Oregon Trail: Jan. 18

The Civil War has been renewed

By now you've probably heard that Oregon will field a baseball team in 2009 for the first time since 1981. It's not every year that a school with the kind of resources Oregon can boast essentially starts a program from scratch, and the Ducks showed the college baseball world they mean business when they hired George Horton away from Cal State Fullerton to lead their rebirth on Sept. 1. With one of the nation's best coaching staffs—including talented assistants Jason Gill and Andrew Checketts—attempting to start an elite program in the backyard of two-time defending national champion Oregon State, we figured it would be compelling to check up on the Ducks' progress once a month, in a feature called The Oregon Trail. Click here to check out the November installment, and here for the December installment.

George Horton admits he got caught up in the moment at his introductory press conference, but that admission isn't likely to make folks in Corvallis forget the shot he fired across the bow in the renewal of the state's baseball Civil War.

"Our mission is to dominate the Northwest in recruiting," Horton said upon meeting the Oregon media for the first time. He later backed off that bold statement, but Oregon State's feathers were already ruffled.

"I reflected on that because I was a little bit criticized in the press conference from the Oregon State people," Horton said at the American Baseball Coaches Association convention in Philadelphia. "OK, well if you're sitting in Pat Casey's office, you're thinking, 'Who's this guy, popping off like that?' And my people around me thought it was cool because they hate Oregon State. But I like for what we do to speak for itself, rather than have it be a thing where we're going to pop off and have to back off, that kind of thing, so I second-guessed myself."

Relations have always been testy in the fierce Civil War between the two schools, and it took no time at all for that tension to creep into the renewed baseball rivalry. Beavers coach Pat Casey has steadfastly refused to comment on Oregon since the news first came out that the Ducks would resuscitate their long-dormant baseball program. But both sides are already on high-alert for perceived slights, which helps explain why Oregon community relations and special projects director Joe Giansante ran into Horton's office this fall bearing a Casey quote that may or may not have been directed at the Ducks.

"Pat Casey had a quote in the paper saying something to the effect that in recruiting, a lot of people are selling things to recruits rather than substance," Horton said. "And Joe came running in there to my office with this quote written down and said, 'Look at this, look at what Casey said.'

"So Joe's thinking he's pointing his finger right at us, that we're selling all these fabulous things that we have at the University of Oregon. And even Coach (Dave) Serrano, my good friend and ex-assistant coach (and successor at Cal State Fullerton), was getting the word from some of the recruits we were going head-to-head for, that we were selling the training center and the football program and the Nike package—all the fluffy things—rather than our program and the human beings and the respect and the fun and the development part of our program. I kind of had to get on Coach Serrano—and I hope that quote from Pat Casey wasn't directed at us, and well, I don't know what he thinks. But I can assure you we're not going to recruit based on just stuff. We don't want young men to come and say, 'I want to play for this staff at this university because of the bells and whistles and fabulous things they have to offer.'

"Because that's 180 degrees backwards from what (Andrew Checketts) is about and (Jason Gill) is about and I'm about, and where we came from. And I don't think that's very conducive to getting the kind of young men to compete at the national level for you—because they came for the training center?"

At that point, Gill interjected, "It's cool, though."

Horton continued, "Yeah, it is. Some of them probably have, unfortunately. But we want that to be the cherry on top of the sundae. We want the foundation to be the relationships and the development and the opportunity to play in the best conference in the country and playing for a national championship. I guess the best way to say it to Coach Casey is I can assure him that that's not how we're recruiting. And if we win the recruiting battles between them, we don't want it to be about the fact that we have a better university and better facilities, eventually. And all the stuff that is going to happen."

Horton and Casey both say they want to focus on building their own programs and not concern themselves with their natural rivals, but given Oregon State's perch atop college baseball's pinnacle and Oregon's abundant resources, there is plenty of reason for each to worry about the other.

"I'm not saying this derogatorily about Coach Casey and his staff, but I think they're more worried about us than we're worried about them," Horton said. "Because we're the new kids on the block, and the natural thing is we're going to take resources away from them—camp opportunities, in-state recruits will be more competitive for them. But the way we see it is, we don't look at them right now as our sole challenge or rival or, 'We gotta beat Oregon State.' We want to get Oregon kids, and if Oregon State is in the way, they're just like UCLA or Cal State Fullerton or Miami or anybody else."

Of course, Horton will have a difficult time convincing Oregon fans that the Beavers are just like anybody else. Gill has already gotten a good taste of just how deep passions run in this rivalry on the recruiting trail.

Even on a recruiting trip to Arizona, far from the Pacific Northwest, Gill was confronted with the Civil War. The Oregon State football team was in town that weekend to play Arizona State.

"So I get to the rental car place, I'm waiting in line there, and I'm all proud of my Oregon shirt, got my chin up, and there's two gals and a guy in front of me in line in Oregon State gear, because they're going to the football game," Gill recalled. "And they're berating me in line, to the point that I got on the phone with Andrew and said, 'Listen to this: these people in front of me in line are ragging us, saying we can't win, this and that.' The banter ended up being pretty funny, but they were serious, like, 'Why'd you guys bring back baseball? You can't let us have anything?'

"But that's kind of when it hit me. We had our Long Beach-Fullerton rivalry, which in our little area was great, but this is the whole state of Oregon. You're either a Duck or a Beaver—it's the entire state."

Well, that's not completely true. Checketts, for one, has been a Duck and a Beaver, having played three seasons at Oregon State in the late 1990s. He quickly found out that he wasn't alone when Oregon senior associate athletic director Renee Baumgartner picked him from the airport on his first visit to Eugene. Baumgartner was driving her husband's car, which sported an Oregon sticker on the right and an Oregon State sticker on the left. Her husband, it turns out, is an OSU grad.

Checketts is in a particularly strange position since he played not only for Casey at OSU, but also for new Oregon State assistant coach Pat Bailey, who coached Checketts in high school.

"It's been interesting," Checketts said of becoming a Duck. "Growing up I wasn't really involved in the rivalry—there was no baseball at Oregon when I played at Oregon state, so there wasn't any bitterness, no history of playing. There wasn't four years of competing against Oregon, so I never developed that disdain or hate for our in-state rivals because we never played them. I think that rivalry will develop, but there's no history for the last 25 years of people talking about wins and losses or rowdy fans or that series in 1994 when you guys beat us and knocked us out of the playoffs. There is none of that, and that will develop over time. But from a personal standpoint I don't have that history. And obviously I have some fond memories of playing at Oregon State."

Memories are all well and good, as long as they're just memories.

"That was one of the things I wanted to make sure when we hired him was that he could get that Beaver blood out of his system," Horton joked.

As crazy as it sounds, the Ducks also have to shake some of that Beaver blood out of their own fan base. Gill says he's run into some Oregon supporters who have been forced to resort to strange rooting habits in the absence of a Duck baseball team.

"Most of the people I talk to want what's best overall for the state," he explained. "So a lot of the Oregon fans were kind of pulling for Oregon State because they didn't have baseball. So they're excited to have baseball back, but they were pulling for that team for a while now. Obviously there are some people that are disappointed we brought it back. We've gotten a little bit of that—not too much—but it's a rivalry, and it's fun."

It will be even more fun when the Ducks play their first Pac-10 series in 2009 at home—against the Beavers.