By Barry Lewis
Last year the TU basketball team was the toast of the town after winning the NIT championship.
However, only a decade ago the TU baseball team was the talk of the city. The Hurricane was a national power. But, fame is fleeting.
Now, TU is without a varsity baseball team. There are only memories of the Hurricane’s quick rise to national prominence.
Tom Jenkins races to first base against Kansas State in a photo published in the Collegian on March 12, 1970. The Golden Hurricane lost to the Wildcats in this game.
When Gene Shell was appointed head coach in 1966 the program was a loser. Shell quickly turned the team around.
After two winning seasons of 15–9 and 19–5, TU posted a 24–4 mark in 1968. However, that season ended in frustration. TU had a Missouri Valley Conference championship and NCAA playoff berth nearly locked up going into the season’s final series against Bradley. But the Braves won a pair of pitching duels, 2–0 and 2–1 to take the title.
It appeared an instant replay was going to occur in 1969. TU was 32–2 during the regular season and won the Valley’s West Division. As a result, the. Hurricane met East Division champion Cincinnati for the league championship and to determine the NCAA playoff representative.
Cincinnati won the opener of the best-of-three series 3–2 and it appeared that the Hurricane would be disappointed again.
TU won the second game 11–0 to tie the series. Cincinnati jumped to an early lead in the deciding game, but TU rallied and trailed on 9–6 going into the eighth inning. Then, little-used pinch-hitter Tim Rector wrote his name into Hurricane athletic lore with a grand slam home run to lift TU to a 10–9 win and the Missouri Valley title.
TU carried the momentum into the NCAA District Five playoff series against Oklahoma State. Although the games were played in Tulsa, OSU was heavily favored going into the best-of-three series.
A sellout crowd of more than 5,000 jammed Oiler Park and watched the Hurricane upset the Cowboys 5–4 in 13 innings. The extra inning defeat deflated OSU. TU jumped to an early lead the next day on a home run by Les Rogers and was never threatened. TU won 8–4 to win the series and earn a berth in the NCAA College World Series.
The national media did not give TU a chance in the series, played at Omaha, Neb. But the Hurricane nearly pulled off the sports upset of the year in the double elimination tournament.
TU jolted second-ranked UCLA 6–5 in a 10-inning thriller to open the series. UCLA led 4–0 after 6 12innings, but the Hurricane rallied with two runs in the seventh and three in the eighth to send the game into extra innings. Clutch relief pitching by Steve Rogers silenced the UCLA hitters in the ninth and 10th innings and lifted TU to the win.
Rogers was brilliant three days later in a 4–2 win over Texas. Rogers carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the third- ranked Longhorns. However, he tired and needed help from Cliff Butcher to complete the win.
TU eliminated another surprise team, New York University, 2–0 the next day. Reggie Rowe and Jay Weinheimer combined for a six-hitter and TU was in commanding position to win the tournament. The Hurricane had to win only one of two games against top- ranked Arizona State to take the NCAA title.
Shell sent Butcher to the mound in an effort to win the title the next day. Arizona State jumped on Butcher for five runs early and took a 5–0 lead. But TU came back with three runs in the fifth and had the tying runs on base.
Then ASU ace Larry Gura was summoned. Gura pitched near-perfect baseball over the next five innings and ASU won 11–3.
Two days later, June 20. ASU and TU met in the deciding game. The city of Tulsa rallied behind the Hurricane. The Tulsa Oilers professional baseball team sent their famed voice, Andy Andrews, whose “Let’s Gooooooo-Tulsa” cheer had rallied the Oilers to the Pacific Coast League title the year before. In addition, the game was televised live back to Tulsa — something almost unheard of for a college game then.
TU appeared to have the pitching edge going into the game. Steve Rogers had an 8–0 record and his regular three days rest while Gura had had only one day to rest.
TU reached Gura for an early run to take a 1–0 lead. But ASU countered with a run in the second to tie the game. Then, the Sun Devils bombed Rogers for three runs each in the third, fifth and sixth inning to end TU’s Cinderella story. ASU won 10–1 and took the College World Series.
Although TU lost the NCAA title, the Hurricane received a hearty welcome back to the city. Hopes were high for the future, as only two players had graduated and the entire pitching staff would return.
For Gura and Rogers the final game of the series also would typify their, professional careers. Both have become successful major league hurlers. But Gura has the reputation of winning big games, while Rogers fails in the clutch.
Last season the Montreal Expos were within a game of the World Series. They were tied 1–1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the ninth inning when Rogers was called on to pitch. Rogers failed as he served up a home run to another ASU alumnus Rick Monday, and the Expos lost the chance to go to the World Series.