Never mind what you've heard, the baseball season did not start last week in Cincinnati and Milwaukee. Far from it. They have been playing high-caliber baseball in Arizona for almost two months now. Granted it's college ball, but if you do not think that is good or engrossing, you were not at Arizona State's Packard Stadium in Tempe last Thursday. The very day those hold-out, locked-out big-leaguers finally were getting down to real work, the two best college teams, complete with the two best college players and the best college rivalry in the country, were starting a three-game series of their own.
The combatants were top-ranked Arizona State (38-7) and No. 2 Arizona (32-10). Although the two had been playing games since mid-February, they had not yet faced each other. But their first series was worth waiting for. It marked the opening of the Western Athletic Conference schedule for both teams. In league play each game is critical, and that added extra fire to a rivalry that has been red hot ever since ASU began playing varsity baseball in 1959.
"Arizona fans used to boo us when we got off the bus in Tucson," says Fred Nelson, who played for the Sun Devils in the 1960s and now coaches Scottsdale Community College. "Once they let the air out of our tires." Nelson was among a crowd of 7,850 that attended the series opener. That figure was about 550 below capacity at Packard Stadium, but many of the empty seats appeared to have come disguised as fans. Another spectator was a man whose indecision could figure heavily in the American League standings, Reggie Jackson of the Oakland Orioles. Jackson, an Arizona State alumnus, could not stay away, although he claimed, "Baseball is the farthest thing from my mind."
He was entertained in spite of himself. The ASU starter was the country's leading collegiate pitcher, lefthander Floyd Bannister, who came into the game with a 9-1 record, a 1.43 earned run average and an average of 14 strikeouts per game. This night his performance would be merely ordinary for him, perhaps because he had been suffering from the flu for three days. Bannister gave up an unearned run in the first inning when Arizona State's freshman shortstop, Bob Horner, booted his first chance (this is no rivalry for rookies) and a couple of Arizona players sandwiched hits around a walk to the best-hitting prospect on any campus, Wildcat Outfielder Dave Stegman. Stegman began the series with a .455 average that did not include a 5-for-5 performance in an exhibition game against the Oakland A's.
The game soon turned into a pitching duel between Bannister and Craig Gioia, who leads Arizona in wins (7), ERA (2.10), strikeouts (50) and vowels. The moment of highest drama arrived with one out in the sixth inning when the Sun Devils loaded the bases. To the plate came Third Baseman Brandt Humphry, a rangy, bespectacled sophomore who was originally considered a defensive specialist but had worked his way into the regular lineup by batting .367. Gioia fooled him badly on two pitches, then Humphry worked the count to 3-2, choked up on his bat and guessed slider. His premonition was correct, and he lined a single to center that scored one run and keyed the game-breaking rally that led to the Sun Devils' 7-2 win.
The best late-inning viewing was in the stands, where the Hallmark Hecklers, a raucous group of Arizona State students, were holding forth. At one point Arizona blew a chance to get back in the game when Third-Base Coach Mark Johnson waved home a doomed runner. The Wildcat was tagged out, and the Hecklers chanted "M-I-C, K-E-Y, M-O-U-of-A." One of them, graduate student Neil Koven, had news for those Arizonans who claim the Sun Devil-Wildcat rivalry has mellowed. "We hate those SOBs," he said. "We built this field with private funds but the state built their field. The legislature is dominated by people from Tucson."
After the game, the quiet, studious Bannister, dressed in sneakers, corduroy pants, a white T shirt and a warmup jacket, sat in front of two Big Boy hamburgers and a large milk. All that was missing was a slice of American pie. Bannister could be in a major league uniform before the end of the summer, and he had just shown that he has major league mettle with a 145-pitch complete game despite the lingering flu. "I just hope the pros don't push me too fast," he said. "I don't want to blow my confidence. I hope they put me in Double A or wherever I really belong." He probably belongs far higher than he thinks.
In the second game Arizona State trailed 9-4 going into the seventh. "Remember Tulsa!" yelled the players, who were on their feet after the first two batters of the inning walked. ASU had trailed Tulsa 9-0 and rallied to win 14-9, and now there was an air of inevitability in the Sun Devil dugout that a similar rally was in the works. Ricky Peters singled, Ken Landreaux doubled and suddenly Arizona's lead was cut to 9-7. Another near capacity crowd, this one accurately figured at 8,338, roared as designated hitter Clay Westlake forced in a run with an infield out, and Ken Phelps tied the score with a bloop hit. Then with runners on second and third, the redoubtable Humphry delivered again, driving in the go-ahead run with a single on the first pitch. By the time the inning was over, the Sun Devils had rallied for six runs on six hits. They went on to win 11-9. "Fantastic doesn't begin to describe it," cheered ASU Coach Jim Brock, who had looked good himself by waving in Reliever Mitch Dean to snuff out a late Wildcat threat.
While the Sun Devils play with a late-inning explosiveness reminiscent of the Red Sox, they look more like the A's—Sal Bando's brother Chris is a reserve second baseman—and act more like the Reds. They use tobacco and snuff, chide each other and bait their foes. All the regulars are hitting better than .300, and 10 or more of the players are likely to sign professional contracts when the college season ends in June.
After the second loss Arizona was understandably depressed, and that even included Stegman, though he had not been retired in 10 trips to the plate. He had doubled twice, walked seven times and been hit by a pitch. He looks like a right-hand-hitting Fred Lynn, complete with a prominent nose (the State players call him Aardvark), an upright swing that consistently produces line drives, good eyes and exceptional range. In fact, he almost signed with the Red Sox after his junior year.
But instead of pointing to his impeccable record at the plate, Stegman drew attention to his lone mistake. He had been picked off first by ASU's sturdy Catcher Gary Allenson, who on a subsequent play provoked an uncharacteristic display of anger from Stegman. Even though he did not have the ball, Allenson blocked the plate when Stegman was scoring. "Don't ever do that, bleeper," said Stegman, an honor student in engineering who is even straighter than Bannister. "Stegman said that?" the ASU players laughed in disbelief. It made their night.
On Saturday they made their weekend, beating Arizona a third time with another routine come-from-behind rally, this one for three runs in the eighth. Center-fielder Landreaux, just a fraction less touted than Stegman, drove in the winning run, and Bannister got his 11th victory in relief.
"A few hits one way or another and it could have been different," said Stegman. Arizona—and its no less raucous fans—will have a chance to prove it during a three-game series in Tucson next month. Then, thanks to the NCAA's wild-card format, the archrivals could meet again in the College World Series. That makes perfect sense, because this is one intra-state rivalry that should be enjoyed by the whole nation.