In Focus: Holding the Rope
LSU will honor this weekend members of its 1991 national championship team with a 20-year reunion celebration. As part of the festivities, players and coaches will be recognized on the field prior to Saturday's 6:30 p.m. game versus Auburn in Alex Box Stadium.
1991 Tigers Surged to LSU's First National Title
College World Series appearances in 1986, 1987, 1989 and 1990 brought the LSU baseball program to the brink of greatness. All four of those seasons ended short of the ultimate goal, a College World Series Championship.
For fifth time around in 1991, no one associated with the Tigers' baseball team felt it was destiny. It was strictly time to take care of business.
"We had been to Omaha and lost twice in the recent past," LSU catcher and Most Outstanding Player of the '91 CWS Gary Hymel said. "It was not going to happen again. When we finally got there, it was sort of like something clicked. Our batting practices were unbelievable. The media was coming out and watching, and they couldn't believe the home runs we were hitting. Everything gelled at that time. Third time in a row we knew what we needed to do, and we just did it."
Failing was impossible. There was too much experience and focus from the previous four seasons in the clubhouse.
"It became more of a work trip, rather than a trip of enjoyment," outfielder Lyle Mouton said. "Previously, you got lost in the Christmas atmosphere of Omaha where you have all the vendors of baseball giving you free stuff. The atmosphere turns into pageantry. Guys had already been there. The guys that hadn't been there responded to the guys who had."
The team was led by starting pitchers Paul Byrd, Chad Ogea and Mike Sirotka, closer Rick Greene and sluggers Mouton, Hymel, Johnny Tellechea, Rich Cordani and Tookie Johnson. Coach Skip Bertman would go be recognized as SEC Coach of the Year and earn his second of six National Coach of the Year awards.
"We had a good group of veterans, a pitching staff with a starting rotation that had a combined 25 years in the big leagues and we had good relief pitching," Greene said. "I was fortunate to get a few saves. We had good starting pitching that could get us to the save situations. We were a group of guys that liked to be together on and off the field."
The 1991 Tigers finished with an overall record of 55-18 and started the season 11-0 in conference en route to an SEC regular season championship. The team would finish with a 21-6 record against ranked opponents. However, the squad would lose to rival Florida in the SEC Tournament.
"We always tried to downplay the importance of the tournament because we didn't have to win the tournament to accomplish our goals," Greene said. "Going through the SEC schedule is always such a grind. Florida wanted to play really hard and win during the tournament to secure their bid. We were all for that. We wanted to use the tournament to fine-tune some certain things. We wanted to figure out what we needed for the Regional and the World Series."
The team entered the NCAA South Regional ready to begin their journey. The Tigers dominated their four games in a field with Northwestern State, Oklahoma, South Alabama, Southwestern Louisiana and Texas A&M.
"Texas A&M was one of the best teams in the country and they were really good," Hymel said. "They pretty much had already bought their tickets to Omaha. Coach Bertman walks into the clubhouse and begins reading out loud, 'Dallas Baptist five times, TCU four times, Prairie View A&M eight times, etc. That is whom these guys beat.' He reads us our schedule, 'Florida eight times, Alabama 10 times, Florida State , etc. That is whom you guys beat. You are just as good if not better than that team.' We ended up going out and beating them. Those guys had a good team, but we did too and played much better than they did."
Following the dominance in the Regional, the Tigers realized that they were hitting their stride at the perfect time.
"We were on fire," Hymel, who would go on to launch four home runs in the College World Series, said. "No one really talked about it. We just did our thing. Everyone had a job to do. We called it 'holding the rope.' I don't think the Yankees could have pitched against us."
The team avenged their SEC Tournament losses to Florida by beating the Gators twice by a combined 27-10, with a 15-3 victory over Fresno State in between. The championship against Wichita State was a slightly closer affair, resulting in a 6-3 victory.
