In 1986 I listened to Arizona win the College World Series on the radio. On Monday night I did the same…inadvertently.
Back in 1986 I was a 13-year old middle school student just starting to enjoy his summer vacation. I remember few details from that game or that run. About all I remember is listening to it in the living room on the house’s intercom system that could broadcast radio to any room in the house. I cannot even remember why I was in the living room, that was the room reserved for entertaining (and indoor baseball when my parents left me in charge of my little brother.)
In 1986 Arizona baseball was king. The 1986 title was the third in 10 years. In 1986 Larry Smith was still football coach, just getting the team off of probation. In six months they would beat North Carolina in the Aloha Bowl and the Cats would trade Smith for Dick Tomey.
In 1986 a first year coach named Mike Candrea guided Arizona to a 5-6-1 Pac-10 record and missed the postseason. It was the last time the Wildcats missed the NCAA Tournament. In 1986 Lute Olson had yet to win an NCAA tournament game, much less lead Arizona to a Final Four.
That 1986 team was led by the likes of Gar Millay, Kevin Long, Gary Alexander and Tommy Hinzo.
This year’s team was led by a group that defied the odds, not only this year, but in life.
At 2 ½ months of age Robert Refsnyder, the CWS MVP, was living in South Korea, waiting to be adopted. Less than a month later he was in the loving arms of his American family. A family that was baseball crazy.
Three years ago Seth Mejias-Brean made the difficult decision to turn down a football scholarship to I-AA San Diego to pursue baseball at Pima College. Two weeks before the start of school Andy Lopez lost his freshman third base signee to the MLB and scrambled to sign a quality player. At the suggestion of one of his sons, Lopez turned to Cienega product Mejias-Brean. Sine then the local products has played over 180 games and hit nearly .330.
Alex Mejia got on Lopez’s radar screen because he shared the last name of a high school opponent that Lopez respected. Turned out that player was Alex’s father. Three years later Mejia was the Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
Joseph Maggi was an ASU legacy, but scored the first run of the championship clinching game. So much for doubting the loyalties of a guy that Lopez has joked was a “spy” for the Sun Devils.
Brandon Dixon, who drove in the game-winning run, was not supposed to hit in the ninth. After going 0-7 in the CWS, including a weak fly out in the 7th with a runner in scoring position. Lopez was going to lift the defensive specialist, but assistant Matt Siegel talked him out of it.
Siegel, a former Lopez player at Florida, would not have been on the Wildcat bench had longtime Lopez assistant Mark Wasikowski not left for Oregon.
Lopez turned to a pitching staff that was thought to be a weakness. The maligned bullpen, the few times they were used, failed to surrender a run in Omaha.
Sure Heyer was a well regarded prospect, but Konner Wade, who looked like Randy Johnson in the CWS, was just 9-7 his final two years in high school with an ERA over 4.00. Lopez saw something he liked (and to be fair Wade was a 35th round draft pick of the Diamondbacks in 2010) and Wade has gone 14-3 at Arizona.
If Heyer looked like “The Big Unit”, then James Farris was Curt Schilling. Farris, who had not pitched in nearly three weeks, shutdown the Gamecocks. He limited them to just two hits and a single run. Not bad for a guy who pitched in just two games as a freshman and had an ERA hovering around four.
Even Andy Lopez was a somewhat unlikely character in this drama. Frustrated with the NCAA’s near castration of college baseball and an administration that could not or would not deliver him a regional, Lopez considered other jobs or just walking away. Instead he came back, he rallied around the recruiting class that are now juniors. He also received a blessing when Jim Livengood was not retained and Greg Byrne assumed the role of Director of Athletics.
Instead of throwing more money at a sub par facility, Byrne angered many old school Wildcat fans by moving the baseball team off campus. While Hi Corbett Field was inadequate for the spoiled players on the Colorado Rockies, it was a godsend to the Wildcats.
It was a bigger park, with an actual clubhouse. It’s dimensions called on the Wildcats to be more aggressive and they responded. Fans thrilled with easier parking and beer, especially beer, showed up in droves.
Arizona hosted a Regional and a Super Regional. Teams that host have a 78% chance of advancing. The Wildcats advanced.
The Wildcats dominated these playoffs. They made the teams they faced in the regional look foolish. Other than one bad inning against St. John’s, the Wildcats were awesome.
In Omaha, where they did not have enough arms or enough talent, they shined. Arizona never trailed in Nebraska. Their pitchers gave up eight runs total, never more than three in a game. Offensively they scored 27. Not the gaudy numbers they put up in Hi Corbett, but not bad at all.
Freshman Matt Troupe stood on the mound in the ninth, wearing his trademark glasses and sweat stained camp. He allowed three of the first four batters on base. With the bases loaded and the winning run at the plate, he did not panic. Mejia trotted out to the mound, to play therapist for one of his pitchers for the 10,000th time this season. At that time Troupe was not thinking about how he almost took the pro dollars when he found out that Lopez may leave. He was not thinking of his challenge to his coach to stay and win with him. He was not thinking about his inconsistencies this season.
Troupe lived the Arizona motto, as cliché as it might have sounded at that point. Troupe did indeed Bear Down with the help of his defense. Trent Gilbert snagged a rocket line drive and came within a breath of a double play.
For a split second Gilbert almost lost his cool, but Mejia was there to calm him down. Mejia, whose mom and dad made two separate trips to Omaha.
A 10th of a second more and Arizona would have been celebrating. Instead the freshman took Button Salmon’s creed to heart, got a fly ball fittingly hit to Refsnyder and the Wildcats were celebrating.
It may have been an unlikely team to win a title, but they deserved it. For three weeks they played better than anyone. They hit the ball, they fielded the ball and they pitched the ball. They forgot about the MLB draft, their personal issues and the doubters.
They donned great No. 1 hats and national championships shirts. They came together. They won.
I listened to it on the radio, but watched it again at home. I saved the TiVo recording and will probably watch it again. It was a special moment with a special team.
The shirts said Wildcats Own Omaha, but could have said Wildcats Own College Baseball.