Texas A&M’s baseball stadium was completely empty.
At least that’s what Ben McDonald thought while he conducted a pregame interview with A&M coach Rob Childress. The two were in the home dugout hours before first pitch of the Aggies’ game against Ole Miss last season when McDonald turned toward some shouting.
“I hear an old man up in the stands,” said McDonald, LSU’s former star pitcher turned ESPN broadcaster. “This guy has to be 75 or 80. He’s got a cane.”
The old man, having finally gotten McDonald’s attention, yelled, “We still hate you and LSU here at A&M!”
More than a quarter of a century old, LSU’s doubleheader sweep of then-top-ranked Texas A&M in the 1989 NCAA regional in College Station still stirs emotions at both schools.
Long-time LSU baseball people call the improbable victories the turning point in a program that went on to win six national championships, the springboard to the school’s stranglehold on the sport in the 1990s.
For some, it was an unbelievable day that lifted coach Skip Bertman and his Tigers to much greater things.
“It was a growth period, an evolutionary period,” Bertman said.
LSU and Texas A&M meet this week in Baton Rouge in the biggest baseball series since that 26-year-old day. The No. 1 Tigers (35-6) and No. 2 Aggies (36-5) clash while atop the nation and the Southeastern Conference in a nationally televised three-game set starting Thursday at Alex Box Stadium.
It might be the first time the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams have met in Alex Box Stadium. The school can’t find another 1 vs. 2 match in Baton Rouge.
It’s another chapter in a brewing, budding rivalry between the schools — in all sports — since A&M joined the league in 2012.
“It’s definitely starting to grow,” LSU pitcher Alden Cartwright said.
It began long before the Aggies were SEC members — well before Cartwright and his teammates were born.
On that May day in 1989, LSU beat A&M twice, 13-5 behind McDonald in Game 1 and 5-4 in 11 innings in Game 2, to advance to the College World Series.
“That still sticks in the craw of a lot of folks over here,” Childress told McDonald last year after the cane-waving old man expressed his feelings. “It’s something they still haven’t gotten over.”
The nap and the crowd
The 1989 Texas A&M team was unbeatable, some said.
The Aggies entered that final day of the regional with a record of 58-5. They were the consensus No. 1 team in the land, with All-Americans Chuck Knoblauch, Terry Taylor and John Byington. They were in the driver’s seat of the regional, having dispatched three teams by a combined score of 65-13.
They needed to win just one game that Sunday over LSU — a team that had crawled from the losers’ bracket, winning two games the previous day.
This was before super regionals. Eight six-team regionals were played across the nation, and the winners went to Omaha.
The Aggies were so good and beat teams so soundly that Bertman kept his LSU players from watching A&M play any games during the regional. They didn’t lay eyes on them until taking infield before Sunday’s first game.
“It’s probably so we didn’t see their onslaught on the other teams,” said Mike Bianco, LSU’s catcher at the time and now the coach at Ole Miss.
Randy Davis was the pitching coach on that LSU team. About two hours before the first game against the Aggies, Davis said players “went into the locker room, turned the lights out and went to sleep.”
Having played four games in three days, they napped until it was time for infield and outfield drills, Davis said. At that point, 4,000-plus rowdy A&M fans had filled the park on a 100-degree day in east Texas.
“It was tough,” Bianco said. “They had that double-decker (stadium). It was a rough place to play. They had to bring security into the bullpen.”
LSU players and coaches remember A&M fans threw nuts and bolts and dimes and nickels at players. They stood on LSU’s dugout and dumped Coke and beer on those who exited and entered.
In left field, fans took rocks from the nearby railroad tracks and slung them into the LSU bullpen.
“Randy Davis had to put a hard hat on,” McDonald said.
It went beyond the park. The entire town was immersed in the series and Aggies baseball.
“People were following us in cars and flipping us off,” Davis said.
Skip: ‘You don’t have to beat them’
The wizardry of Bertman was never more powerful than that day in College Station, said Davis, who served on Bertman’s staff for three seasons and thinks of the coach as a father.
“Probably the best coaching job anybody’s ever done,” Davis said. “The genius of Skip Bertman.”
