In his job as a Midwestern scout for the Washington Nationals, work often takes Brandon Larson back to Omaha, Nebraska.
You could understand if now and again he visited to the site of long demolished Rosenblatt Stadium, still looking for the home run he smashed deep into the night in LSU’s 1997 College World Series opener against Rice.
“That home run might have propelled me into being a first-round pick with the Reds,” Larson said. “I hit if off Matt Anderson, who was the No. 1 pick that year (by Detroit). I hit one off Kyle Peterson (of Stanford, now an ESPN announcer). He still talks about that.
“I thought it was going to be foul (to left). It rocketed off so fast, so I just trotted down the line. I didn’t see it land. Some people who saw it told me it was still going upward over the scoreboard.”
Larson’s blast was the signature blow of an unforgettable season for LSU. The season the Tigers not only repeated as national champions a year after Warren Morris’ famous two-run shot to right to win the 1996 CWS — the only time LSU has won back-to-back titles in Omaha — but the year they set an NCAA record that may never be broken.
LSU belted 188 home runs in 1997, obliterating the mark of 161 set by BYU in 1988 and representing the high-water mark of the hot bat and “Geauxrilla Ball” era.
LSU again led the nation with 157 home runs in 1998, but the game’s rulemakers recoiled in horror after Southern California beat Arizona State to win that year’s CWS championship game 21-14.
The NCAA began watering down the aluminum bats after the 1998 season, shrinking the sweet spot, eventually making them swing much like wood. Since 2000, no one has hit more home runs than Elon’s 138 in 2009. Wake Forest, eliminated by Florida in the Gainesville super regional, led the nation with 106 this season. LSU has 61 home runs entering this year’s College World Series.
“I’m happy they went to these bats,” said Tom Bernhardt, who tied Eddy Furniss for third on the team with 17 homers that year. “I think it was dangerous. And now more kids can go to college and people can better judge the hitters and how they can hit wood.”
Unless the bats return to the way they were in the late 1990s, it’s likely LSU’s mark will last forever.
“No one will come out with a bat now that will let teams challenge 180 homers,” then-coach Skip Bertman said. “That would be silly. They’ve got it right.”
Bertman arrived at LSU in 1984 with the reputation as “the smallest of small-ball coaches,” taking pitches, stealing bases, bunting players over.
But by 1996, Bertman recognized what the game had become. His philosophy did a 180.
“I gave in,” Bertman said. “I didn’t do any small ball, takes and walks and so on. I stayed with it because I had a gifted bunch of guys. Given the opportunity, they swung for the fences.”
Not only did the 1997 Tigers hit home runs, they hit them with devastating clockwork. LSU batters left the yard at least once in each of their 70 games en route to going 57-13.
“Going to the stadium was an event,” Larson said. “It was, ‘Who is going to hit a massive bomb today?’ It wasn’t if we were going to do it, but when.”
Even when they lost LSU fans asked: “Did they hit one?” Somehow even a 28-2 loss at Alabama (which hit 160 homers that season) was eased a pair of solo shots by Larson.
“I didn’t start one game at Tulane, but I came on in the eighth inning and hit a pinch-hit home run,” said Brad Cresse, then a freshman catcher. “We were well aware of it.”
Clint Earnhart hit the first homer of the season, leading off the third inning of LSU’s 15-3 win over Baylor. Bernhardt launched No. 188, a solo shot in the seventh of LSU’s 13-7 win over Bama in the CWS championship game.
In between, the Tigers pounded opponent after opponent into submission.
They clubbed a school record seven homers Feb. 19 against Southern. They hit six against Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State. They had five homers in eight other games, including that CWS victory over Stanford and twice against Ole Miss in a series in which LSU belted 12 homers total.
It was in a five-homer NCAA regional game against Oklahoma on May 23 that LSU broke BYU’s record on a three-run first-inning blast by Danny Higgins.
Only once did the streak fall into serious jeopardy. The Tigers failed to homer in regulation at Georgia on March 14, but Earnhart kept the streak going with a solo shot in the 10th. It was the decisive blow as the Tigers won 6-5.
For a pitcher like Doug Thompson, now color analyst on LSU radio broadcasts, the ease with which LSU players and their opponents hit homers were a double-edged sword.
“I pitched in the hottest of the hot bat era,” Thompson said. The winning pitcher in the 1997 championship game, Thompson was LSU’s winningest pitcher in 1998 with a 12-5 record and a 4.24 ERA. That season saw overall NCAA records for home runs per game (1.06), ERA (6.12), batting average (.306) and runs per game (7.12).
“It was a friend and an enemy,” Thompson said. “I threw a lot of very good pitches at LSU off the plate that were hit for home runs.
“But even if I gave up four runs in the first inning, I knew our guys could come back.”
If the 1997 Tigers had to use the current bats, what then?
“I don’t know how many home runs we’d have today, but one thing’s for sure,” Cresse said. “We’d have more than whoever has the lead. These days if the leader has 100, I’d like to think we’d have had 125.”