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Two unlikely finalists, take two

I wrapped up my pages for this week’s Russell County News a little after 1 a.m. I slept in fits and starts and didn’t get really good sleep until late this morning. By time I woke up, it was 12:10. I watched some more of season 1 of The O.C. and am now watching Shark Tank on CNBC.

Six years ago tonight, LSU won its sixth and most recent College World Series championship, defeating Texas 9-4 in the third and deciding game of the finals at Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium, home to the CWS from 1950 through 2010. Most of Rosenblatt was demolished in 2011 and 2012, but many seats, home plate and the foul poles still stand at the corner of 13th Street and Bert Murphy Drive, only a few blocks south of Interstate 80 and next to the Henry Doorly Zoo, one of the world’s elite zoological gardens.

Tonight, Vanderbilt and Virginia are playing a winner-take-all game for the national championship for the second consecutive year. If you would have told me in 2000 that the Commodores and Cavaliers would be playing in back-to-back years for all the marbles in Omaha, I would have laughed so hard I might have died. So would have thousands of college baseball experts and fans alike.

In 2000, Vanderbilt was the doormat of the SEC, much the way it was in football. The Commodores’ field was not a joke. It was not a dump. It was inhumane.

To say it was not suitable for college baseball would have been a gross understatement. It was not suitable for high school junior varsity, much less a Southeastern Conference school.

There were three sets of portable bleachers. The dugouts were nothing more than covered benches. The “press box” was a modified trailer (not a double-wide) on top of the third base bench. The fence was chain-link. The scoreboard was something you would expect to find at a high school facility.

In short, beyond awful.

Today, Vanderbilt plays on the same field, but the rest of the structure barely resembles the old one. There is brick and iron to be found everywhere. The press box is modern and roomy. There are chairback seats all throughout the grandstands. There are real dugouts and a real fence. The scoreboard has been modernized.

Nobody could have dreamed it would happen at Vanderbilt. But the Commodores have proven if you build it, they will come.

Since Tim Corbin arrived in 2003 to replace the kindly Roy Mewbourne, the Commodores have taken off. Vandy has won and won big year in and year out in the nation’s best baseball conference, capped off by the 2014 national championship and possibly another in a couple of hours.

At least Vanderbilt never considered cutting scholarships or treating baseball as the equivalent of an intramural sport.

Virginia did.

In 2000, the Cavaliers came to Baton Rouge to open the season and were demolished in three games over two days by LSU. Bayou Bengals left-hander Brian Tallet, who would go on to earn All-America honors that season and pitch in the Major Leagues, twirled a three-hit shutout in the opener.

The next April, as LSU coach Skip Bertman piloted his final Bayou Bengals outfit, it looked like baseball in Charlottesville would soon be relegated to second-class status.

Actually, make that fourth-class status.

A UVa advisory board suggested the Cavaliers’ intercollegaite athletic program be divided into four tiers.

The first tier–football, men’s and women’s basketball–would be fully funded, with a full allotment of scholarships, a full allotment of coaches, first-class travel, first-class schedules, and all the comforts an Atlantic Coast Conference program was accustomed to.

Baseball was relegated to the fourth tier, which would mean no scholarships based upon athletic ability and no travel outside the ACC’s footprint and most non-conference games within the Commonwealth of Virginia, which would have meant a heavy dose of VCU, Richmond, James Madison, Old Dominion, George Mason and Virginia Tech, which was still three years away from full ACC membership.

No women’s sports were projected to fall into Tier Four. All were men’s sports, including golf, tennis, wrestling, cross country and track and field. Had UVa threatened to place an y women’s sports in Tier Four, it would have opened the school to a flood of Title IX lawsuits.

Nobody could have dreamed what was about to happen.

The UVa baseball team received “anonymous” donations of over $2 million to build a state-of-the-art baseball stadium on the site of its dilapidated grounds. By the beginning of the 2002 campaign, Davenport Field, named in memory of former UVa coach and executive director of the Virginia Student Aid Foundation, Ted Davenport, who was a close friend of longtime Cavalier coach Dennis Womack.

While the average fan did not know the person behind the anonymous donation, the insiders in Charlottesville knew where they came from.

John Grisham, internationally acclaimed author, graduate of Mississippi State and Ole Miss Law School, had donated the funds to keep the baseball program at UVa alive and well.

