The Texas Longhorns and the Miami Hurricanes are to the College World Series what tulips are to gardens. They pop up for two glorious weeks almost every spring.
This year things were supposed to be different in Omaha. Stanford and Oklahoma State were the pre-Series favorites, and the old guard wasn't given much of a chance. But after the dust had settled, there they were again, Miami and Texas, coached by the second- and third-most successful men in college baseball history, Ron Fraser and Cliff Gustafson.
Texas has been to the NCAA tournament 24 times now, 13 under Gustafson, including the last five years. The Hurricanes first came to Omaha in 1974 and have been back seven times. Miami swept in 1982. Texas swept in 1983 and finished second last year. These weren't just teams; they were institutions.
They had other similarities, too. "Neither of us has the real top college hitter, and we both score runs in a lot of different fashions," said Gustafson. "We always find a way to win," said Fraser. "Every game is like a crapshoot."
Miami and Texas aside, this year's tournament had promised to be a slugfest of power hitters and power teams like South Carolina, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State, Arkansas and Stanford. But of those teams, only the Bulldogs and Razorbacks made it to the Final Four. Star billing went to heavyweight bats Pete Incaviglia of OSU and Will Clark of MSU. Incaviglia, a leftfielder, had set an all but untouchable college standard for home runs (48) and RBIs (143) in a season; Clark, a superb first baseman, hit .467 and had two home runs at Omaha while handling the media like a pro.
From the first ping of the bat, the 39th Series seemed a little odd. Games ranged from scoreless after 13 innings to 14-run blowouts. Twice, MSU rightfielder Bobby Thigpen walked in from the outfield to relieve. And Texas's Dennis Cook occasionally dived headfirst into first base, "to throw the umpire off." Cook slides with such abandon that he's known as—ouch—the Human Scab.
Omaha was a strange place to be practicing voodoo, but all the semifinal teams relied on charms. MSU players hid a piece of "cursed" lava next to the opposing team's bat rack. Arkansas' players took their hats off and shook them to ward off third outs. Fraser wore his lucky black coaching shoes to help get a crucial win. "It was a real sacrifice 'cause they're ugly and they kill my feet," he said. And when the Longhorns fell behind, they would flip their "rally caps" backward to spur a comeback.
Both Miami and Texas needed all the help they could get in their semifinal matchups on Saturday. Against the Bulldogs, the Hurricanes were down 5-4 in the last of the ninth, with one man on. The loser would be eliminated, the winner would head for the final. Junior Greg Ellena, an electrical engineering major with 2½ years of bench experience, was due up. A year ago, coaches wouldn't even let Ellena, a walk-on, take batting practice at Omaha because they knew he would never get to play.
"I thought to myself, 'Hmmm, home run,' " said Ellena, "and then I thought, 'Nah, too storybook.' " But it happened. Ellena tagged his 14th homer of the year, to left center. The Bulldogs were stunned.
Ellena's roomie in Omaha, third baseman Jon Leake, wasn't. "Every time Greg sleepwalks he gets one," Leake said, "and he sleepwalked last night."
Texas's semifinal against rival Arkansas started out like a nightmare as the Razorbacks jumped to a 7-0 lead. But Texas fought back, scraping up one run in the sixth and rallying for five more in the seventh. The Longhorns pulled even in the ninth and second baseman Bill Bates, a 5'7" dynamo, ripped a triple to lead off the 10th. Doug (the DH) Hodo singled to right to score Bates for the win.
The pride of Texas was pitcher Greg Swindell, who brought a 17-1 record, a 1.66 ERA and three saves to Omaha. "I don't think you could've ever envisioned what he's been for us," said Gustafson. With the help of a rain delay, Swindell started and won Texas's first two games. At 19-1, the 90-mph lefthander wanted to become only the second 20-game winner in Division I history. (Derek Tatsuno won 20 for Hawaii in 1979.)
Miami's prime asset was speed. The Hurricanes were among the nation's leaders in stolen bases with 229—eight players stole 10 or more, and Calvin James was the team leader with 53. But only Ellena had more than 10 home runs.
Except for the performance of ace Dan Davies (15-2), Miami pitching was sporadic all year. By the time Davies got to Omaha, he had burned out his arm. Kevin Sheary (4-4), who had ruptured a disc playing pepper in February, picked up the slack, winning his first two games.
By Sunday, Texas needed one win over Miami in two games to take the title. Gustafson's dilemma was the same one faced by Chicago Cubs manager Jim Frey during the National League playoffs. When do you throw your ace, be it Rick Sutcliffe or Greg Swindell? "I didn't want to make the same mistake Frey made," Gustafson said. "I decided to go ahead and shoot the works." On three days of rest, Swindell pitched valiantly but lost 2-1. All three runs were unearned; the game was won on errors, walks and bunts.
As Miami and Texas prepared to meet again, Fraser was asked if his was "a team of destiny."
Fraser stalled. "We don't have the best talent," he said, "but only one or two ballclubs, in all the years I've been coaching, have had great chemistry. This one has it."
But is it a team of destiny, he was asked again.
"Yeah, we believe in that," said Fraser. But so did Texas.
Texas and Miami were scheduled to have their date with destiny Monday night. However, an early-evening thunderstorm caused the championship game to be postponed for at least a day, which meant that both teams would now be spending almost two weeks in Omaha. Said one fan, "If they're here another day, they'll be eligible to vote in Nebraska."
Swindell's "rally cap" helped turn the year around.
Miami's vice was stealing bases, and James was the master thief.
Will Clark's Bull-dogged effort wasn't enough.