It all started in 1989

Most of the current students at Texas A&M probably think that Aggie baseball has always been something special. But 'Olsen Magic' was born in 1989 and it still lives today, as the Aggies prepare for another NCAA regional at Olsen Field. Aggie Websider's David Sandhop spoke to the captain of that 1989 team, who says the 2007 squad reminds him of the team who started it all in 1989.

You know things are getting back to normal when Aggie baseball fans are gearing up for an NCAA baseball regional at Olsen Field. For old-timers like myself, the start of regional play here in College Station brings back fond memories of postseason play. The Aggies have hosted the NCAA Regionals in 1989, 1993, 1998, 1999, 2003, and now, 2007. And yes there were painful memories, but as you get older that pain subsides and turns into nostalgia.

The 2007 version of the Texas Aggie baseball team has been a breath of fresh air, ending a two-year drought from NCAA Tournament play and in the process establishing a new sense of direction for a program that had seemed to lose its identity and its style of play over the past several years.

This 2007 team certainly pushes the envelope when it comes to aggressive play, and that comes mainly from the base paths. The Aggies have stolen a program record 139 bases so far, but it goes much deeper than that. Over the course of this season, the Aggie faithful have seen a straight steal of home, traditional suicide squeeze plays, advancing the extra base when the other team isn't expecting it, and on several occasions scoring a runner from second base on a clean suicide squeeze play.

This aggressive attitude has rallied the fans and left opposing baseball coaches scratching their heads in amazement (Baylor's Steve Smith comes to mind). So now, with the College Station Regional just hours away, you can feel the buzz and anticipation of what can be, and what will be an exciting weekend of college baseball.

Now, take this feeling and turn it up to volume 11. That's how it was in 1989. The 1989 baseball team captured the imagination of the Aggie community and the fans were consumed in every way possible. The Olsen Field culture we know today spawned from that 1989 season, one where the team was ranked No. 1 for 11 weeks, and where late inning comebacks were the rule, not the exception.

It truly was the perfect storm for Aggie baseball, from 17-run innings against Nebraska to a 9-run ninth inning to beat perennial SWC powerhouse Texas, and another ninth inning walk-off homerun by John Byington to beat the Longhorns on the same day. 1989 was all about Olsen Magic, and about legitimizing a Texas A&M program on the rise.

"We knew we were going to win every game, especially at Olsen," said Mike Easley, starting first baseman and captain of the 1989 squad. "The fans lived and breathed on every pitch. They were behind us all the way, and it made a difference. They picked us up for some of those late inning rallies."

In retrospect, the numbers are mind-boggling. A&M jumped out to a 26-0 record before falling on the road to national power Oklahoma State, considered one of the premiere college programs of its day under head coach Gary Ward.

The Aggies extended their record to 40-1 and claimed the No. 1 spot in the national polls during that stretch when arch-rival Texas and its top five ranking came to Olsen Field for a Friday night, Saturday doubleheader three-game series that was nationally-televised by ESPN. With ESPN analyst and former NY Mets star Ray Knight and the nation watching, John Byington delivered his second walk-off homerun of the day on national television and against A&M's arch-rival, and college baseball's Goliath of the era, Texas.

That perfect storm of events just snowballed the rest of the season as Aggie baseball was the hottest ticket in town, and the park was filled to the brim for a three-hour Aggie baseball love fest for one of the most celebrated A&M sports teams in the university's history. Students who couldn't get in to Olsen Field watched from the railroad tracks, and soon scaffolding went up behind the outfield walls for those looking to build their own seat. It was euphoria at the ballpark, and the fans fed off that team, filled with a cast of great ballplayers with an intense desire and competitiveness to win at all costs.

"I knew this was going to be a special team in 1988 during fall ball," Easley said. "Every individual on that team was an intense competitor. We had a huge brawl during one of the fall world series games, and nobody on the team spoke to each other for a couple of weeks. Guys were that intense about winning, even in the fall."

From that fight and knowing the talent on the team, Easley knew they had something special brewing heading into the spring of 1989.

"It was then I knew we had something special," Easley said. "There was chemistry with that team. We were all confident in our abilities as individuals and what we were capable of doing together as a team."

The 1989 squad definitely had the talent.

