Revisiting the 1980's

This postseason has seen success from many teams who made a name in the growing age of college baseball. Some of those names have remained in the spotlight, and others have faded slightly, but are back this year.

I was born in April of 1985, right in the midst of what is, for most fans, regarded as MSU's best season on the diamond, when Will, Raffy, Jeff, and Bobby led the Diamond Dogs to Omaha and within one win of an appearance in the championship game. But it might not have been that bad to have been born in the 70s, because then I would have gotten to see what was a glorious decade for college baseball.

While there were a lot of successful teams from all around the country, there wasn't one team who particularly dominated the scene.

Arizona (1980 and 1986), Miami (1982 and 1985), and Stanford (1987 and 1988) won multiple championships, but it was nothing like the 1970s and 1990s, when Southern Cal (six titles in the 70s) and LSU (six titles in the 90s) were unquestionably dominant in those decades respectively. Nor was it like the 60s, when college baseball was still ever-changing, the Big Ten (yes, the Big Ten, with Minnesota in 1960 and 1964, Michigan in 1962, and Ohio St. in 1966) and the future Pac-10 combo of USC (1961, 1963, and 1968) and Arizona St. (1965, 1967, and 1969) accounted for all of the championships.

In the 80s, you started to see less of the Trojans, who, after winning the last of those six titles in 1978, didn't make another trip to Omaha until 1995. But, you saw the rise of many teams, like MSU, Cal. St. Fullerton, Oklahoma St., Wichita St., LSU, Florida St., and Miami.

Many star names were introduced to the baseball world - Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro, Robin Ventura, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Albert Belle, and so many more.

Three current major league managers also played in the College World Series during the 1980s (Boston's Terry Francona: Arizona in 1980, when he was the Most Outstanding Player, Arizona's Bob Melvin: Cal in 1980, and Cleveland's Eric Wedge: Wichita St. in 1989).

The 80's was when the North still didn't have an issue about their representation on the college baseball landscape, with Maine‘s four consecutive appearances from 1981-84, to St. John's, James Madison, Michigan, and even Indiana St. making it in 1986. They weren't complete pushovers either, as the Black Bears of Maine finished third in 1982, and the following year, Michigan finished third as well.

The name-changing Big West established itself as a baseball power, with Fullerton, Long Beach St., and Fresno St. all making appearances in Omaha. The West itself was a big presence in Omaha during the 80's, with Arizona, Arizona St., Cal, Stanford, and Loyola Marymount all making the final eight at some point in the decade.

Fullerton, Miami, Texas, and Florida St. have had the most staying power out of the 80's powers. The Titans have won a championship in each of the last four decades (1979, 1984, 1995, and 2004), which is a pretty amazing feat considering their relatively short D-I history.

Miami is close behind, having won championships in the last three decades. The Hurricanes have had a few down years recently, but they're still undoubtedly one of the premier teams in the sport.

After making seven appearances in Omaha in the 80s, Texas did drop off a little in the 90's, and made only two appearances. But the ‘Horns have been one of the biggest winners of the 2000's, winning national championships in 2002 and 2005, and finishing second in 2004.

Florida St. hasn't been to Omaha since 2000, but regardless, they've still been winning a lot more than they've been losing. Up until the last two years, they were one of few teams to make every super regional since the format was introduced in 1999.

Stanford was one of the top teams until a few seasons ago, when their records starting dropping near .500. The Cardinal went to Omaha four times in the 90's, and went to Omaha every year from 1999-2003, finishing runner-up in 2000, 2001, and 2003. LSU made their first two CWS appearances in the 80's (1986 and 1988) before becoming the dominant team of the 90's, and their success continued into this decade. But as of now, they're trying to get back to that point, having missed the postseason in each of the last two seasons, and they haven‘t been to Omaha since 2003 and 2004, when they went an uncharacteristic 0-2 both times.

South Carolina has experienced a resurgence in this decade under Ray Tanner. The Gamecocks were the national runner-up in 2002, and have been to super regionals every year of the format except for 2005.

But, this is the best year in quite a while for some of the teams that had their glory days in the 1980's.

Wichita St. had success on into the 90's, making four more appearances in Omaha (1991, '92, '93, and '96), finishing runner-up to LSU in '91 and '93, but 2007 was their best shot at making Omaha since the 1996 team did. Since the 16-regional, 64-team format started in 1999, the Shockers have gone 2-0 in regionals three times and then been beaten twice, and three other times, finished runner-up in a regional. They've still been the dominant team in the Missouri Valley, but postseason success has been another story, including 1998, when a 55-5 Shockers team went 0-2 in their own regional.

The Shockers had the pieces in place again this year, and came through their regional from the loser's bracket, to advance to their first super regional since the introduction of the new format. But, two late losses to upstart UC Irvine mean that the Shockers' best season in a decade falls short of Omaha yet again.

