College World Series: Skill is a must, but luck counts, too – witness Mississippi State in ’85

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Mississippi State athletics

Mississippi State’s 1985 Bulldogs were undefeated and seemed to be cruising at the 1985 College Wolrld Series when pitcher Gene Morgan (being examined) was hit by a line drive. Will Clark, 23, looks on.

It says here Mississippi State heads into the College World Series playing as well – if not better – than anyone.

If asked to pick the eventual winner out of the eight contenders – with my house on the line – I’d pick State. Vanderbilt, you ask? Vandy’s really, really good, but, man, I hate that whistler. MY theory: Over the course of the season, he must even wear out Vandy’s team. Besides that, I saw the Bulldogs beat Vandy two of three in last year’s Nashville Super Regional with a trip to Omaha on the line. This State team is better than that State team – better hitting, better pitching, better fielding, better across the board.

Rick Cleveland

Arkansas? The Hogs are really good. They swept State three games at Fayetteville back in mid-April. Since then, Arkansas is 16-8, while State is 19-6. The Bulldogs have won five straight and 14 of their last 17. The College World Series is all about getting hot at the right time. The Bulldogs are blazing heading to Omaha.

But this is baseball, and the best team doesn’t always win. Key players get hurt. The wind shifts at the wrong time. Good players lose the ball in the sun. Or, as Boo Ferriss once said, “You never know in baseball. There are too many pebbles out there on the field. Sometimes, the ball bounces the wrong way.”

The best college team these eyes ever witnessed was the 1985 Mississippi State team. Oh. My. God. Those Bulldogs had four future Major League stars: Jeff Brantley, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Thigpen. They had several other really terrific college players. Their one-two pitching starters, Brantley and Gene Morgan, were a combined 32-4 that season. You read right: thirty-two victories, four defeats. And Thigpen, who would go on to set a Major League saves record, was the closer at the back end of the bullpen. College baseball legend Ron Polk, of course, was the coach. Palmeiro, Clark and Polk are all College Baseball Hall of Famers.

Those Bulldogs were ridiculously good. They won their first 15 games and were ranked No. 1 for several weeks.

And they played like world-beaters when they first reached Omaha. They swamped 57-game winner Oklahoma State 12-3 in their first game. They beat Arkansas 5-4 in the second round, and then they faced a showdown with Texas with Morgan, 14-2, on the mound. State scored two in the first, and Morgan was pitching lights out. He was cruising in the fifth inning, having shut out the Longhorns on one hit.

And then it happened. Doug Johnson led off the fifth for Texas. Morgan threw him a fast ball that started out over the outside corner but tailed back into the middle of the plate.

“It was a bad, bad pitch,” Morgan said Wednesday, 34 years and three days after the pitch.

Mississippi State athletics

Ron Polk (arms folded) looks on as Morgan warms up after injury.

Johnson drilled a line drive off Morgan’s left ankle. Morgan didn’t have a chance to get his glove down in time. The ball caromed all the way into left field. Morgan went down in a heap.

The pain, at first, was excruciating. “I thought I was out of the game for sure,” he said.

Players crowded around him. Polk came out. The trainer came out and sprayed Morgan’s ankle with a numbing agent. After a pregnant pause, Morgan tried a few warm-up pitches – and stayed in the game.

In the 34 years since, Palmeiro, Clark, Brantley and Polk have all told me that was the sequence that kept State from winning a national baseball championship, something no Division I Mississippi team has ever accomplished.

Morgan won’t go that far.

“Texas was really good, Miami was really good,” he said. “But I thought we had something special, we all did. Besides all those great players, we had a special chemistry as well.”

Morgan got through that inning and still led 5-2 going into the bottom of the seventh.

Morgan’s ankle? “I couldn’t feel anything,” he said. “I might have felt nervous about planting that left foot on my delivery. I can’t say for sure. I thought I still pitched OK. They hit some good pitches.”

That 5-2 lead became a 12-7 defeat. A double play ball took a bad hop and that opened the Texas floodgates.

“Who knows what would have happened, had the ball not hit me in the ankle,” Morgan said. “I don’t know. I can’t say.”

But many have speculated.

And Morgan allowed this: “Without question, it changed the momentum of the game.”

And then, after a long pause, Morgan added, “But that’s baseball. Stuff happens.”

Stuff does happen. You have to be really good to win at the CWS level. You also have to get a break or two along the way.

The 1985 Bulldogs got a bad one. Eventual national champion Miami eliminated those Bulldogs, 6-5, the next afternoon.

“Yes,” the 57-year-old Morgan said, he still watches these Bulldogs every chance he gets on TV. He works and lives in the Atlanta area and can’t wait to get back and see the Bulldogs at the new version of Dudy Noble Field.

“They seem to have a really special team,” Morgan said. “They don’t have two guys like Ralph and Will, but, man, every guy in the lineup can hit and they hit when it counts. It looks like in key situations, they just believe they are going to hit it hard, and they usually do.”

Morgan’s advice to these Bulldogs? “Enjoy the moment, take it all in,” he said. “Twenty, thirty years later, you’ll still remember.”

Some memories are better than others.

Again, this State team, 51-13, has what it takes to win it all. The question – as it always is in baseball – will it get the breaks?

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Rick Cleveland is headed to Omaha to provide coverage of the College World Series, beginning Sunday.