David Ross didn't feel much like a hero as he walked to the plate at Dick Howser Stadium. His legs wobbly from exhaustion, his energy sapped by the heat, Ross was Auburn's last hope in its East Regional game against Florida State on May 24, 1997.
A sophomore catcher, Ross was in the lineup only because Casey Dunn had suffered a broken hand in the regional opener against Western Carolina. He could peek beyond the left field stands and see the field where he'd played for Florida High School only a couple of years before.
Now, in the stadium where he had cheered so hard for Florida State so many times, the man and the moment came together in a story that would have been more appropriate for a cheap novel.
Two outs. Bottom of the ninth.
Auburn, behind 7-1 after six innings, trailed Florida State 7-5 thanks to Jamie Kersh's two-run homer earlier in the inning. Tim Hudson, who had walked, was on second. Derek Reif was on first after an infield hit. Ross, a .230 hitter, had spent most of the season on the bench.
Two weak swings against ace Florida State reliever Randy Niles resulted in an 0-2 count. After taking a ball, Ross got a reprieve on a foul tip. For a fleeting moment, it seemed catcher Jeremy Salazar had it. Florida players started to run on to the field. But the ball trickled down Salazar's arm and to the ground.
Auburn coach Hal Baird turned to his players in the dugout. "When he hits it out, don't get in his way," Baird told them. "He has to touch all the bases."
Next came a pitch outside – barely – and then a slider up in the zone. Ross swung and the ball sailed high and deep to left field. Mike Diaz raced for the fence, then stopped. His shoulders slumped. His head dropped.
No. 2 seed Auburn had beaten No. 1 seed Florida State 8-7, moving within one victory of a trip to Omaha for the College World Series. Most of the crowd of 4,891 went silent.
David Ross is playing Major League baseball.
Auburn players swarmed out of the dugout. Baird tried to keep them off the field and was knocked face first into the dirt.
Ross, who lost the starting catcher's job to Dunn before the season, had caught nine hot innings. He and other Auburn players had not gotten to bed until 2:30 a.m. after beating South Florida 9-0 in a rain-delayed game. They were up less than six hours later and didn't even take batting practice.
"My legs were like noodles," Ross said.
"Those legs had no problem carrying him on the most joyful home run trot of his life.
"I just tried to put it in play," Ross said. "I knew I hit it good, then I saw my coach jumping up and down. It was exciting."
As Ross stood in to hit, Jackie Ross, feeling a mother's anxiety, said a little prayer. Oblivious to those around her, she whispered, ‘Lord, don't let him strike out.' She didn't dare dream of what was to come.
"All I could see was the ball going toward the trees," Jackie Ross said. "I thought it was going foul, but it went over the fence. It was such a wonderful feeling."
Hal 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 in J&M Bookstore and all of a sudden people were just dancing around and throwing things in the air. Billy Hitchcock 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 that team."
Auburn's work was not done. Florida State would not go quietly.
The Seminoles staved off elimination and got to the final day for a rematch. Auburn could punch its ticket to Omaha with one win. Florida State had to have two and got the first one 9-7. But Hudson's overpowering pitching performance in the second game gave Auburn a 5-2 victory and the regional championship.
It was fitting that Hudson was the star in the deciding game. A senior pitcher/centerfielder, he was finishing one of the great seasons in college history. And one of the better teams ever to wear Auburn colors moved on.
Auburn, which had gone two-and-out in 1994 on its last trip to Omaha, lost its World Series opener 8-3 to Stanford. Hudson hit a home run and was dominant on the mound in a 10-1 victory over Rice in the second game, but Stanford won again in the rematch, 11-4, and Auburn's season was over.
The exit from Omaha did little to dampen the most satisfying of Auburn seasons. The Tigers had struggled in 1996, missing out on the SEC Tournament for the only time in Baird's career.
"We had played a lot of young guys and had a great freshman class, but everybody was upset and there was a lot of disenchantment with what was going on," Baird says. "We decided to stay the course, and the same group went to the College World Series.
"I wouldn't say they had the most talent of any team I coached, but they played the best. There were some stars on that team. You had Hudson, who was such a great player, and maybe the deepest pitching staff we'd had since 1988."
The Tigers won 50 games for the second time in three seasons, finishing 50-17 overall and 17-12 in the SEC.
Hudson was 15-2 and hit .396 with 18 home runs and 95 runs batted in. Right fielder Adam Sullivan hit .396. Second baseman Rob Macrory hit .368 and left fielder Josh Etheridge hit .342 with 20 home runs and drove in 82 runs. Bryan Hebson was 11-4 with a 4.43 ERA. Finley Woodward had eight saves.
Auburn would not miss out on NCAA regional play again until 2004, four seasons after Baird retired as coach and moved into administration.
"It was a fun group," Baird says. "To go to Tallahassee and win on that field was really a special moment."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Phillip's next several columns will feature excerpts from his book, "The Auburn Experience." An oversized coffee table book published in December 2004, the book features more than 300 slick pages of stories and photographs of many of Auburn's greatest traditions, teams, players and coaches in every sport. More copies have become available. Originally selling for $69, it is available now for just $20, plus $5 shipping and handling. For orders of multiple books, there will be just one $5 charge for shipping and handling. Send check or money order made payable to Phillip Marshall to The Auburn Experience, P.O. Box 968, Auburn, AL 36831. Mailing of purchased books will begin the last week of June. Include a note if you wish to have it autographed.
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