"We went up against a real good starter (Tyler Green) in Wichita State, and our guys jumped out early," Greene said. "Playing with the lead is a lot easier than trying to come back. The hitters were real focused. That made the pitchers' jobs much easier. The final game was some good dominant pitching by Chad Ogea and myself."
Hymel remembers what he was thinking when third baseman Chris Moock fielded a soft grounder and fired the throw to first baseman Tellechea for the final out.
"The pitch was probably a slider because Rick Greene was pitching, and he had a nasty slider," Hymel said. "I was wondering what everyone was going to do. I didn't want to be on the bottom of the pile. I knew that everyone was going to crowd up, so I had to make sure that I wasn't on the bottom."
Greene was on the mound in the final two innings, and fanned two batters after giving up a single to begin the last frame. He distinctly remembers what he felt during the last out.
"It was everything that dreams are made of," Greene said. "It fell into the goals that I set for myself in terms of individual goals and team goals. One of the reasons that I didn't sign out of high school to go play pro ball was for an experience like that. Of course when we got back to Baton Rouge, we were treated like royalty."
Looking back 20 years and five more championships later, the records that LSU broke in Omaha speak volumes about the team's all-around supremacy. The Tigers committed one error in 148 chances to register the highest fielding percentage (.993) in CWS history. They logged 88 total bases in 148 at-bats to set the slugging percentage mark (.603). Furthermore, the 1991 squad averaged the most CWS runs per game with 12. What separated this team from the previous successful seasons was balance.
"That team we had in 1991 had a little bit of everything," Mouton, who tied the career home run record in a College World Series with four, said. "We hit for average and power, we had dominant pitching and we played solid defense. Everything was clicking. From top to bottom there wasn't any way that a team could exploit a deficiency. That is what made us so good, and the reason why we won. We didn't have many holes."
Memories from the 1991 LSU Tigers
Rick Greene - Relief Pitcher
On being on the mound recording the final out of the CWS...
"It was everything that dreams are made of. It fell into the goals that I set for myself in terms of individual goals and team goals. One of the reasons that I didn't sign out of high school to go play pro ball was for an experience like that. It was everything that we had worked for. You visualize doing that so many times during the year. Coach Bertman had taught us that. In 1991 it was more of a business trip because we knew what to expect after being there the year before. We weren't worried about things like getting tickets for family, where do you eat, going across the river to the dog track or doing all of the tourist stuff. We knew what we needed to do. We had some veterans from the years before. It was everything that you could imagine it being and more. Of course when we got back to Baton Rouge, we were treated like royalty. The 1986 players were the ones who started it all and we were the ones who were lucky enough to finish it by winning out first national championship."
On the team's make up...
"We had a good group of veterans, a pitching staff with a starting rotation that had a combined 25 years in the big leagues and we had good relief pitching. I was fortunate to get a few saves. We had good starting pitching that could get us to the save situations. We had a good leadoff man, good power, good hitting through out the lineup and guys that weren't afraid to get hit with the baseball or take a base. We had some good Junior College transfers that came in and meshed real well with our team. We were a group of guys that liked to be together on and off the field. We understood in 1991 that it was time for us to win the World Series."
On dominating the competition...
"We just got lucky that we had great hitting, and it didn't seem like we needed to pitch until the final game. We went up against a real good starter in Wichita St., and our guys jumped out early. Playing with the lead is a lot easier than trying to come back. We had a lot of home runs and hitters were real focused. That made the pitcher's jobs much easier. The final game was some good dominant pitching by Chad Ogea and myself."
On beating Florida twice in the CWS after losing twice in the SEC Tournament...
