Publish date:

The Untamable Tigers Resilient LSU came from behind to win its fifth College World Series in 10 years

Louisiana State's senior catcher Brad Cresse had gotten one
measly hit and had struck out six times in 10 at bats during the
2000 College World Series when he drifted off to sleep at 1 a.m.
on the morning of Saturday's championship game, yet he had
enough chutzpah to dream of winning the title for the Tigers. "I
know it sounds corny and maybe a little cocky, but I saw myself
at bat in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth inning with the
winning run on base," Cresse said last Saturday evening.
"Obviously, I envisioned a mammoth home run into the leftfield
bleachers. Nobody dreams about hitting a single, but I'll take

O.K., so it wasn't exactly a dream come true, but Cresse's base
hit to leftfield in the bottom of the ninth inning of the
championship game did score Ryan Theriot to give LSU a 6-5
come-from-behind victory over Stanford and its fifth national
title in the past 10 seasons. After the Tigers completed their
13-0 blitz through 2000 postseason play, a sea of LSU fans clad
in purple-and-gold beads danced around second base at Rosenblatt

When Cresse was asked afterward if this was his most thrilling
moment in baseball, the answer wasn't as obvious as one might
expect. The son of Mark Cresse, the Los Angeles Dodgers' bullpen
coach from 1974 to '98, Brad grew up in baseball's big leagues.
During summer vacations he was a Dodgers batboy, and by age 14 he
had hit batting practice homers in every National League
ballpark. He once won $100 from Scott Radinsky, then a Dodgers
reliever, by hitting a BP homer into the upper deck at Busch
Stadium, and he fondly recalls the night after a Dodgers game in
Philadelphia when he, his father and his godfather, Tommy
Lasorda, climbed aboard a helicopter for a ride to Atlantic City
to see Frank Sinatra perform.

LSU actually scouted Cresse during a batting practice at Dodger
Stadium. He was primarily a backup catcher as a freshman when the
Tigers won their last NCAA title in 1997. After hitting 29 homers
as a sophomore, Cresse played with a fractured hand last season,
hit only 10 homers and was bitterly disappointed when he wasn't
drafted. He rebounded as a senior to pace the Tigers with a .388
average, while leading the nation in homers (30) and RBIs (106).
"It was like batting behind Mark McGwire," says LSU first baseman
Brad Hawpe. "When a guy puts up those kind of monster numbers,
the rest of us basically become fans."

Cresse, the Arizona Diamondbacks' fifth-round draft pick, credits
much of his resurgence to LSU's new hitting coach, Henry (Turtle)
Thomas. Seventeen months ago Thomas was fired as an assistant
coach at Miami, reportedly over differences he had with coach Jim
Morris about recruiting policies, only to be reinstated two weeks
later so he could finish the year. He endured an awkward season
during which he barely spoke to the other Hurricanes coaches,
even as Miami was winning the national title, with many of the
players dedicating the season to him.

Last summer Thomas left Miami for LSU, and he quickly recognized
that other than Cresse, the Tigers didn't possess the brawny
sluggers to play LSU head coach Skip Bertman's beloved
"Gorillaball," which had produced an NCAA record 188 homers on
the way to the '97 title. Thus Gorillaball became Turtleball.
Thomas informed the Tigers that nearly one of every two base
runners in college baseball eventually scores, so he preached
about the power of line drives adding up to runs. The team set a
school record with 864 hits, and its .340 batting average
shattered the previous LSU best by 15 points. The Tigers finished
with a 52-17 record and entered the College World Series with
every starter batting over .300 and the team scoring nearly 10
runs per game.

In Omaha, Bertman harped on the resiliency of his team, reminding
anyone who would listen that the LSU dynasty had endured
significant misery earlier this year, losing three straight to
Houston (the first time the Tigers had ever been swept at home by
a non-SEC team) and losing five in a row for the first time since
1985. After then dropping two of three at home against
Mississippi State in April while allowing 40 runs and 47 hits in
the series, Bertman phoned his friend Roger Mellot, a stress
therapist who works with NASA astronauts, and told him this was
an emergency. Mellot spoke to the team and dazzled the Tigers
with some right brain-left brain psychobabble and, more
important, reinforced Bertman's pet theory about visualizing
success. "We were all overthinking the game because we were
losing," LSU captain Blair Barbier says. "Finally we told
ourselves, We can't change what's already happened, but if we
relax, maybe we can still win the national championship."

That resiliency came in handy on Saturday, with the Tigers
trailing Stanford 5-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning and
facing Cardinal ace Justin Wayne. The fifth pick in the June
draft, Wayne hadn't allowed a hit, while striking out seven
Tigers in three innings after relieving Jason Young, the
Cardinal's other top starter and a second-round pick in the
draft. With one out, Barbier fouled off several nasty pitches
before driving a solo homer down the leftfield line. Then, after
Wayne walked Wally Pontiff and Cedrick Harris came to the plate,
Jeremy Witten stood in the on-deck circle thinking back to 1996
when, as a redshirt freshman he had lurked in the tunnel of the
dugout and watched LSU's Warren Morris win the national title
with a breathtaking two-run, two-out ninth-inning homer against
Miami. Witten visualized himself hitting a similarly clutch home
run, and then he lined Wayne's 1-and-2 pitch into the leftfield
stands to tie the game.

"My arm was feeling a little sore," said Tigers reliever Trey
Hodges, who finished the game with four shutout innings for the
win. "But when Jeremy hit that bomb, it felt like I got a
cortisone shot."

An inning later, when Cresse walked to the plate to face Wayne
with runners on first and second and no outs, he recalled his
dream as well as a phone conversation with his father earlier
that night about staying patient. Cresse had already struck out
twice against Wayne on just six pitches. Then he fell behind 0
and 1. "We threw him seven sliders in a row, and he didn't seem
to have a good idea what to do with them," Wayne said. "Then all
of a sudden, he did."

Fittingly, Cresse won the game with a Turtleball single. "I was
just trying to make contact, figuring I had to hit that slider
sometime," Cresse said. "I'd had a horrendous World Series, but
my teammates gave me one last chance to be a hero, and I came

At the party on the field after the game, the two Cresses hugged
and wept. "This is the greatest day of my life," Mark told his
son. "This was the best Father's Day gift a dad could ever

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Ray Wright's over-the-wall grab in the third inning helped prove the difference in the win over Stanford.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Cresse, a former Dodgers batboy, dreamed about winning the game for LSU--and then delivered.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER In the end it was a familiar scene in Omaha: Tigers romping victoriously on the field while a crestfallen opponent wept in defeat.

"We threw him seven sliders in a row and he didn't know what to
do with them," said Wayne. "Then suddenly he did."

"This is the greatest day of my life," Mark Cresse told his
son. "This is the best Father's Day gift I could get."