My friend Roger Cornish once claimed: ‘That age was the great crippler of young adults’. You don’t really see the wisdom or humor in that statement until you get a little further down the trail in life, then; far too quickly it becomes far too clear.
I choose not to call it ‘feeling old’, preferring instead to simply ‘being comfortable with my experience’. But every now and then something comes along to remind us about the inevitability of time and its steady march.
It’s been 25 years---
---since Wichita State won its National Baseball Championship. How can that possibly be? I wasn’t even five years into my career at KWCH; I was only nine years removed from being a part of the very team I was now covering.
The Road to Omaha really started the year before, when the Shockers were just one out, one single pitch, away from a National Championship berth. Arizona State rallied with three runs with two in the ninth to beat WSU 4-3, then pounded them the next day to eliminate them. The seeds for the 1989 run were sewn on that very disappointing day a year earlier and the Shockers played like a team on a mission through much of ’89.
Many remember Omaha in that championship season, but Fresno was the first stop on the way and the Shocks barely survived that. In a six game regional, which sorely tested the depth of a pitching staff, Wichita State staved off elimination three times with a win over host Fresno State and two over Michigan which had pummeled them earlier in the week.
The trip to Omaha was their second in a row and their third in eight years; they went in as the fourth seed but were far from healthy. Outfielder Jeff Bonaquista had been lost to injury and Mike Lansing, who would go on to play nine years in the Big Leagues was also out, forcing third baseman Pat Meares to short and Mike Jones to third. Still, it was a loose and confident group that beat Arkansas 3-1 in the opener behind pitcher Gregg Brummett. They were undeterred losing to Florida State two days later even though they’d lost all margin for error.
What struck me about their workout the day after the loss was how incredibly loose they were—head coach Gene Stephenson, throwing batting practice, made me step into the cage and take some cuts, feeding me an endless run of curves that I never could hit, a point he good-naturedly was happy to remind me about. Catcher Eric Wedge, the unquestioned leader of the team, was all but clairvoyant when he told me, with unwavering confidence, that they were done losing.
What followed is the stuff of legend; another win against Arkansas set up a rematch with Florida State which they would have to beat twice. Over the next two days the series would be plagued by rains and delays and would be lifted by a bubble-gam wrapper and a team which simply refused to die.
After beating the Seminoles 7-4 to set up another meeting which would determine who would be in the College World Series Final, backup catcher Mike Wentworth opened a piece of Bazooka gum and read the fortune that was a part of the comic contained inside.
“Something magical will happen today”. Hours later, Wentworth wiped out a 9-6 deficit with a three-run homer just inside the foul pole in right, the Shockers went on to win 12-9 and one couldn’t help but feel that fate or destiny wasn’t starting to intervene on their behalf.
There was a threat of rain on that championship Saturday twenty five years ago; Brent Musberger was doing the play by play for CBS. The best of three championship series at CWS was still 13 years away, so it was a nine-inning winner take all affair between the ‘Horns and Shockers. I remember being anxious that day, more excited than nervous. I was confident in Brummett making his third start of the series, but more than that—the team, this group of guys had convinced me this was their time.
I watched the last inning from a photo bay immediately adjacent to the field. I’m not too proud to admit that, for one of the few times during my career, I fought back tears as the game neared an end. I don’t know if it was because of the pride I had in being a very, very small part of Shocker Baseball myself, or that it meant so much to people who meant so much to me—probably a little of both.
When Brummett struck out the last Longhorn and jumped into the arms of Wedge, to create the most memorable image in Shocker sports history, I was fully into work mode—gathering images and reactions to a moment I knew we’d be talking about for a long time, a moment still fresh in the mind’s eye twenty five years later.