"We always tried to downplay the importance of the tournament because we didn't have to win the tournament to accomplish our goals. Going through the SEC schedule is always such a grind. It is a very difficult league no matter how big of a lead that you have. Every weekend is important. Whether you are on the road or at home, it is always a mentally straining schedule. Florida wanted to play really hard and win during the tournament to secure their bid. We were all for that. We wanted to use the tournament to fine-tune some certain things. I was struggling as far as being tied. We wanted to get some guys some rest. We wanted to figure out what we needed for the regionals and then the World Series. We didn't really go into the World Series having a revenge factor. It could have been any team out there. We won the SEC regular season, which was a bigger accomplishment to me than winning the tournament. We wanted to peak in the right time. During the regionals and the World Series, we did it."
On what it meant to go 8-0 in the Regional and CWS...
"Playing from the winners back is so much more advantageous because you get to keep your pitching rotation intact, there is a whole lot more rest and a less games to be played. After the first game it became more important because the team that you played comes from the loser bracket, and they have to use up another pitcher. They use up more opportunities. Going undefeated allowed us to rest. We played four games in Omaha in 12 days. It seemed like we were practicing forever. It allowed us to get healthy and relax more mentally. We watched more film and talked more strategy. It made the games for us simpler. Going undefeated was a real big advantage."
Lyle Mouton - Outfielder
On winning the College World Series...
"At the time it was one of the greatest accomplishments that I ever had. To bring the first national championship in baseball to LSU, who had been there quite a few times before and had been unable to bring home the prize. To be able to do it with guys who had been there, who had been through so many trials and tribulations through their careers, to finally get through it was total elation."
On the difference between 1991 and the previous season...
"I thought in 1990 we had a very good chance of winning the championship, and I felt we should have. Georgia ended up winning, and we swept them during the year to win the SEC. We ended up running into a hot Oklahoma St. team. It is not always the best team that wins, but the hottest team at the time that wins. It happened to be a perfect storm for us in 1991 that we really hit our stride starting with the regionals. It just kept on going through the College World Series in Omaha. Everything we did went right. All of the bounces were in our favor. Everything went well. That is what it takes. You have to have a little bit of luck involved."
On being an experienced team to Omaha...
"It became more of the work trip, rather than a trip of enjoyment. We did have fun and we did enjoy ourselves. We knew what we were there to do. You get lost in the Christmas atmosphere of Omaha where you have all the vendors of baseball like Louisville Slugger. The atmosphere turns into pageantry. Guys had already been there. The guys that hadn't been there responded to the guys who had. It became a business trip. This is what we wanted to do, and falling short was not ideal."
On the team dynamic...
"That team we had in 1991 had a little bit of everything. We hit for average and power, we had dominant pitching and we played solid defense. At the time we held the record for the fielding percentage for the College World Series. We might have even had the runs record. Everything was clicking. Pitching was dominant, defense was there and the hitting was there. Not only timely hitting, but collective hitting. From top to bottom there wasn't any way that a team could exploit a deficiency. That is what made us so good, and the reason why we won. We didn't have as many holes."
On specific memories...
"The Florida games stick out. They had just handled us well in the SEC Tournament and ending up winning it by dominating us. By us coming out in the first game, doing well against them and beating their number one pitcher, it gave us that extra spark. Even though they had beaten us previously, we knew we were a team to reckon with. We both knew each other so well. We were able to play well and not have any close games with them."
On the Regional...
"During the Regional, I don't think we had the same business thought process. We felt that it was a tune-up to get into the World Series. It is not a detriment or talking down to the other teams, but we felt it was a warm-up for us. We felt that no team in our Regional could beat us."
On lessons from Skip Bertman...
"To pick one is very difficult. He is by far the best manager that I have ever had, whether that is high school, college or professional. I liked the way he was able to orchestrate a game. He was able to bring multiple personalities and abilities, and make them all desire for the same thing. With so many players a team can get 'cliqueish' and some won't like each other. No matter what was happening off the field, we all had the common goal on the field. That is representative how Skip ran the program and ran a team. You could compare him to Joe Torre. He was able to manage the personalities. He knew who needed a push, who needed a pat on the back and who needed a kick."
On importance of CWS victory 20 years later...