In 2004, the Cavaliers tapped Notre Dame assistant Brian O’Connor to succeed the retired Womack, and it wasn’t long before baseball far eclipsed football and men’s basketball as the best UVa program.

The Cavaliers have been to the CWS five times under O’Connor. Tonight, they are aiming to become the first ACC team to win the title since Wake Forest in 1955 (Miami’s four championships all came while the Hurricanes were an independent).

Vanderbilt and Virginia have certainly produced their fair share of Major Leaguers under Corbin and O’Connor, but both programs have also been wildly successful at attracting the academically gifted player who may not be a perfect fit for LSU, Florida State or another national power and groomed them to fit into perfect puzzles in Nashville and Charlottesville. These programs are no flashes in the pan. They have staying power, and both should be in Omaha time and again as long as Corbin and O’Connor are calling the shots.

LSU rallies

Maybe I spoke too soon. LSU has cut Fullerton’s lead to 3-2, and it has two on with nobody out. The Titans are going to make a pitching change, pulling starter Kyle Seabolt.

Even if the Bayou Bengals win, it’s still a long way back. They would have to defeat Vanderbilt or TCU Thursday, and then hve to beat the other Friday and Saturday to reach the final. But a victory today would at least allow LSU to finally get the TD Ameritrade monkey off its back, where it has yet to win.

Lot of baseball left.

Not a favorite flashback

The first inning from Omaha this afternoon had to make a few LSU baseball fans, and one former LSU baseball media relations assistant, have a Groundhog Day experience.

Fullerton scored three runs in the bottom of the first off of LSU ace Alex Lange. If the Bayou Bengals cannot get it together, they will be on a plane tomorrow morning heading back to Baton Rouge, their 2015 campaign ended, and with it the career of many LSU starting position players.

Let’s go back 21 years to the Groundhog Day experience I referred to at the start.

The date: June 5, 1994. Eleven days after my graduation from Brother Martin High School. Exactly one week before O.J. Simpson (allegedly) murdered Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Nine days before the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup since 1940. Seventeen days before the Houston Rockets won their first NBA championship. Sixty-eight days before the beginning of the 1994 Major League Baseball strike, and 91 before Bud Selig canceled the 1994 World Series. Less than three months before the son of a former NFL quarterback made his collegiate debut for the Tennessee Volunteers.

I had no clue about the Internet. I had no clue you could communicate electronically via e-mail. I certainly didn’t have a cell phone. My dad always told me to take plenty of quarters in case I had to stop at a pay phone. Yeah, do that as a not quite 18-year old white kid in the middle of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.

I had yet to attend an LSU baseball game in Baton Rouge. Up until then, the only LSU games I saw were at the Superdome in the annual Busch Challenge, renamed the Winn-Dixie Showdown in 1993. I knew Bill Franques was the media relations director for LSU baseball. I had no idea the voice I kept hearing on the radio broadcasts of LSU baseball away games with Jim Hawthorne was his.

LSU bowed out of the College World Series June 5, 1994, another typical hot and humid Sunday in the Crescent City.

No, check that. They Bayou Bengals were swept away from the CWS by an F-5 tornado (the Enhanced Fujita scale didn’t come around until Greensburg) named Call State Fullerton.

Titans 20, LSU 6.

Just one year after winning its second CWS in three seasons, one year after freshman Brett Laxton struck out 16 Wichita State Shockers in a three-hit shutout in the championship game, LSU went “two-and-barbecue” in Omaha for the first time in what was the Bayou Bengals’ seventh appearance.

Fullerton was eliminated in its next game by Florida State, but it was just ramping for what would be a dominating 1995, which saw the Titans steamroll its way through the season, including four games of the South Regional at the old Alex Box Stadium, on their way to their third national championship under Augie Garrido, joining titles in 1979 and 1984. Garrido actually left Fullerton from 1988 through 1990 to coach Illinois, but came back in ’91 when Larry Cochell, Garrido’s successor, left for Oklahoma.

LSU did not recover in 1995. In fact, it got worse for the Bayou Bengals. They started the season ranked #1 in all the major polls and ripped off a 31-4 start (8-1 in the SEC) through April 12, but then the bottom fell out.

LSU lost four of its five series vs. SEC West teams, lost twice more to Alabama in the SEC West division tournament (I’ll explain that another time), and then the Bayou Bengals were shelled for 31 runs in two regional games vs. Rice to bow out.

