Twenty years. Twenty College World Series ago. Remember?
Miami legend Ron Fraser coached his last game at the CWS, in a driving rainstorm. Wichita State was a national power. There was still a Dingerville, next to middle-aged Rosenblatt Stadium.
Andy Lopez was there. He thinks. The Arizona coach kind of remembers it. And he won the thing.
“I remember we went to the pre-tourney banquet and they called me ‘Al Lopez,' ” Lopez said. “It was great. It was fun. Today I got a text from one of my Pepperdine players saying, ‘Good luck, Al.'
“We played well. We had something like 25 or 26 consecutive scoreless innings. We shut out Wichita State and Texas.
“And in the championship game, I walked the winning run in the last inning. It was a guy named (Phil) Nevin (future major leaguer). I told one of our coaches, ‘I'm not going to let him hit.' He said, ‘But you just walked the winning run on.' ”
It worked. Pepperdine, the Stony Brook of L.A., won the national championship by beating Cal State Fullerton 3-2. Lopez was 38 years young. He could see forever.
Twenty years later, Lopez is finally back.
This is Lopez's fifth CWS — he had two with Florida and this is his second in 11 years at Arizona. But this is the first time he'll play for a national title since 1992, when his hair didn't have that touch of gray and his stud pitcher was Patrick Ahearne, an Orel Hershiser lookalike and wannabe.
“I just spoke to Patrick not long ago,” Lopez said. “He's still pitching, in Czechoslovakia. He's their ace.”
If there's a video of that magical run, Lopez says, he's never seen it. He should someday. The older you get, the more you cherish these moments. Back then, what could it mean? Lopez was too young to know. And too busy on the college baseball treadmill.
“I had no idea what it meant,” Lopez says. “I mean, I'm 38. It doesn't really sink in. I remember when we landed (at home), I was driving our van back home and our daughter got sick, started vomiting. Here I am, I just won the national championship and I'm cleaning out the van.
“I have so much more appreciation for it now. You get here and it's hard to know sometimes how hard it is to get back here and harder to win it. Now, the players, the games, the things we're doing, I do try to savor it.”
Savor the winning, because it's not automatic. There's no such thing as invincible. Lopez had it all in front of him when he took the Florida job in 1995. It looked like a good fit, young coaching star from L.A. at warm-weather baseball school.
There were two CWS appearances in 1996 and 1998. But after 2001, Florida decided that it had had enough of Lopez. He was fired.
The first phone call he got after that happened? From a friend. Guy named Mike Martin, the coach at Florida State.
“I'll never forget that,” Lopez said. “He's so classy. He wanted to know what happened. He thought I should have gotten a raise.”
There was a sad irony to Friday's game. Arizona knocked out Florida State, took the Seminoles “to the woodshed,” according to Martin. It wasn't quite like that for the two men coaching in the dugouts.
These were two friends, competitors, road warriors who make a living trying to talk young baseball studs into forgoing the major leagues for a few years of college ball. It can be a grind, in the shadows of big-time football and hoops.
On Thursday, one friend who had already won his ring was going back for another shot. The other was leaving Omaha for the 15th time. Martin's first CWS was in 1980. Talk about time capsules. And here he was, again, leaving without the brass ring.
Just once, Martin would love the opportunity to grasp what Lopez accomplished, but never really grasped, those 20 years ago.
“I have to be careful how I say this,” Lopez said. “I have a school and players who want this very badly. We all want to win. I don't like losing. We're here to win a national championship.
“But, deep down, I was really hoping this would be the year he (Martin) won it. He means so much to Florida State and to the game. I hope they are patient with him. I hope they know what they have.”
Martin is Mr. FSU baseball. Played there, coached there for 33 years, No. 3 in Division I baseball history in coaching victories. He's a beauty. He's corn pone. He's genuine. On Thursday he rolled out the line, “Sometimes you're the dog, and sometimes you're the fire hydrant.” He probably said it back in 1995. But it still works.
Omaha roots for everyone, but this is a guy you root for. You wonder, how does Andy Lopez sneak in with underdog Pepperdine and win it at age 38, and Martin never gets his? That's baseball. That's sports. You can believe that Lopez has thought of that. Maybe, maybe, Martin has, too.
But he would never say it. After all these years, Martin never hangs his head, never lets on how painful these endings are. On Thursday he was asked if he felt “kind of like Job.” He said, no, that being in Omaha was “like Christmas.” He said he felt more like “King David, because I am on top of the world with people that fight you for 27 outs in a game.”
Before he left, Martin thanked everyone he could possibly thank, and said, “God willing, I'll see you next year.”
God willing, he'll get his own video of these years.
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