June 14, 2019 11:17:23 AM
In 1985, I made my first and only trip to Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series.
I packed heavy, certain I would be there for awhile.
For 13 days, I covered Mississippi State ballgames, watched it rain (and rain and rain), played endless rounds of putt-putt golf on the Holiday Inn's indoor course, imbibed well into the night at the hotel hospitality room, even took an excursion to Ak-Sar-Ben (Nebraska spelled backward) to watch the horse races.
Rainouts were frequent that year, which extended the stay.
But I could easily have been there for another few days, were it not for a single play in the second inning of the Bulldogs' game against Texas.
On Sunday, Mississippi State will open play in its 11th College World Series and, along with Arkansas, last year's runner-up, and Vanderbilt, the SEC champion, is among the favorites to claim the title.
It's a battle-tested, tough Bulldog club with an abundance of hitting (.317 team batting average), two outstanding starting pitchers (National Pitcher of the Year Ethan Small and Freshman pitcher of the year JT Ginn) and a standout closer (Cole Gordon).
In those respects it is similar to that 1985 team, which I believe is the most talented team in the Bulldogs' long, proud history.
That team included four future Major League All-Stars (first baseman Will Clark, left fielder Rafael Palmeiro, starting pitcher Jeff Brantley and closer Bobby Thigpen), along with a talented group of other players, most notably starting pitcher Gene Morgan.
The Bulldogs had spent much of that year ranked No. 1 and rolled into Omaha with the look of a champion.
They pounded Oklahoma State in Game 1, edged Arkansas in Game 2 and took on Texas in the third game needing a win to play in the championship game.
State jumped out to a 2-0 lead and Morgan had yielded just one hit going into the fifth inning.
Then, Morgan took a line drive off his left ankle. Although he remained in the game, he was not the same pitcher and Texas surged, beating MSU 12-7.
In the elimination game the next day Thigpen gave up a ninth-inning home run against Miami in a 6-5 loss. The Bulldogs' season ended with a third-place finish. Miami beat Texas for the title two days later.
It' wasn't until 2013 that the Bulldogs got that far. MSU made it to the best-of-three championship in the new format, but lost twice to UCLA to finish national runner-up. Last year, State needed just one win against Oregon State to again reach the championship series, but lost to the Beavers twice. Oregon State went on to win the title.
This year, the expectations are as high as they've been since 1985.
But as that 1985 CWS reminds us, baseball is not scripted. Things happen that cannot be accounted for, no matter how talented a team may be. Remember, last year, Arkansas was a dropped pop-up away from winning the title.
In 1985, a line drive that might have been hit a couple of inches one way or the other and missed Morgan's leg, changed the course of the season for the most talented team in MSU history.
Who knows but what a similar misfortune may await the Bulldogs this year.
On the other hand, the fates may turn in MSU's favor. Maybe the Bulldogs are due for a good break. Karma, and all that, you know.
That's what makes the CWS so compelling.
There are eight very good teams competing for the title. But the winner is often decided by an unpredictable event. Don't be surprised it that's the way it turns out this year, too.
The Holiday Inn where I spent 13 days is long gone. So, too, is the ballpark where cruel fate ended in the Bulldogs' title hopes. Ak-Sar-Ben was demolished 15 years ago. The young sportswriters I bonded with late into those Nebraska nights 33 years ago have moved on. Many have retired. I'm not getting any younger, myself.
But the Bulldogs are back in Omaha and much is expected of them.
It seems like old times.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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