LSU was a good team that season. The Tigers had won 51 games entering the final day of the regional. They had six pitchers who would one day pitch in the major leagues: McDonald, Russ Springer, Curtis Leskanic, Chad Ogea, Mike Sirotka and Paul Byrd.
Outside of Bianco, though, LSU’s position players weren’t great, and Bertman let his team know that the night before the game after LSU had won two games Saturday to stay alive.
“We were exhausted and Skip, instead of letting them go to rooms, took us to the meeting rooms,” Davis said.
Out loud, Bertman compared LSU’s starters with those from Texas A&M.
“Sorry,” Bertman said to one player, “you’re not even in the same league as their first baseman.’”
Bertman eventually got to his point and one that he made several times over the next few hours.
“We don’t have to beat them,” he told the team. “They’re going to beat themselves because the pressure’s on them.”
On game day, even before LSU won the first game, Bertman instructed LSU players to get as close as they could to A&M players and stare them in the eyes when the teams swapped dugouts between games — something that still happened in that day.
After winning Game 1, LSU players waited in the infield as A&M players emerged from the locker room. As they began to pack up their equipment, McDonald, Bianco and the rest of LSU’s players headed into the dugout.
“Our guys walked right in the middle of them and, sure enough, you looked in their eyes and you could see they weren’t going to win the next game,” Davis said.
LSU won that final game in wild fashion. Pinch hitter Pat Garrity, a .211 hitter who had less than 40 at-bats that season, hit an RBI double off the right-field wall to drive in what proved to be the game-winner.
In the bottom of the 11th, Bertman removed Leskanic from the game after Leskanic, pitching with two out, believed he had struck out A&M’s Trey Witte, a pitch called a ball that gave Witte first base.
“He threw three balls in a row right down the heart of the plate,” Bertman said. “McDonald was in the bullpen and had rocks thrown at him, and he came in and had to get one left-handed hitter out.”
That last out wasn’t without heroics. Garrity, playing third base, snagged a hard-hit ball down the third-base line — a shot that likely would have tied the game had he not been shifted right.
Bertman said Garrity asked him before the at-bat, “Should I guard the line?”
“I said, ‘Yes,’” Bertman said. “He did, and he caught the ball that went over third base and got him out at first by a half-step.”
Texas law enforcement officials guarded those LSU fans who had made the trip, ushering them onto the field to celebrate with the team and then escorting them to their vehicles after A&M fans had left the park.
“It was a little scary getting out of there,” said Alex Wall, a retired city court judge whose son was on the team. “I can remember them throwing rocks on us and spitting on us.”
Said Chris Guillot, a long-time LSU fan in attendance at the regional: “We were fearing for our lives. It got heated.”
Fans and the team returned to the Holiday Inn. Guillot bought the hotel bar completely out of beer, and Davis bought 125 hamburgers at Whataburger.
They partied all night long around the Holiday Inn’s pool area and in a meeting room.
LSU went 2-2 at the College World Series a week later, finishing third in the event. Despite losing in its own regional, A&M finished No. 2 in the nation that season, ahead of LSU, in Baseball America’s final poll.
LSU went on to win five national championships over the next 11 seasons, advancing to the CWS eight times in that span.
“Skip likes to call it his first national championship or his sixth national championship,” McDonald said. “A&M was supposed to be the team. It’s still their best team they’ve ever had by far, if you talk to the A&M people.”
The one coming to Alex Box this week isn’t too bad either. The Aggies began the season 24-0. It took them more than two months to drop their first series — last week against Arkansas.
They lead the SEC in earned run average, have an RPI of No. 5 and are ranked no worse than third in any of the polls.
Many of the members of the 1989 LSU team that won that day in College Station will be in attendance this week or, at least, watching on TV. Bianco will catch the game on ESPN2 on Thursday night, he said.
McDonald is calling all three games from The Box, Bertman will be in a suite, and Davis has a seat in Alex Box’s grandstands.
They’ll all be watching No. 1 versus No. 2 some 26 years after that program-turning sweep in College Station.
“This is it for college baseball,” McDonald said. “It will be the biggest matchup of the year. This is the best that college baseball has to offer. It’s going to be fun.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.