12 players signed with pro clubs after that season, including seven starters in the every day lineup. Three of the five infielders (John Byington, Chuck Knoblauch, Terry Taylor) received national all-American honors and the entire infield grabbed All-SWC honors.

Shortstop Chuck Knoblauch was drafted high by the Minnesota Twins, and within two years was on prime time national television showing off his batting glove that said "Gig'em Ags" in the palm during player introductions in the World Series. He went on to become the most successful Aggie in the big leagues with the Twins and later with the Yankees winning several world championships.

"This was a special group of guys. We were driven to succeed in everything we did," Easley explained. "You look at us today. We all graduated and we're all successful in our daily lives. It's really special when you think about it."

So when Texas A&M received its first-ever regional hosting assignment in the old six-team format, the team and the community was ready for its crowning moment and a trip to a college baseball's ultimate postseason destination, the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

Despite their No. 1 ranking and top seed in the NCAA Tournament, the committee sent Top 10 LSU and the nation's best college pitcher, Ben McDonald, as the primary competition with the regional's No. 2 seed.

A&M bulldozed its way through the winner's bracket having no problems crushing Jackson State, BYU, and South Alabama all by double digit margins and steamrolling into the championship game where a one-loss LSU team awaited them.

"Our mindset didn't change at all when we approached the regional. We kept doing the things we did to succeed, which was take it to people and be aggressive," Easley said. "There was really no pressure at all. It never crossed our minds that we might lose."

However, LSU coach Skip Bertman was in the midst of building a college baseball dynasty that would result in several NCAA Championships in the 1990's , and he's been on record saying that the two wins over A&M in the 1989 regional final was the catalyst to his program's successful run.

LSU started off the day throwing McDonald in a pitching match-up that definitely favored the Tigers and they took game one 13-5. Just a few weeks later, McDonald was the No. 1 pick of the Baltimore Orioles. However, the Tigers were starting relatively unknown Russ Springer in game two, and the Aggies were ready to end it.

"There was no panic whatsoever between games," Easley said. "We were always confident, and we knew we had the edge in game two."

The Aggies did jump on Springer early, roughing up the future Houston Astro for three runs in the first inning thanks to a two-RBI single by Easley. Bertman went to his bullpen early, and A&M looked to be in great shape to wrap up its first College World Series berth in 25 years.

LSU called on Curt Leskanic and the future Colorado Rockie pitcher stopped the bleeding through the middle innings, giving up just one run as the Tigers slowly clawed their way back into the game. With the game on the line and LSU seemingly out of pitchers, Bertman called upon true freshman Paul Byrd to see if he could stop the nation's best offense in the late innings. Byrd, still pitching for the Cleveland Indians in a productive 16-year major league career, stunned the Olsen Field crowd by shutting down the high-powered Aggies offense as the teams battled into extra innings.

In the 11th inning, LSU scored a single run and Byrd with help from McDonald finished off the Aggies to put an abrupt, crushing end to one of the greatest college baseball seasons in NCAA history with a 58-7 record. Despite not advancing to the CWS, A&M was still voted the No. 2 team in the final national polls, something that has not been done since.

"We knew they were good, but we had no idea we'd be facing four future Major League pitchers that day," Easley said. "Back then, there wasn't the Internet and all of the resources today used to scout the opposing team. It was a shock, because we thought we were the best team in the nation."

Easley now sees some of the same characteristics in Coach Rob Childress's teams that were there for that 1989 team.

"This team has that aggressive mentality. They want to take it to the other team," Easley said. "I watched what they did to Baylor on the base paths last weekend and you could tell they wanted that game."

Easley talked to some of his former teammates this week and they like what they see with Coach Childress and the Aggies.

"I sent Coach Childress a message yesterday congratulating him on the Big 12 Tournament and wished him well in the NCAA's," Easley said. "I've talked to Rob on several occasions and I think he's a good fit at A&M. He's been very inclusive with the former players."

But Easley had another message to send this week as well.

"I'm happy to see the success that Coach Johnson is having at Sam Houston," Easley said. "When they clinched a spot in the NCAA's, I called to congratulate him."

Asked if he had any advice for this year's team heading into postseason play, Easley kept it short and simple.

"Keep doing what you're doing," Easley said. "They are at home, so just keep the same schedule and prepare for a game like you always do. If they perform like they did in the season, they'll be fine."

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