It got much better in 1996. LSU rebounded to win the national championship, won another in 1997, and came close to a third straight in 1998.

As for 2015, it doesn’t look good. LSU is down 3-0 in the bottom of the 2nd.

Sports mania Monday

I have not left my house today. However, that’s not to say it has been boring.

Far from it.

There has been so much going on in the world of sports, more than usually happens on a Monday, especially during the summer. It’s expected in the fall, since there’s a Monday Night Football game, the highlights of Sunday’s NFL games run non-stop on ESPN and NFL Network, and many college coaches hold their weekly press conferences on Monday, including LSU’s Les Miles.

Bud Black became the third National League manager to lose his jpob when he was axed by the San Diego Padres at 2 p.m. (noon in San Diego). The Padres were expected to contend in the NL West despite the presence of the World Series champion Giants and the Dodgers having the game’s best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, plus a star-studded lineup, but the Swinging Friars are one game below .500, and the only reason they’re in third place is because the Diamondbacks and Rockies are pathetic, although not as poor as the Phillies and Brewers.

Milwaukee was the first team to fire its manager this season when it sacked Ron Roenicke May 3. The Brewers were 7-25 at the time, and they are still struggling at 24-41 following tonight’s loss to the Royals.

Two weeks following Roenicke’s dismissal, the Marlins canned Mike Redmond only minutes after Miami came within one out of being no-hit by Atlanta’s Shelby Miller at Marlins Park. The Marlins were expected to give the Nationals a run for their money in the NL East this year, but right now, the only thing keeping the fish out of the cellar are the woeful Phillies.

Not long after Black lost his job, Vanderbilt completed a stunning comeback in the College World Series, scoring three runs in the bottom of the ninth to down Cal State Fullerton 4-3.

The game game began last night, and the Comoodores had no answer whatsoever for Titan ace pitcher Thomas Eshelman. Fullerton went ahead 3-0 in the fifth, but in the bottom of the sixth, the heavens over Omaha opened up and rained down hard enough that Noah would have needed his ark. The NCAA declared the field unplayable and ordered the game suspended until 11 a.m. today.

Only the game didn’t start at 11 a.m. The NCAA was forced to backtrack when the rain kept coming, and the start time was pushed back three hours.

Reigning national champion Vanderbilt scored in the bottom of the sixth when the game resumed, but the Titan bullpen shut down the Commodores in the seventh and eighth.

Zander Wiel, who doubled home Vandy’s run in the sixth, started the ninth with a double. Two batters later, Bryan Reynolds singled him home and the ‘Dores were within one.

Vandy’s next batter was freshman Jeren Kendall, a left-handed hitter.. Fullerton had left-handed relief ace Tyler Peitzmeier on the mound. Peitzmeier came into the CWS having limited left-handed batters to a .208 batting average this season.

So what does Kendall do? He jerks a full-count fastball into the Titan bullpen in right field. Game over. Vandy into the winner’s bracket to face TCU, Fullerton to play LSU in the second loser-leaves-town matchup.

If the Bayou Bengals fail tomorrow, the SEC will be down to two, both from the East, Florida and Vandy. Arkansas lost 4-3 to Miami to bow out 0-2. Right now, Virginia and Florida are locked in a 0-0 battle in the bottom of the sixth. It’s after midnight in Charlottesville and Gainesville, so I wonder how many people are still watching.

The Stanley Cup will not be returning to Florida. PRAISE JESUS.

The Blackhawks wrapped it up tonight in Chicago, blanking the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0. It’s Chicago’s third Cup in six years after not winning it for 47 consecutive seasons from 1961-62 through 2008-09. The Blackhawks also clinched the Cup at home for the first time since 1938. They won it on the road in 1961, 2010 and 2013.

I’m still seething over 2004, when the Calgary Flames gagged away a 3-2 lead and lost in seven to the Lightning. Calgary lost game six at home when Martin St. Louis scored for Tampa 33 seconds into overtime, and of course, the Flames’ goose was cooked back in Florida two nights later.

Even worse than the Lightning winning it, they got to keep the Cup an extra year, thanks to the lockout which wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. And then it got stupid when the Carolina Hurricanes won the Cup in 2006 over the Edmonton Oilers. I still wonder how many people in Raleigh-Durham can name all 30 NHL teams. Probably not many.

