Tallahassee: A Special Place For Auburn Baseball

Auburn returns to the scene of one of its greatest sports moments this weekend as the baseball team goes to Florida State for a three-game series.

As Auburn's baseball team prepares to play a three-game series at Florida State this weekend, I am reminded of what might have been the single most dramatic moment I ever witnessed in college athletics.

Sophomore catcher David Ross was Auburn's last hope in its East Regional game against Florida State on May 24, 1997. Ross was in the lineup only because Casey Dunn had suffered a broken hand in the regional opener against Western Carolina. Beyond the left field stands, Ross could see the field where he'd played for Florida High School only a couple of years before.

Ross had grown up a Florida State fan, cheering for the Seminoles in the same stadium where he now walked to the plate for the biggest at-bat of his life.

Two were out with two on in the bottom of the ninth. Auburn had trailed 7-1 after six innings but had closed the gap to 7-5. Ross, hitting .230, had spent most of the season on the bench.

Ross is currently with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Ross took two weak swings against ace Florida State reliever Randy Niles, and the count was 0-2. After taking a ball, Ross swung again. His foul tip went straight into the mitt of catcher Jeremy Salazar. Florida Start players started to run on to the field. But the ball trickled down Salazar's arm and to the ground.

In the dugout, Auburn coach Hal Baird turned to his players. "When he hits it out, don't get in his way," Baird told them. "He has to touch all the bases."

After missing outside, Niles threw a slider up in the zone. Ross swung and the ball sailed deep to left field. Mike Diaz raced for the fence and stopped, looking up in disbelief as the ball went over the fence.

Auburn players swarmed out of the dugout. Baird tried to keep them off the field and was knocked face first into the dirt. He didn't mind.

Ross had caught nine hot innings. He and other Auburn players had not gone to bed until 2:30 a.m. after beating South Florida 9-0 in a rain-delayed game.

"My legs were like noodles," said Ross, who plays now for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Baird had plenty of great moments in his 16 seasons as Auburn coach, but he says that one stands alone at the top.

"I've had lots of people tell me stories about that home run, and they all give me chills," Baird says. "People tell me they were at J&M Bookstore and all of a sudden people were just dancing around and throwing things up in the air. Billy Hitchcock, who probably is one of Auburn's greatest icons, told me he considered it one of the top 2-3 moments in Auburn athletic history.

"You could see David's high school. The pitch before that, Florida State people thought the game was already over. It was just a storybook thing. It was as dramatic a moment as I think I've ever been around. I remember looking over to my right. Tim Hudson had a helmet on, and his feet were like at eye level he jumped so high. It really was a truly special moment and truly propelled the team."

Auburn went on to win the regional and go to Omaha for the College World Series. Ross, stuck behind Dunn, transferred to Florida the next season, had an outstanding junior year and began his journey to the major leagues.

The Tigers have been trying to get back to Omaha ever since, and that is the mission of first-year coach Tom Slater. It's not likely to happen this season.

Slater's first Auburn team showed a lot of good things in sweeping Hofstra last weekend. The Tigers played with energy, heart and determination. They ran the bases with reckless abandon. They did a lot of the things you need to do to win big in the Southeastern Conference.

Whether they have enough weapons to make a serious run in the Southeastern Conference remains to be seen. A lot of things would have to fall into place. But the Tigers made it clear last weekend that they will play the game the way it should be played.

We'll learn a little more about the Tigers this weekend, though I'm told this Florida State team might not a strong one by Seminole standards. The real test, of course, will come when SEC play begins.

Whether Slater can get this team into the postseason remains to be seen, but I don't believe anyone who has watched him closely doubts he will get it done.

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