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College World Series: Of Devils and Phantoms

By Mike Kennedy, Special to the Crimson

The NCAA baseball championships, or the College World Series, is held annually in the nation's college baseball hotbed, Omaha, Nebraska, with champions from each of eight regions participating in the double elimination tournament. This year's session was concluded June 17, breaking all-time attendance records.

OMAHA, Neb.--As the dust cleared late in the week, two teams stood, clearly the best in the nation. Third-ranked South Carolina, the CWS runner-up to Texas in 1975, was the only team to have survived the early rounds without a loss. With a bundle of major league prospects, incredible team speed and good pitching dictated the Gamecock strategy.

The Atlantic Champions had won a 3-2 thriller over Baylor in the opening round on a dramatic two-run inside-the-park homer by speedster Chuck McLean in the bottom of the tenth, giving Randy Martz, the nation's premier hurler, his thirteenth win without a defeat.

Martz, the Chicago Cubs' first pick in the 1977 draft, picked up his fourteenth win days later in a 5-4 squeaker over Southern Illinois. Jim Lewis, the Gamecocks' number two hurler, was another story. Snubbed in the major league draft, Lewis took out his frustrations on Cal State, going the distance in winning 6-2.

Arizona State, perennial participants in the CWS, had raced to the No. 1 ranking while amassing runs at a nine-plus per game clip. This was the best Sun Devil club since the National Champs of 1965, which boasted Rick Monday, Sal Bando and Reggie Jackson in its lineup. The 1977 version was a star-studded lineup even without the services of first baseman Mike Hudgens, the nation's number two RBI man with 72. Hudgens was unavailable as a result of a virtual coach's nightmare; he lost concentration while playing catch, and the ball shattered his nose. But no one could take up the slack better than the nation's number one RBI man (87), second baseman Bob Horner, who also tied the NCAA homer mark with 22 round trippers in 1977.

The Sun Devils had whipped Clemson, the ACC Champions and the only other team repeating a 1976 trip to Omaha, 10-7, largely on the efforts of freshman third baseman Jamie Allen. Allen smashed a homer and two singles and then pitched the Sun Devils out of a ninth-inning jam, earning a save to boot.

Even in losing, the Devils made noise. Trailing Southern Illinois 3-2 in the botton of the ninth with two out and nobody on, Allen tapped to the pitcher to end the game, except that the first baseman forgot to catch the ball, bringing the winning run to the plate in Horner, who had already belted one out of spacious Rosenblatt Stadium. Horner slammed the first pitch some 350 feet, only to have it caught at the wall. College baseball at its finest.

With no more losses to spare, the Devils turned to intimidation, pounding 11 hits in the first four innings to eliminate hapless Minnesota, 8-4. And things got hotter as ASU finally met South Carolina. The Devils raced to a 5-2 cushion and called on Allen to close it out. Allen throws a breaking ball about as often as it snows in Tempe, and this night was no exception. Blazing fastballs down the middle of the plate, Allen humbled hitter after hitter, working himself into a veritable rage.

His fastball clocked at 92 miles per hour, he began to stomp around the mound like Al Hrabosky's delinquent brother, screaming at the hitters when they so much as tapped mud out of their cleats. The Gamecocks went down submissively, as did the Salukis of Southern Illinois the next day, as the Devils pounded out 19 hits to avenge the earlier defeat, 10-0.

But South Carolina refused to fold in the final rematch. When Lewis ended the Allen jinx by striking him out in the first, and when Mookie Wilson, winner of the CWS Micky Rivers look-alike contest, sprinted and crashed into the centerfield wall to rob another Sun Devil of extra bases in the second, it was clear that Omaha had itself a ball game. A pair of unlikely heroes eventually decided things.

Arizona State managed a run off Lewis in the third on a two-out single by Mike Henderson, Bump Wills's replacement at short, who slyly worked himself into a pickle between first and second, allowing Rick Peters to score. The game settled into a defensive classic, and then came Steve King.

The 6 ft. 2 in, senior had originally been a catcher, and the St. Louis Cardinals were impressed enough with his defensive talents and his textbook left-handed swing to offer him $40,000 to sign as a high school senior. He declined, choosing first a career at South Carolina, but somewhere along the line he gained 20 pounds and lost his quickness, forcing the switch to DH. His career took several spins and culminated in his final batting average .222. Pro interest has waned, to say the least, but the South Carolina bench was plenty excited when he broke his 1 for 16 CWS slump and swatted one long in the seventh, off the light tower in right. It looked like another in the CWS tradition of extra inning finales. And then another hero.

Hello tradition. Little brother Chris Bando, having emerged as a switch-hitting catcher, came up in the bottom of the inning, having done nothing of significance save muff a few pop fouls. He promptly belted one off the same light tower, and this time it was over, ASU, 2-1.

The Diabalos from Cal State-Los Angeles did not win the tournament, but they did manage to steal the show through most of the early rounds. This bizarre collection of ballplayers, ranging from the smiling Javier Fierro, an overweight shortstop with a magical glove, to the sensational Darrell Brown, an All-American centerfielder with the ego of Ali and a similar knack for poetry (this on his arm--"If you run, you're done."), delighted the crowds with his fresh approach to the game and its wacky brand of success.

Not a great team by any means (its 20 losses by far the most amongst the final eight), the Diabalos entered the Far Western Regionals against powerful USC, the dominant force in modern college baseball (and not without a small impact on the major leagues: Fred Lynn and Bill Lee would certainly come to mind in Boston). The Trojans had inflicted 7-0 and 15-2 poundings on Cal State in their earlier encounters.

Looking for the edge, Cal State unveiled its "phantom infield," taking its pregame infield practice without the services of a baseball. Obviously shaken by this weirdism, the Trojans wilted, 6-5 and 7-6, and the Diablos were headed to Omaha.

Riding its phantom win streak, Cal State pulled the stunt in its CWS opener, sending the fans into hysterics and the No. 2-ranked Minnesota Gophers to the showers, 7-4. Fans piled into the stadium an hour before Cal State games to witness the ritual, but the Diabalos kept their honor, abandoning the act once the win streak was broken by Lewis of South Carolina, 6-2. Cal State was eventually eliminated by Southern Illinois 9-7, after coughing up a five-run lead.

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