Bill Little commentary: NCAA chronicles
May 25, 2009
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
It is hard to believe that it has been 60 years since Bibb Falk loaded his Texas Baseball team on a train and headed to Wichita, Kan., to win what would be the first of six NCAA crowns for the Longhorns. And it is even harder to believe that once, what we now know as the campaign to the College World Series was so little regarded that Falk himself had opted not to take his team to the playoffs only the year before.
So when the 2009 version of the NCAA Baseball Committee anointed Texas as the nation's No. 1 seed in a field of 64 teams and eight Big 12 teams made up an eighth of the entire field, it underscored the simple fact: college baseball has come a long way.
The Austin Regional underscores that fact as well as any. First, here is No. 1 seed Texas--long one of the dominant programs in the sport. But where did these other guys come from?
Texas State, which has been building as a quality program under former Longhorn player and assistant coach Ty Harrington, got into the tournament as an at-large selection after it lost its Southland Conference championship to Sam Houston State. For years, the Southland was relegated to only one team, its champion.
As far as Texas fans know, the only baseball played in Boston comes from the hallowed setting of the professional Red Sox's Fenway Park. So now here is Boston College out of the Atlantic Coast Conference, making its first NCAA appearance in 42 years.
The final piece of the Austin Regional mosaic is Army -- that's right, the Black Knights of the Hudson from the United States Military Academy at West Point. The Cadets won the league by claiming the first two games in a best of three series against Lafayette, and are 34-19.
And for those prone to look ahead -- which can be a dangerous mistake -- the winner of the Austin regional will be paired with the winner of the Fort Worth regional at TCU, which will include the Horned Frogs, Wright State, Oregon State and Texas A&M.
For the Longhorns and the fans here in Austin, the best news is that championship baseball is back at UFCU Disch-Falk Field, and it's the first time for the Longhorns to host in the sparkling newly renovated ball park. Exactly 30 years ago, in 1979, Regional tournaments took on a new dimension.
For much of the time during the 1970s, college baseball toyed with neutral sites. That provided good competition, but a less-than-desired attendance. The Longhorns played host to two regionals in San Antonio which included Pan American and Trinity, and then played at Turnpike Stadium in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex -- the predecessor of the facility which is now The Ballpark at Arlington.
But the world of college baseball opened to the campuses in 1979. That first "Central Regional" as it was called, featured Pan American, Lamar and BYU. The next year, Hawaii bested the field and advanced to the CWS. Starting in 1981, Texas started seeing not only the marquee teams, but marquee players.
Stanford, for example, sported a right fielder whose arm wowed everyone watching, even in practices. His name was John Elway.
By 1983, the tournament field was expanding, and some six-team regionals were staged. And that year probably featured the most famous match-ups of regional competition in these parts. Texas, of course, had a great pitching staff, including eight players who would pitch in the major leagues, including Roger Clemens and Calvin Schiraldi. Mississippi State's team was led by Will Clark, Bobby Thigpin and Rafael Palmiero.
Texas fought its way out of the losers bracket, and beat the Bulldogs in the championship game, 12-3, behind the pitching of Clemens and Schiraldi, just a few years before the two would combine to pitch the Boston Red Sox to professional baseball's World Series.
In all, Texas hosted 16 straight regionals in the first two decades at Disch-Falk, until the string was broken in 1995 when Texas traveled to Oklahoma City. Then, in one of the rare dips in the history of the program, Texas slipped from the national radar.
But all of that ended on a dramatic day in the desert in 2000. Texas was playing in the Tempe Regional against highly touted Arizona State, and when the Sunday mercury reached 114 degrees, it appeared the Longhorns would be, if you will pardon the pun, "toast."
Somehow, however, Texas survived the first championship game in the afternoon, winning 6-4. And then, behind ace Beau Hale's dramatic finish, the Longhorns took the night cap, 9-7. That was the second year the NCAA had employed the use of "Super Regionals," and when Penn State was an upset winner in its regional, Texas was awarded the Super, and swept its way back to Omaha in two games.
Thus, for five of six years in the first decade of the 21st century, Texas went to Omaha five times, winning twice, finishing as runner up once and third once. The string ended in the final season of what we knew as Disch-Falk Field in 2006. The next year, because of construction at home, the Horns hosted at Dell Diamond, but ran into a super team in Cal-Irvine. Last year, the Horns had to try to fight their way out of the loser's bracket at the Rice Regional, and couldn't make it happen.
All of that brings us to a new day in a new facility against a couple of new folks and a respected local foe in Texas State.
The crack of the bat and the heat rising from the turf that became such a welcome experience is back. The parking lots will be buzzing, the crowds likely will be sweltering in the afternoon games, and enjoying the cool breeze in the evenings.
For the 53rd time since the tournament play began back in 1947, Texas is back in the hunt, and the hunt begins right here in Austin.
The great moments -- the thrills and the heartbreaks -- of regionals past will be cussed and discussed anew. Augie Garrido will tell you that baseball is a game determined by the unexpected. History also tells you that playoffs make strange heroes.
What we know is, the tournament's return to Austin is like the welcoming back of an old friend, where the past and the present meet to determine somebody's future. That is, after all, the coolest thing about baseball.
Because as cliché-ish or trite as it may sound, the truth is, it really isn't over, until it is over.