Any time Auburn and Florida State get together to play baseball--which is usually in regionals in Tallahassee--it brings back the memory of one of the more dramatic moments I have witnessed in any sport at any level.
A sophomore catcher who had been one of the nation's top recruits from Tallahassee's Florida High School, David Ross, had languished behind All-America selection Casey Dunn at Auburn in 1997. Ross went home for the East Regional at Florida State's Dick Howser Stadium not knowing if he would even get into a game.
But on May 24, Ross played the lead role in a drama that might be the most memorable in Auburn baseball history.
Auburn and Florida State were each 2-0 in the six-team regional and played for the right to advance to the championship round. Ross was in the lineup because Dunn had broken his hand when hit by a pitch in the regional opener against Western Carolina.
Ross knew every nook and cranny of Dick Howser Stadium. His mother, Jackie, had worked in the Florida State athletic department. Until he decided he'd play for Auburn, he'd been a loyal Seminole.
For six innings, Florida State was in control. But Scott Etheridge hit a home run in the eighth and Jamie Kersh hit a two-run shot in the bottom of the ninth to close the gap to 7-5. Derek Reif kept the inning alive with a two-out infield hit, and with two on it was up to Ross.
Two weak swings against Randy Niles, Florida State's ace reliever, resulted in an 0-2 count. After taking a ball, Ross tipped a slider foul. For a moment, it was in catcher Jeremy Salazar's mitt. Florida State players began to run from their dugout to celebrate. But the ball trickled down Salazar's arm and to the ground.
Standing in the first base coaching box, assistant coach Tom Slater, seeing Ross had the previous pitch well-timed, whispered, "Throw him another slider."
In the dugout, Coach Hal Baird turned to his players. "When he hits it out, don't get in his way," Baird told them.
The next pitch missed outside. Then came the slider, up in the zone. Ross swung. The outcome was clear when the ball left the bat. At first base, Slater leaped into the air, pumping his fist. That's when Ross knew.
"I just tried to put it in play," Ross said after the game. "I knew I hit it good, then I saw my coaches jumping up and down. It was exciting."
Auburn went on to win the regional and advance to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series. Ross, the starting catcher last season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, played his final season at Florida instead of sitting behind Dunn again. Baird helped make the arrangements.
Slater, now in his second season as Auburn head coach, says Ross will always have a special place in Auburn history.
"The thing about David Ross is, even though he wasn't playing, he was a tremendous leader," Slater said. "It was his attitude, his work ethic, the way he went about his business. Here's a guy who was one of the most highly recruited players in the country. He was on his way to the big leagues, and everybody knew it."
It was the most memorable of many memorable Auburn days at Dick Howser Stadium, but not all the memories are pleasant.
In 1989, Auburn was poised to take control of the regional, leading Florida State with one out in the ninth inning. A routine double play ball that would have ended it hopped over second baseman Jeff Leatherman's head as if propelled by a supernatural force and into right field. The Seminoles won the game and eventually the series.
There was a disappointing Super Regional loss to the Seminoles in 1999 and losses in championship rounds in 1998, 2001 and last season.
But Ross' home run will always stand alone.
"It was the most dramatic end to a game I can remember in 24 years of coaching," said Baird, who retired as Auburn coach in 2000 and retired last year from his position as senior associate athletic director.
"I never saw the ball leave the park. Tim Hudson was standing there and he jumped so high his feet were at eye level."
Slater, in six seasons as Baird's assistant, got plenty of experience at Dick Howser Stadium. He got more when he took his VMI team there for a three-game series in 2003, more in 2004 as a Florida assistant and still more last season when Auburn won one of three in February.
Now, the Seminoles are coming to Plainsman Park for the first time since 1974. Coach Mike Martin has made Florida State a national power for almost a quarter of a century.
"He can have a bunch of high draft picks or he can have teams without great talent," Slater said. "It doesn't matter. He's going to win 50 games. He's just a great coach. Year in and year out, he just wins games."
But on a hot May day in 1997, Martin lost a big one because a sophomore who came to town as a reserve and left as a hero struck a blow that forever earned him a place in Auburn lore.