David Worlock, an NCAA official helping stage the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., pretty much nailed it on the subject of this week's...
David Worlock, an NCAA official helping stage the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., pretty much nailed it on the subject of this week’s visitor from the Northwest.
“This,” he said, “is somebody really different.”
So different that by qualifying for the CWS that starts today, Oregon State just set a record for longest stand between appearances. The Beavers last went in 1952.
“I think if Nebraska wasn’t here, they’d be the team people would jump on the bandwagon for,” said Worlock.
“Improbable” isn’t a strong enough word to describe OSU’s march to a 46-10 record and through regionals and super regionals to Omaha, where it will face top-seeded Tulane tomorrow in a first-round game of the double-elimination tournament.
It’s the first College World Series appearance by a Northwest team in 29 years. The last was Washington State in 1976.
It’s not unlike the infrequency with which a Northwest school makes it to the Final Four in basketball, except weather differences in baseball are perceived to be more of a factor, and there is a whole host of Stanfords, Cal State Fullertons, Arizonas and Pepperdines to surmount.
In OSU’s case, the achievement is gilded by the fact that back in the 1970s and ’80s, it narrowly escaped the guillotine that ended Oregon’s program. Even when it survived, it did so after budget cuts that often made it more difficult to compete.
But it all came together this year, in a convergence of good young pitching, opportunistic hitting and Northwest resilience. Some 23 of the 30 on the roster are from Oregon, and a couple of the other keys, catcher Mitch Canham and third baseman Shea McFeely, are Washington products.
“It’s one of the greatest things for baseball in the Northwest,” said Bill Harper, a longtime Philadelphia Phillies scout from Corvallis.
Canham, a sophomore, recalls a team meeting last year, when some upperclassmen were doing the math of what it might take to get OSU to the regionals.
“I told them, ‘Why are we trying to figure out numbers so we can squeak into regionals?’ ” Canham recalled this week.
That’s reality, he was told.
“We were just talking about that,” Canham said, as the Beavers waited to board a charter in Eugene for Omaha. “We should call up some of the old guys and say, ‘Here’s reality for you.’ “
The 6-foot, 200-pound Canham was a high-level wrestler and football player at Lake Stevens. But OSU assistant coach Dan Spencer saw something in him he thought might spell catcher down the road.
“I wanted to be able to get away, mature and grow up, and go to a program I saw as going somewhere,” said Canham. “I like being down here. It’s a good college atmosphere.”
Canham had minor forearm surgery a year ago, and after a freshman season when he played mostly first and third, OSU made the move it had planned all along, switching him to catcher.
“Before that,” Canham said, intending no pun, “I hadn’t done squat for catching.”
He made a solid transition, handling OSU’s sophomore-dominated pitching staff while hitting .342, third on the team, with a roster-leading eight homers. Canham was the regional MVP two weeks ago, going 8 for 13 at the plate.
McFeely (6-2, 215) was part of Federal Way’s 2002 state-championship team. He was lightly recruited and drafted in the 40th round by Cleveland, hardly a bargaining position. So he went to Tacoma Community College for a productive year in which he hit .441 and was conference MVP.
In a sport that parses its scholarships carefully, McFeely accepted a tuition-and-books offer to attend OSU. Now a junior, he hit .320 with five home runs, one a walk-off job that ended a game against Ohio State in the regionals.
“My family’s pretty excited,” said McFeely. “I’ve got a lot of friends calling me from back home, saying, ‘We’ve seen you on TV.’ “
The Beavers made for good theater last weekend in a taut — if not always well-played — series against USC. In the deciding third game, they held off the Trojans, 10-8, coming back with their ace right-handed starter, Dallas Buck, for four outs in relief.
Coach Pat Casey is a University of Portland product who took over the program in 1994 after the 22-year regime of Jack Riley, architect of OSU’s last NCAA appearance in 1986.
“They go out and work very hard in recruiting,” said Harper. “They pick up a lot of players other teams don’t want, and they come in here and do a job.”
One of those recruiting gems is junior outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, Pac-10 co-player of the year from the central Oregon town of Madras. Ellsbury, whom Baseball America called the fastest draft-eligible player this year, was a first-round pick by Boston, which compares him to its own center fielder, Johnny Damon.
It might surprise Ellsbury to know that OSU very nearly didn’t have a program, surviving when budget cuts started in the ’70s due to hard times in football and the onset of Title IX.
“We were actually cut [disbanded] twice,” Riley, now retired, said yesterday from his home in Corvallis.
Once was early in his tenure, in the mid-’70s, when OSU president Robert MacVicar was detailing the severity of the issue at an athletic-department meeting.
“I just remember jumping up and letting him have it,” said the fiery Riley. “I just went off. I couldn’t imagine somebody giving up on something that’s been around a hundred years.
“I thought I was gone, no kidding. Lo and behold, I went back to my office and was sitting there, and there [MacVicar] was. He looked at me and said, ‘I respect you for your fight and your attitude. I have no hard feelings.’ “
Riley continually battled administrators but rescued the program.
“We went out and cleaned stadiums, sold restaurant coupons to go on trips,” he said. “You never felt you were getting any help.
“It’s almost like a bad marriage with good kids.”
Riley throws some credit toward people like Washington coach Ken Knutson, one of those he says helped restore a full Pac-10 schedule after years when league play was limited to a Northern Division format.
From the bleak times of decades ago, Oregon State has risen to the Camelot of the sport, trying to sustain the attitude that got it there.
“If you don’t have that belief in your mind, you shouldn’t even get on the plane,” Canham said. “We’re going there, so we might as well go win it.”
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org
|Long time coming|
|Oregon State is the first Northwest team since 1976 to advance to the College World Series. Northwest teams in the CWS:|
|Oregon St.||1952, 2005|
|WSU||1950, 1956, 1965, 1976|