Oregon State’s inspiring -- no, after a foul pop that couldn’t find a glove, make it mind-frying -- march to a national baseball championship got me to thinking: Of the athletic programs I was around in 45 years of sweating deadlines and jousting with editors at three Northwest newspapers, which are the most unlikely, improbable, you-gotta-be-kidding accomplishments by those teams?
It’s said that nothing about sports resonates quite like a season, or a succession of them, that comes out of the blue, and I’d buy that. If the ’95 Mariners, for instance, had surged to the AL West lead in April and held it most of the season . . . sure, their fans would have been appreciative, but it wouldn’t have attained nearly the cachet as it unspooled, with Ken Griffey Jr. sitting out a long stretch with a broken hand, eventually the rundown of the Angels with a whole cast of varying leading lights, and essentially the salvage of baseball in Seattle.
I came up with three sagas that deserve scrutiny. (Maybe there are more, but they’re obfuscated by too many IPAs in dimly lit dives.) My candidates are: Oregon State baseball, Gonzaga basketball and Oregon football.
If you want to take issue with my conclusions, feel free. This is a highly subjective exercise, and indeed, one that’s impossible to quantify, a side-by-side of apples and oranges. (But hey, that’s what we do.) Keep in mind, this isn’t a measurement of which program, which entity, has the greatest name recognition nationally, even internationally -- I’m pretty sure that’s Gonzaga -- but whose story is flat-out the most unbelievable.
1. Oregon State baseball. Here’s some backing for my argument, a 2005 piece I did while at the Seattle Times putting into perspective an achievement by OSU.
And that was when the Beavers were about to make their first trip to the College World Series since 1952. The story details how the program was very nearly axed in the 1970s, accounts I remember writing.
Starting with that ’05 appearance, OSU has been to the CWS six times, winning three. Even that, as a stand-alone percentage, is impressive.
LSU, amazingly, won six of these things from 1991 to 2009, but today, you’re safe in saying there’s no more dominant baseball program in the country than Oregon State. To me, given the historical perspective, that’s beyond comprehension.
Little-known fact, unless you’re a Beaver baseball savant: This didn’t come easily for Pat Casey, the University of Portland grad who has engineered the rise of the program. The first 10 years he was at OSU (1995-04), the Beavers were 16 games under .500 in conference play.
2. Gonzaga basketball.
So let the debate begin. The Zags have been to 20 straight NCAA tournaments after having spent much of the ‘80s and ‘90s as a mid-level WCC program. Since 1999, they’ve been to an NCAA championship game, two Elite Eights and seven Sweet 16s. In other words, in half those tournament appearances, they’ve made it to the Sweet 16 or better. That’s breathtaking.
If you don’t think trying to compare Beaver baseball to Zag basketball is like attempting to throw a four-seamer coated with Pennzoil, think about this: You’d figure the Zags’ staccato consistency ever since that 1999 Elite Eight run is a plus for this discussion, right? Well, you could also argue that OSU’s decade-long travails in Casey’s early years there only serve to accentuate how unlikely that ascent has been.
How much does weather play a part? Never mind that basketball is played indoors; a kid choosing between Gonzaga and Arizona might like the idea of wearing cargo shorts around campus in January in Tucson. But weather has a much more pronounced impact on baseball, and one of Casey’s crowning accomplishments is in proving (again and again) that you can win in a drippy, cool climate.
What about proximity to recruits? The Zags seem more disadvantaged here, as the nearest significant talent pool is 300 miles away in the Seattle area (and, as I’ve documented before, even that has been a tough nut to crack for Gonzaga). Casey has flourished with a lot of Northwest kids, and some major pieces from California, whereas Gonzaga has had to go international to remain a major force.
How about roster instability, per the rules of each sport? Gonzaga has to withstand NBA early entries, while OSU benefits from a certain three years in baseball if an athlete enrolls. But baseball coaches also have the challenge of high school signees blowing up as seniors and opting for pro baseball. As well -- and this is purely my guess -- the college athlete who’s a moderately successful junior and is drafted by baseball is probably more likely to sign a pro contract than the basketball player of the same ability level.
Another imponderable: How competitive is the landscape around each sport? College basketball has more contenders for national recognition; witness Loyola of Chicago and countless others in recent years. So Gonzaga has to weather a serious storm in the 2018 NCAA tournament against UNC-Greensboro, whereas the Beavers have a relatively comfortable time with home games through the super regional.
And what about that playoff format? Baseball allows for some breathing room. Super regionals are best two of three, as are the College World Series finals, climaxing a double-elimination event. You hit a rough patch in an NCAA-tournament first-round game in March and you’re liable to be gonzo.
My bottom line: OSU baseball by a nose.
3. Oregon football.
You might raise eyebrows at this, but not if you were around in the 1970s, when Autzen Stadium was a dreary mausoleum sometimes inhabited by 15,000 people with nothing better to do. The Ducks were awful, and the facilities, other than the stadium itself, were sub-par. Coaches would stage position meetings in the runways and draw Xs and Os not on a whiteboard, but on the concrete walls of the tunnel -- latter-day cavemen.
So desperate was the overall picture that there was more than scattered opinion on the West Coast that Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State ought to be jettisoned from the Pac-8 Conference.
There was always extensive, chicken-and-egg debate over how much the wet weather impacted ticket sales at Oregon, and thus revenue, and thus resources. So much that there was an idea advanced that local lumber barons might finance a dome on Autzen Stadium. I’m not making this up.
Well, they never domed Autzen. But Oregon did have a succession of good football coaches, from Rich Brooks to Mike Bellotti to Chip Kelly. It had continuity on its staff, and it capitalized on two New Year’s Day bowl appearances in the mid-‘90s.
And that was before Phil Knight got involved. There’s no minimizing Knight’s impact, but it came after things had gotten rolling, and he took it to a new level. But he didn’t ignite it.
Over time, a lot of time, Oregon got good. And we haven’t seen the likes of that 0-0 tie in 1983 with Oregon State since (when it was raining hard, with no dome over Autzen).
In all three instances, the bad old days are over. Or at least, distant memories.