the season, or that it had outscored opponents by 8.68 to 2.33 runs per game, or that it had won 60 games while losing only four prior to Omaha—the highest season victory total ever amassed by any college team in any sport.
Certainly these accomplishments seem solidly on the side of right, but what Brock had in mind was the fresh, almost revolutionary, approach to the game that makes Arizona Stale baseball stimulating. For the last 14 seasons, first under Bobby Winkles and now Brock, ASU players have been taught always to keep cool, never debate an umpire's decision, never bench-jockey and, above all, always to hustle—everywhere. The pitcher sprints out to the mound—and sprints back. ASU batters have made an anachronism of the term walk. When a fourth bad pitch sails by, they run to first as if legging out a grounder. After striking out, ASU batters pivot smartly and race pell-mell back to the dugout.
"It's a really fine system," says Pitcher Jim Crawford, a 6'3" senior lefthander who has been drafted by the Houston Astros. He had a 12-1 season but was the luckless loser to Southern Cal in the final. "In pro ball it's the pitcher who usually slows up the game, and so running to the mound speeds things up. Your infielders will play better if they don't have to stand around a lot. It's also much better for the fans."
The go-go game trend is catching on. Each year ASU faces more and more teams that hustle the same way, which isn't exactly a surprise considering the team's recent record. Since 1965 the Sun Devils have won three national championships and have had five seasons in which their victory total has topped 50 games. When Winkles signed on as first-base coach with the California Angels last winter, Brock was a natural successor. His teams at nearby Mesa Community College had won two national junior college titles adhering to a similar philosophy. In addition to a congenial system Brock also inherited talent. This included the best college pitching in the country and a junior shortstop, Alan Bannister, who hits with power and is probably the best college player in the land; he drove in 89 runs in 64 games. With Bannister and other consistent hitters (including Maury Wills' son Bump), their fine pitchers, real speed and their vaunted hustle, ASU ran up a 32-game win streak and even defeated the Angels in an exhibition game.
Meanwhile, out on the Coast, the Trojans, NCAA champions in 1970 and 1971, had injuries and player losses to the pros, but they still won 45 games (losing 12) and got to Omaha anyway.
"There are other clubs with better personnel, especially pitching depth," said Brock before Arizona State's decisive game with USC, "but what they have going for them especially is a mystique—a long winning tradition that helps them when the pressure builds."
Much of this tradition has grown up under Rod Dedeaux, an extrovert who has made a fortune in the trucking business while moonlighting as USC baseball coach since 1942. During that time the Trojans have won eight NCAA championships.
"We never go out on the field with any thought of losing," said Pitcher Mark Sogge. "We feel the other team can't beat us unless we make mistakes, and we don't make many. We win when it counts."
The Sun Devils endured many an anguished moment as the games sped by. ASU's usually freewheeling hitters went into a deep freeze at the plate and could push across only eight runs in their first five games, four of which they won on superb pitching: 2-1 (in one hour, 45 minutes), 1-0 (2:02), 3-0 (1:58)and 1-0 (1:45) before losing the first rematch to USC by 3-1 (2:37). So the teams were tied with 4-1 records, and a third meeting was needed to determine the winner. Brock saw it as a clash between two wholly different baseball philosophies. "They play what I would call the old-fashioned professional style," he said. "Good execution, ride the other team, argue with the ump. We're the new trend."
Unfortunately for Arizona State, its tournament-long problem—failing to strike the ball with the bat—proved more important than game theory. USC scored the contest's only run in the third inning on a wild pitch by Crawford, while ASU stranded clusters of base runners. Russ McQueen, a sophomore, pitched five beautiful innings in relief of Sogge, winning the game—and an unprecedented third straight NCAA title for USC.
"I can hardly believe I've done it," McQueen said afterward. "I was so tense I tried to get superrelaxed by pretending that I just didn't give a damn."
Now there is a baseball philosophy that worked.