OMAHA—Mike Gillespie won a national championship as a player at Southern California in 1961. He didn’t get back to the College World Series until 1995, in his ninth season as head coach at USC (or, as he referred to it Friday, “the college team that I was with” or “the former school where I was”).
His last trip to Omaha came in 2001 with that former employer, and the CWS has changed just a bit since then. Few men have a better sense of perspective about how the event—not just the venue—has evolved over the decades than Gillespie, who is making his first trip to TD Ameritrade Park this week with his UC Irvine club.
“I will tell you this, that Omaha, the College World Series, is a dramatically different place from the last time I was here, and this event—which was great then, I can promise you—has blown up by 500,” Gillespie said during one of three press conferences at the annual CWS Practice Day. “It’s a spectacular opportunity, and I’m really, really glad our players get to experience this. This is sensational.”
Later, talking with a couple of reporters in the hallway, Gillespie again marveled at how much of a spectacle the CWS has become.
“This deal outside—what do we call this?” he said, gesturing toward the outside of the stadium.
“Fan Fest,” somebody answered.
There was no Fan Fest in 1961, or 1995, or 2001. But there was plenty of memorable baseball, and Gillespie’s teams were big parts of it. In 1995, his team lost in the CWS championship game to Augie Garrido’s Cal State Fullerton Titans. Sitting next to Garrido—his opponent in Saturday’s CWS opener—on the dais Friday, Gillespie recalled a lesson he learned from that 1995 game.
“I distinctly remember that Mark Kotsay was on that team, and I also remember that as outstanding a player as he was and outstanding of a hitter as he was, he hit second in the lineup and sacrificed, and he sacrificed in the first inning,” Gillespie said. “And what I came to realize about that was that it was an immediate, valuable contribution. Any player that executes a skill that moves a runner comes to realize and feels, I think, a sense of accomplishment with that immediate execution of a skill. It really for me was a valuable lesson in unselfishness, and it’s something that I’ve always kept in mind because if Mark Kotsay, who was at the time the best—the best—player in college baseball could accept those roles . . . well, it was a good lesson for all of us.”
Texas and UC Irvine enter the CWS ranked first and second in the nation in sacrifice bunts, but Garrido drew a distinction between his style and Gillespie’s.
“Mike is a lot more daring than I am,” he said. “He’ll push the envelope where I won’t, and I think that’s what kind of separates it. And what I mean by that is the squeeze bunts that he uses and the other things that he uses to manufacture runs goes beyond the types of things that I do. Outside of that, it’s about the same thing.”
Saturday’s second game between Vanderbilt and Louisville also features teams with stylistic similarities. Both teams keep pressure on their opponents with their speed, and both teams are well stocked with power arms. They also have plenty of familiarity with each other, having faced off repeatedly in recent years, including in last year’s Nashville Super Regional. The Cardinals won that matchup, making them the lone team in Omaha with any meaningful postseason experience on their roster. Players making their first CWS trips can win the national title—as Arizona did in 2012 and South Carolina did in 2010—but it helps to have Omaha experience, to be prepared for the spectacle Gillespie alluded to. It helped UCLA last year, and it helped South Carolina in 2011.
“We just keep telling our kids, keep the main thing the main thing, and let’s enjoy this and have fun, but at the end of the day, it’s trying to play good baseball, and hopefully the experience of coming here last year (helps),” Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. “Still, you’re going to be impressed and aha’d by everything, as I am, but hopefully you’re a little more comfortable with it, a little more relaxed.”
Vandy coach Tim Corbin referenced the movie “Hoosiers” when discussing how to prepare his team for the big stage of Omaha.
“I just think they’re kids. There’s going to be a little bit of a tourist mentality if they’ve been here for the first time,” Corbin said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, either. But after some hours, maybe 48 hours, you get to the point where you become Gene Hackman and you get out the measuring tape and you say, ‘This is the foul line and this is the basket, and it’s the same all the way around.’”
McDonnell also talked about his days as an assistant under Mississippi coach Mike Bianco, where he learned how to cope with the distractions that surround big-time programs. Bianco himself has had to deal with plenty of angst in Oxford over the Rebels’ long Omaha drought, which finally ends this weekend after 42 years. Bianco has been to Omaha as a member of Skip Bertman’s staff at LSU in the 1990s, but his Rebels lost in four super regionals before finally breaking through.
“I joked that in my days at LSU as an assistant in the ‘90s, how easy Skip Bertman made it look to get here and all those great LSU teams,” Bianco said Friday. “When I got to Ole Miss, I thought I had the blueprint. Once you got to Omaha, this is what you do. Unfortunately it took 14 years, and heck, they don’t even play in the same stadium anymore. That blueprint isn’t as good as it once was.”
A couple of previous Ole Miss postseason runs were stopped by Virginia, the team the Rebels face in Sunday’s night game. Bianco talked Friday about his admiration for Virginia’s program, which has become one of college baseball’s best in 11 years under coach Brian O’Connor and his staff. The Cavs never made it to Omaha before 2009, but this is their third appearance in the last six years, more than any of the other teams in Omaha this year. O’Connor was asked Friday to name three key elements that helped him build his program.
“Pitching, pitching, pitching. Are we done?” he quipped.