Oklahoma St. made three more appearances in Omaha in the 1990s, but since 1999, had fallen from the upper tier, after legendary coach Gary Ward hung it up. But they, like the Shockers, will have to wait another year to get back to Omaha after being stopped by another up-and-comer in Louisville. But, given the Cowboys have finished second and third in the Big 12 the past two seasons, they might be heading back towards the top.

MSU made three appearances in Omaha in the 1990s, but hadn't come close to Omaha since 2001. Their nine-year drought has finally been broken, as they were the first team to punch their ticket to Omaha on Saturday afternoon. There wasn't a time when their presence wouldn't be a surprise, but as it happens, they're being referred to by some as a Cinderella story.

Texas A&M didn't make an appearance in Omaha in the 1980s, but did emerge towards the end of the decade with a couple of 50+ win seasons under Mark Johnson, and did go to Omaha in 1993 and 1999.

All in all, nine of the 16 super regional participants made at least one appearance in Omaha in the 1980's.

Oklahoma St. led the way with seven consecutive appearances from 1981-87. The Cowboys boasted all-time college greats like Ventura, Incaviglia, and Robbie Wine, who is now trying to build up the program at Penn State.

Arizona St. made five appearances in Omaha, and the Sun Devils won the national championship in 1981. Tempe was where Barry Bonds honed his skills at the collegiate level. Bonds made the CWS All-Tournament team as a freshman and sophomore in 1983 and 1984 before being drafted #6 overall by the Pirates in 1985.

Michigan made four appearances in the early 80's under coach Bud Middaugh, and finished third in 1983. The Wolverines came close again in 1985, 1986, and 1989, finishing second in regionals in those seasons. Barry Larkin, Hal Morris, and Chris Sabo were keys to those Michigan teams in the early part of the decade. Things started going downhill for the program when Middaugh was found to have illegally paid some players during that period of success, and resigned. After 1989, the Wolverines made only one regional appearance between then and 2005, when they began a run of three straight postseason appearances and 40+ win seasons under Rich Maloney.

South Carolina, Cal St. Fullerton, and Wichita St. each made three appearances in Omaha during the decade.

The Titans won their second national championship in 1984, beating Texas for the title. The Titans went 0-2 in 1982, and in 1988, started 2-0, but lost two in a row to Stanford to finish in a tie for third.

Wichita St. finished second in 1982, and tied for third in 1988, but weren't to be denied in 1989, when the Shockers knocked off Texas for their first and only crown. That 1989 Shockers team featured future major leaguers Pat Meares and Mike Lansing, and as mentioned, future major league manager Wedge. The Shockers also produced 1993 World Series hero Joe Carter and NCAA all-time career hits leader Phil Stephenson, whose record likely won't be touched since getting to 100 hits in a season isn't as easy as it used to be, and the best hitters usually go after three seasons anyway.

South Carolina went to Omaha in 1981, 1982, and 1985 under coach June Raines, with their best finish in the 80's being a third-place finish in ‘81. The Gamecocks' first four appearances (1975, 1977, 1981, and 1982) were as an independent, but by 1985, they'd become a member of the Metro Conference, which boasted another 80's power in the Seminoles.

MSU made two appearances in Omaha in the 80s and should have perhaps made at least two more. As good as the 1981 and 1985 teams were, the 1984 and 1989 teams both had championship talent but fell short of Omaha. The 1984 team, the precursor to that hallowed ‘85 squad, was beat out by Ron Maestri's New Orleans club, who made their only appearance in Omaha that season. That ‘89 team is the ultimate ‘what if,' because they were dominant in the regular season (49-9, 20-5 in the SEC), but were tripped up in the postseason by North Carolina, who's number eight on the list, with that year being their only CWS appearance of the decade. The Tar Heels, along with Clemson (1980) were the ACC's lone representatives in Omaha in the 1980's.

All of these successful teams had a big hand in helping the rise of the sport, and produced a number of players who became professional stars in the next decade. And, in the case of Bonds and Clemens, stars who've continued on into this decade. And, this weekend, four of the 80's club will be playing for a national championship. The Sun Devils are poised to make a run like they did in 1981, and are the co-favorite to take home the trophy, along with Rice. North Carolina will look to make a return to the championship series, and not fall short this time around. Fullerton is making their fifth appearance of the decade, and will be looking to take home their second championship during the period. And MSU will look to continue their improbably run, and surprise their way into a national championship.

All in all, it's set to be an exciting week and a half of baseball, and maybe, just maybe, this is a reunion that should happen more often.


Eddie Griffin, a freelance writer who does monthly opinion columns for the Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com website, can be reached at emg03e@gmail.com.


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