Watching Oklahoma State – top seed in the tourney – and their bitter cross-state rivals Oklahoma play on the opening day of the Big 12 baseball tournament at Bricktown Ballpark, scuffled up some good memories.
All I ever wanted to do in my career was baseball play-by-play, and as an 18-year-old was lucky enough to do just that, calling 50 or so games starting my freshman year at Georgia State University. We had good, competitive teams and we traveled to some great ballparks in the old Sun Belt Conference. What got me thinking about this was when I was talking to local radio icon and friend Randy Renner in the press box, I was reminded that the “ping” of the “aluminum” bat that had become so prevalent in the 80s and into the 90s has given way to a more civilized “thwing”. Still not wood, still able to turn a fly ball into a home run, the “artificial” bat of today is less responsive and thus, more natural. And yes, I am aware they aren’t really aluminum anymore, but I digress. (Ironically, or perhaps coincidentally at least, Cody Stravenhagen from the Oklahoman penned a pretty cool story in today’s paper about the current bats used in college baseball. I actually started this blog entry yesterday, so great minds think alike. You can read it HERE.)
I told Randy how I recalled when GSU went to Florida State to play the mighty Seminoles, who like many warm weather programs feast on snowbirds, teams that come from the north when the seaosn opens, hoping to just get in some games – or practices – of any kind. These teams know they will likely get thumped; schools like FSU feast on the less than “summer ready” competition. But still, you hope to steal away a game if you’re GSU, wjhich would be good for your program and after all, the Panthers were pretty good as a smaller Division I program. So there was the pride issue. And FSU was arogant, top to bottom. Their fans were rude (still are, I’m sure), their players walked around like you were lucky to be on their field. Which, in my opinion, might be why you haven’t seen that great program raise many NCAA championship banners. Any banners?
Any way, they had a guy named Jeff Ledbetter – who later would earn the nickname Jeff “I’m Better” in his brief minor league career. This guy feasted on the offerings of opposition, using the pingy bat, the lefthanded batter also took advantage of the Tallahassee jet stream (which I called it) which blew out to right field. And there was also quite a short porch there. Funny, he set all sorts of records for hitting, but never made it out of Class A ball.
Randy recalled the great pings generated by Pete Incaviglia, an iconic All-American who played for great OSU teams and set the NCAA career homer record. he of course was the real deal, going on to a nice big league career. It made me recall one of my favorite players early in my broadcasting career (as a Braves fan growing up I also covered the team much of the 1980s). Bob Horner was the first Golden Spikes Award winner coming out of Arizona State. (Inky later broke his homer marks, I believe). Horner was pudgy (dare we say fat), but had the quickest wrists since Henry Aaron. The Braves launching pad (plus the presence of Dale Murphy in the lineup) gave Horner some pretty good looks, and though injuries kept him down almost all of his career, he had three 30-plus homer seasons and even one four homer game.
College baseball’s live bat era preceded Major League Baseball’s steroid era, and while you can’t compare the two for obvious reasons, they certainly do both show how much chicks (and fans) have always dug the long ball.
Some other prodigious collegiate home run stories I have witnessed during my career, PBP and otherwise?
- Future LA Dodger Franklin Stubbs destroyed one at Panthersville against GSU (some time from 1980-1983)
- At Cal State Fullerton I was able to do Titans games for parts of three years, two on TV with the now-defunct Orange County NewsChannel (before Fox Sports Net started doing everybody’s games) and another on the budding “Internet”. Wow, some great hitters there, including Aaron Rowand, who has had a pretty solid big league career. I remember big first baseman Aaron Rifkind “dusting the pollen off the roses in the arboretum” on occasion. He had a nice minor league run, as did a ton of guys on that team. Kirk Saarlos and catcher Kurt Suzuki were the most successful in the show, though neither hit homers, so I once again get off track.
- I remember Gerald Laird raking a few at Cypress College.
- In the minors, some made the transition to wood better than I thought. Bo Jackson. Yowza I saw him hit a long one. Reggie Jefferson with the Lookouts in Chattanooga struggled at first at Double-A but got to the bigs pretty quickly. And in spring training, I’m not sure I ever saw a young, unknown player hit the ball harder than Ryan Klesko of the Braves.
- But back to college, in those days (starting in the 80s and building into the early 2000s)- long balls became more and more ridiculously easy, so they had to change the bats.
Another note about those days calling CSF games. Full disclosure: coach George Horton loaned me a couple of bats which were no longer “legal” and thus reserved for batting practice. I used to play in men’s senior leagues every year and the bats were sweet. Sorry coach; I never returned them. I still have them.
And it’s a good thing they did. I have already seen effective bunt and runs. I have seen (some) outfielders play shallow (more should) when they used to just back up the wall in left and give up tons of slap hits. Are you listening O-U? Pitchers work both halves of the plate, which creates a mental metric no stat man can ever use to predict outcomes. And the ball coming off the bat just sounds better.
And the sights, sounds and smells of baseball are part of why you should wander out to the ball park, any ball park, whenever you have time to relax and think back… to the days when you took one deep. (Maybe it wasn’t just the bat!)