Texas Tech coach Tim Tadlock expressed a similar sentiment when describing his team’s winning formula.
“It all really comes back to that bump out there in the middle of the field,” Tadlock said in his endearingly blunt Texas drawl.
Every team in Omaha this year can really pitch and defend—those are two common denominators, this year even more than most. Texas Tech’s opening round opponent, Texas Christian, does it better than anybody, leading the nation in ERA and WHIP, and ranking sixth in strikeouts per nine innings. But TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle raved about Texas Tech’s pitching staff, prompting one of the better exchanges of the day.
“Tim’s team is very, very deep,” Schlossnagle said. “His pitching staff is a pitching staff that I really like because they can do a lot of different things relative to who they’re playing or whatever the matchup is at home plate. Honestly, with that pitching staff, he probably shouldn’t lose a game here.”
Tadlock didn’t miss a beat.
“Can we compare numbers now? Because they say numbers don’t lie, right?” Tadlock said to Schlossnagle. “His staff, obviously with (Brandon) Finnegan and (Tyler) Alexander and (Preston) Morrison and (Jordan) Kipper and (Riley) Ferrell, and just keep going down the list—you’ve just got good arm after good arm . . . At this point in the year, whoever you face, they’re going to have some pitching. But I do think you’ve got to go back and look at the numbers, because the deal about not losing a game, I don’t know about all that carrying on.”
• On that note, here are the pitching matchups for opening weekend:
UC Irvine’s Andrew Morales vs. Texas’ Nathan Thornhill
Louisville’s Kyle Funkhouser vs. Vanderbilt’s Carson Fulmer
TCU’s Preston Morrison vs. Texas Tech’s Chris Sadberry
Mississippi’s Chris Ellis vs. Virginia’s Nathan Kirby
Most of those decisions were fairly cut-and-dried, but Schlossnagle and the two SEC coaches had interesting choices to make. Ole Miss opted to go with Ellis over the lefthanded Christian Trent against a UVa. lineup loaded with dangerous lefties because Ellis “has been our ace all year long.” Corbin has a pair of electric arms at the top of his rotation, but went with Fulmer (the more consistent strike-thrower) over Tyler Beede (who has been the Friday starter all year). Schlossnagle had to choose between Big 12 pitcher of the year Morrison and a first-round pick in Finnegan; he said the two are essentially interchangeable. “For us it’s more about where we think guys match up with the teams that are in our bracket and how guys are pitching lately,” he said.
• In between the two coaches’ press conferences Friday, four college baseball power brokers met with media for the annual State of Baseball press conference. There is no legislative news to report, so the highlight of the press conference was the introduction of Craig Keilitz as the new executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association. He sat next to his father Dave Keilitz, the outgoing executive director, on the dais.
“I’m excited to take on this new position, and it’s an honor to follow in my father’s footsteps; it’s rather odd and an honor to follow him,” said Craig Keilitz, formerly the athletics director at High Point. He shared a neat anecdote about his first trip to Omaha.
“I remember it was probably close to 30-some years ago when I first came down here and my mom didn’t know about this, but my father and Dennis Poppe had myself and (brother) Carl go up on the top of Rosenblatt Stadium to do tornado watch. It was an interesting time, and I thought I was a real good administrator at 10 years old to do tornado watch, so I couldn’t wait to get home to tell my friends about my first duty at the college baseball World Series. My mother wasn’t happy about that.”
The ABCA headquarters is moving from Michigan to High Point, and Dave Keilitz said he’ll still serve on the organization’s board of directors, so the transition should be seamless.
• Damani Leech, the NCAA’s top baseball official, and Division I Baseball Committee chairman Dennis Farrell said both are pleased with the current structure of the tournament, suggesting that significant changes—an expansion to 72 teams, as the American Athletic Conference has proposed, or seeding the top 16 teams—are not imminent. The softball tournament seeds its top 16 teams, and there is a common perception that baseball does not do likewise because it wants to keep travel costs down. But Leech and Farrell emphasized that the reason the committee has opted not to seed the top 16 teams is because it wants to avoid intra-conference super regional pairings.
“To be clear, we do have the ability to seed one through 16, we just choose not to,” Leech said. “The committee over the years has agreed and continued to agree that this is probably the most pragmatic format for baseball I think a lot of our geographic constraints sometimes get viewed through this prism of resources and money and cost savings, and while that’s true, there’s other issues at play.”
• Another notion that some coaches—notably West Virginia’s Randy Mazey—tried to gain support for this spring is a dramatic restructuring of the college baseball calendar, moving the season into the summer. That will probably never happen, and Farrell and Leech made it clear they do not view it as a viable option.
“I’m going to be very blunt: I would not support that, and I don’t think that there would be much support nationally on that,” Farrell said. “I think just moving a college sport outside the academic year is something that people would have a real tough time grappling with from a philosophical standpoint. You have to allow some time off for student-athletes to pursue whatever they want to pursue during the summer months. It may be playing in summer league baseball or going home and working in a grocery store; who knows. Or pursuing their academics.”
Dave Keilitz said it took him eight years to push through a change that moved the start date back two weeks. “At that rate, I’ll be 147 before we get any farther beyond that,” he said.