The Women’s World Cup featured four matches from Canada today. The host nation choked away what looked like a sure victory vs. the Netherlands when the Dutch scored in the 87th minute to forge a 1-1 draw. The Netherlands are a superpower in men’s association football, but the women’s program lacks far, far behind.

That’s not uncommon for one gender to have a strong association football team and for the other to be lagging. The men are far ahead of the women in England, Italy and Spain in addition to the Netherlands, while the United States, Canada, China and Japan are the opposite.

The are only two countries where the men and women are on equally strong footing.

The most obvious is Germany. Deutschland won the Women’s World Cup in 2007, it has won the men’s Cup four times (including 2014), and I would bet my bottom dollar it will beat the United States if and when the countries meet.

The other country with futbol equality is Brazil. It lost the 2007 women’s final to Germany, and it still has one fo the strongest men’s squads, the implosion at the end of the 2014 World Cup notwithstanding.

Virginia has broken the scoreless tie with Florida in the bottom of the sixth. The Gators have not been behind very much during the NCAA tournament, but the way they’ve swung the bats, it’s next to nothing.

Have a good night and pleasant tomorrow.

Hot times

I left the house this morning for the first time since getting back from Beloit Saturday. I had to go to Hays for an eye exam with Dr. Jones. It had been scheduled since my previous appointment in December, so I knew it was coming and I was ready for it. Got my work done for the papers last night so I didn’t have to worry about it with my eyes dilated.

I really didn’t feel like going anywhere in the heat, and since I didn’t have to Sunday and Monday, I didn’t. I left early this morning so I could get everything done before it got too hot, and also to avoid having to go in with my eyes dilated. Besides, I’ve got back-to-back appointments at High Plains Mental Health Thursday and Friday, so I’ll be in Hays regardless.

My eyes are fine. I’m thinking seriously about switching to daily use contacts. Right now, I’m changing them every two weeks. I have to weigh the costs.

I stayed up too late last night and this morning to watch the end of the Texas A&M-TCU baseball game. The Horned Frogs won in the bottom of the 16th to clinch the final spot in the College World Series. The game lasted over six hours and was the second longest super regional game since the NCAA went to the four-team regional and super regional format in 1999. .I’m not making the same mistake tonight.

TCU plays LSU Sunday at 2, with the other game in that bracket Cal State Fullerton vs. Vanderbilt at 7. Saturday’s games are Virginia-Arkansas at 2 and Miami-Florida at 7.

The official high in Russell today was 96 degrees (35 Celsius), the hottest so far of 2015. The century mark cannot be far off. If it doesn’t happen tomorrow, then I give it until June 21, Father’s Day, and the first day of summer.

When I was waiting in Dr. Jones’ office today,the TV was tuned to The Weather Channel. I noticed the record high for Hays was 105 degrees in 1988. It reminded me I was in Russell with my family on June 9, 1988. It was the last day of our four and a half day visit to Kansas, where we stayed at 1224 North Brooks. On that last day of the trip, we ventured to Lucas, 33 miles northeast of Russell, to visit my great Aunt Sharon. Her children, Alan and Kala, were in town with their families as well.

In 1988, the building which is currently the Mexican restaurant in Russell was a Dairy Queen. There was a Fina gas station at the corner of Wichita and Fossil. There were two grocery stores, Klema’s and Boogaert’s, which was at the corner of Fossil and Eighth, not too far from Russell High. The A&W restaurant and McDonald’s were in town, but no Sonic, and Meridy’s was under different ownership.

Today is the 30th anniversary of the Lakers’ victory in the Boston Garden which clinched the 1984-85 NBA championship. It marked the first time the Lakers defeated the Celtics in a playoff series after going 0 for the previous 11, including the 1984 championship series. Boston won the first game of that series 148-114, and the experts thought the Celtics were going to romp. But Los Angeles won four of the next five games, and the only one Boston won came when Dennis Johnson hit a lucky shot at the buzzer. The 1985 Lakers are often forgotten, thanks to Magic Johnson’s sensational Game 6 as a rookie in the 1980 championship series, as well as the back-to-back championship teams of 1987 and 1988. But to finally shake those demons had to be sweet.

Tomorrow doesn’t promise much. I got my work done for the Russell County News tonight, so I don’t have to wake up so early to get it done. I’m thinking about a trip to Salina for Buffalo Wild Wings and trivia. I’ve been away too long. But will it rain? And I have that 9 a.m. appointment in Hays Thursday.