The little plastic bottle sat on the same shelf during each of
LSU's games at the College World Series in Omaha. It was next to
the pine tar, just a few feet away from the Tigers' on-deck
circle, so that players could shake it or take a whiff for good
luck before batting. Inside was mostly dirt, collected a year
ago from the lefthanded batter's box after Tigers second baseman
Warren Morris, who's now in the Texas Rangers' farm system, hit
a two-run homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to give
LSU its third NCAA title of the decade.
Until South Alabama stunned the Tigers in an NCAA regional game
in Baton Rouge on May 24, the bottle had been sitting atop the
TV in the home of LSU reserve infielder Keith Polozola. By the
time the bottle reached Omaha last week, it also contained chips
from the team's lucky wooden bat and one of outfielder Wes
Davis's teeth. Even if the bottle failed to inspire the team,
LSU had a backup charm in place. It just so happens that LSU is
14-0 whenever fan Bill Ourso of Clinton, La., wears his lucky
purple-and-gold-lettered socks, which were last washed in 1991.
Thankfully, the aroma inside the bottle was inspiration enough.
"In this bottle is what we wanted to get back to--Omaha," says
Polozola, a senior. "It smells like leather and dirt inside. And
Go ahead and laugh. In last Saturday's NCAA championship game
the second-seeded Tigers jumped to a six-run lead in the first
inning and pounded No. 1 Alabama 13-6 to win their fourth
national title in seven years. Someone should tell them luck has
had nothing to do with it.
"The LSU baseball program is kind of in a glass case now," says
Tigers shortstop Brandon Larson, who was named Most Outstanding
Player of the Series after hitting .368 with three homers and
eight RBIs. "People can walk by and admire it. They can't touch
it or breathe on it, but they can just look at us and admire all
our national-championship trophies." This dynasty, Larson says,
will last "for many more years to come because of two words:
Skip Bertman. With him around it's like we're all playing for a
Since Bertman took over the program in 1984, the Tigers have won
six SEC titles and qualified for the College World Series nine
times. They have also won 50 or more games in a season eight
times, including this year's SEC-record 57 wins (against 13
losses). Each of LSU's championships (1991, '93, '96 and '97)
has come while using fewer scholarships (11.7) than Southern Cal
(as many as 20) had in winning six titles between 1970 and '78.
The Tigers' recent dominance has sent success-starved fans in
Baton Rouge (last NCAA football title: 1958) into a tizzy. More
than a million fans have come to LSU's Alex Box Stadium during
the last 10 years. But Bertman's influence on the game goes far
beyond the bayou. A former high school coach in Miami and an
assistant at the University of Miami from 1976 to '83, he is the
author of two books--an autobiography and a popular
instructional guide, Coaching Youth League Baseball. Last summer
he coached the U.S. Olympic team to a bronze medal in Atlanta,
and in 14 years at LSU he has sent 19 players to the big
leagues, including Albert Belle and Ben McDonald.
In Saturday's final the silver-haired Bertman, a cross between a
Marine sergeant and your favorite grandpa, faced a protege.
Alabama coach Jim Wells started as a graduate assistant at LSU
and patterned his program after his mentor's, using many of the
same warmup drills, field signals and plays. "Maybe I should
have hid a page or two from Jim while he was here, huh?" joked
Bertman. Alabama (56-14), which demolished LSU 28-2 on May 10
and beat the Tigers again, 12-2, eight days later in the SEC
Tournament championship game, had to come through the losers'
bracket after falling to Miami earlier in the week. The Tide
wound up beating the Hurricanes twice, 8-6 last Thursday and 8-2
the following day, to get to the final, but having to play five
games in six days took its toll on Alabama. None of its four
pitchers made it more than four innings on Saturday, and even
veterans like senior second baseman Joe Caruso, who hit .560
while setting a series record with 14 hits, were noticeably
shaky in the field with a record crowd of 24,401 looking on.
LSU, meanwhile, seems to thrive on pressure-cooker games. All
four of its titles, in fact, have come when LSU was the lower
seed in the championship game. "I saw a sign during a game at
Georgia this year that read: 56-0 or skip's gotta go," said
Bertman, a four-time national coach of the year. "And you know
what? They were only half kidding. Our fans want us to win 'em
The Tigers almost did. Despite having just two starting position
players back from last year's team, LSU opened the season 19-0
and closed it, in a testament to Bertman's teaching and
motivational skills, by winning all four of its games in Omaha.
Not that LSU is without heavyweight talent. Larson hit 40 homers
this season and was drafted in the first round by the Cincinnati
Reds on June 3, and homegrown junior righthander Patrick Coogan
finished the season with a 14-3 record and 144 strikeouts.
But the Tigers, who carry 41 players on their roster during the
regular season, none of whom are on full scholarship, won this
title mostly with people like senior rightfielder Tom Bernhardt.
A backup for three seasons, Bernhardt stayed in school, waited
for his turn to play and then exploded when his opportunity
came. He was the leading hitter in the College World Series with
a .615 batting average in Omaha, and he went 3 for 4 with a
homer and three RBIs in the championship game. "While you're
waiting to play at LSU, you're constantly getting better because
of Coach," says Bernhardt. "You learn the game, you study it,
before you play it."
Most of those cram sessions take place in the locker room before
games, while LSU's opponents are taking batting practice. During
that time Bertman usually shows a motivational videotape from
his collection of more than 70. The tapes are made up mostly of
college and major league highlights but also include clips of
the Marines in action during World War II, interviews with
athletes who have overcome adversity and snippets from Ken
Saturday's pregame video featured highlights of this year's
first three Tigers victories in Omaha, backed by a sound track
of Whitney Houston's One Moment in Time. "This is not the best
team I've ever had," Bertman said after the game, "but it's the
gutsiest. These guys are the best competitors, with the best
attitudes I've ever had. I wanted them to know when they watched
the tape that this was their time."
The players got the message. After the final out they piled up
on the mound, then gathered for a photo before running a victory
lap around the field. When they finished, Polozola kissed the
ground behind home plate and scooped more dirt into his lucky
bottle. "I might give this to next year's team," he said, with
dirt still stuck to his lips. "We'll see if they can carry on
The way LSU is collecting NCAA titles, pretty soon the grounds
crew at Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium is going to need some more
COLOR PHOTO: JEFF TUTTLE Doug Thompson was exultant after rolling over the Tide.