"I think it is very important. It will always be remembered. You always remember your first girl friend, kiss, home run and whatever it may be. You always remember your first. You can't ever change that. It will always be dear to the fans and to coach. The first one is always the hardest. You have seen how it has spring boarded the program into multiple more championships. We will always be dear because we were the first."
Gary Hymel - Catcher
On catching for a great pitching staff...
"It was exciting because going into every game it was an advantage. We always had good game plans. I knew that the guys that I had to catch were battlers and fighters. They weren't going to give up. They were going to go right at people."
On being the power hitter of the team...
"I wasn't the only one. We had a lot of guys. It made it a lot easier knowing that I had Lyle Mouton in front of me, Rich Cordani behind me and they were going to have to pitch to one of us. It was tough on opposing pitchers. He had to challenge all of us because there was someone just behind all of us."
On the CWS win...
"I was thinking in my head that I hope we can get this done quick and over with. This was our third year in a row being there. We were on a business mission. Our first year was all hype, and we were really excited to be there. The next year it was kind of the same thing, but we kind of experienced a little bit. The third year we were tied of all that. We wanted to win it. It was very stressful. You work out all year wanting this and you start your season off to win the College World Series. Now that we were there, you get down to the last game, you know the ball can bounce the other way very quick. We took the lead and kept the pressure on them from the get-go. I think it was closer to the seventh inning where I realized that we had a shot of winning this thing if we kept the hammer down. It was an awesome feeling. You never really reflected on it until a couple days later because you're in shock. We had worked for this my whole career. To do it my last year was pretty awesome."
On the final out...
"I can remember a lot of outs, and I do remember the final out. I was wondering what everyone was going to do. I didn't want to be on the bottom of the pile. I knew that everyone was going to crowd up, so I had to make sure that I wasn't on the bottom. The pitch was probably a slider because Rick Greene was pitching. He had a nasty slider."
On dominating the competition...
"This was our third time there. We had the experience, we knew what it was like to travel, we knew what the crowd was going to be like and we knew the hype with the media and all the companies with nice stuff. We had already seen that. We've been there. We didn't need to see any of that anymore. We were there for a reason. We had pretty much been on the team for a long time. That is what we worked for. We had been to Omaha and lost twice in the recent past. This was not going to happen again. When we finally got there, it was sort of like something clicked. Our batting practices were unbelievable. The media was coming out and watching, and they couldn't believe the home runs we were hitting. It was like everything that we hit went far. Everything gelled at that time. The pitchers were pitching well. Third time in a row we knew what we needed to do, and we just did it.
"We were on fire. No one really talked about it. We just did our thing. Everyone had a job to do. We called it holding the rope. Tookie (Johnson) started it off at leadoff, the next guys up did their jobs, then Mouton and myself, and it kept on going down the order. It transferred over to the field. There was a ground ball, we'd catch it and turn two. I don't think the Yankees could have pitched against us. If you would've seen our batting practices, you would have been amazed. In the final game it was funny because Armando Rios hit the home run. He hadn't hit that many all season. Cordani had a really great game also. I didn't hit a home run and neither did Mouton, but the other guys stepped up. It was a whole team effort."
On lessons from Skip Bertman...
"I'll tell you a story that comes to mind. We were playing at Texas A&M in 1989 in the Regionals to get to the College World Series. They were number one in the country and had lost five games all season. They were really good. They had guys that made the big leagues. The stands were crowded and loud. They pretty much had already bought their tickets to Omaha. He walks into the clubhouse and begins reading out loud, 'Dallas Baptist five times, TCU four times, Prairie View A&M eight times, etc. That is whom these guys beat.' He reads us our schedule, 'Florida eight times, Alabama 10 times, Florida St. and other really good schools. That is whom you guys beat. You are just as good if not better than that team.' We ended up going out and beating them two times. They ended up finishing 58-7, and we went to the World Series and they didn't. That was a pretty neat motivating factor. Those guys had a good team, but we did too and played much better than they did."