At first glance, there is no reason to suspect that Brigham Young might be a baseball power. It sits at the foot of Utah's Wasatch Mountains, and students care more about ski runs than home runs. But first impressions, like good fastballs, are deceptive, which makes it appropriate that the Cougars have two improbable stars who have a share in the team record for police arrests at one each. Led by senior Pitcher Scott Nielsen from Tacoma, Wash, and junior First Baseman Wally Joyner of Decatur, Ga., the Cougars were ranked No. 2 nationally as they entered this week's NCAA regional competition. BYU, which is 54-9 overall, believes it can break the Sun Belt stranglehold of 16 straight titles at the College World Series.
BYU Coach Gary Pullins wanted to cut Nielsen two years ago. And Pullins was disappointed when he first met Joyner. But the pair, unwanted and unsatisfactory, led the Cougars this spring to their 17th straight WAC Northern Division title. And last week BYU won the WAC tournament, defeating Southern Division champion San Diego State, the nation's No. 3 team, two out of three times.
Nielsen, no relation to former BYU Quarterback Gifford Nielsen, has set an NCAA record with 26 consecutive wins. He hasn't lost since 1977, and this year he's 14-0, with nine complete games in 15 starts and a 3.64 ERA. Joyner leads the WAC in batting with a .463 average, homers (22), doubles (32), and RBIs (92), sparking the nation's most productive offense (10.4 runs a game).
In November 1980, Nielsen returned to Provo from a two-year Mormon mission in Argentina. He was redshirted the following spring, then took part in fall practice. "It didn't look to me like Scott was into it," Pullins says. But what the coach may have taken for indifference was a more mature perspective: His accounting studies had become as important to Nielsen as baseball.
Pitching Coach Bob Noel interceded. He changed Pullins' mind and then changed Nielsen's fastball from an overhand to three-quarter delivery. Noel also helped Nielsen develop a slider. "We didn't remake him," Noel says. "We just made a few adjustments."
Pullins hasn't fooled with Joyner, though the coach has been fooled by him. When Joyner arrived at BYU from Georgia, where he had been the MVP of the state's biggest high school all-star game, he toured the Provo campus with his parents and his brother Brent. They ran into Pullins, who had agreed to take Joyner sight unseen, and began introducing themselves. Says Joyner, "Coach Pullins reached out to shake hands with my brother. He's a year older than I am and considerably bigger. Coach said, 'You must be Wally. I'm glad to meet you.' His face just dropped when my brother pointed to me and said, 'That's Wally.' "
"This was the Wally Joyner we had given a full scholarship to?" Pullins recalls. "He looked like a bowling pin." Wally was six feet, 160 pounds and had thin shoulders and a big butt.
Though weightlifting and just plain growing up have added 25 pounds and an inch to Joyner's physique, his appearance still isn't striking. However, his stats are. Last year he hit .445, 13th-best in the nation, and led the U.S. team with a .456 average in the World Championship games in Korea. "He's the best pure hitter I've seen since Arizona's Terry Francona came through," says Lou Pavlovich, managing editor of Collegiate Baseball.
According to Pavlovich, Texas is favored to continue the Sun Belt's NCAA domination, with BYU the consensus second choice. Nielsen, for one, disagrees. "One thing this team has is confidence in itself," he says. "We believe we can play Texas and spank them all over the field."
Nobody has spanked Nielsen since his freshman year, when he was 1-2. As a sophomore, he won his only decision during an injury-plagued season, then decided that even if his baseball career wasn't going anywhere, he was. He left on the mission to Argentina.
"When you go to a foreign country by yourself, work with other people, teach them, get to know their language, their culture, you gain a great deal of confidence," he says.
He needed it. An Argentine with whom Nielsen had been discussing the Mormon faith started fighting with a drunk who had insulted his wife. Nielsen tried to intercede. The police arrived and tossed everyone in jail. "They threw us into a retaining cell for an hour and a half," Nielsen says. "Then they let us out, questioned us about what had happened and threw us back in, but my friend and I were released half an hour later."
Joyner's brush with the law came in his freshman year. He is well mannered and soft-spoken, with a whisper of his native Georgia in his voice. Like Nielsen, he is married and is a Mormon. But, again, don't be fooled by first impressions. "He's not quiet and reserved by any means," says Pullins.
One night in Provo, Joyner and a teammate were arrested, fingerprinted and photographed for launching fireworks at each other. "It was like we had just robbed a bank," he says. "It must have been a slow Friday night."
Though BYU rosters list his age variously as 22 or 23, Nielsen is 25. Teammates call him Grandpappy, but his relationship with the other Cougars is actually part older brother, part father confessor.
Joyner, 20, was born with orange skin, the result of an Rh factor that required him to have two complete blood transfusions in his first 24 hours. At nine, he contracted a kidney disease that caused him to retain fluid. He gained 15 pounds overnight, and his parents took him to the hospital. Had they waited a day longer, physicians said, he would have died of heart failure.
Years later Atlanta Braves Outfielder Dale Murphy, who had met Pullins during an off-season semester of study at BYU, tipped him off about Joyner. Now, he is one of two big reasons why the Cougars could take the championship at the College World Series in Omaha June 3-12. And that's no snow job.