scan0003.jpg

LSU players celebrate after winning their first national championship over Wichita State 6-3 on June 8, 1991.

 

In one of Luis Garcia’s most prized pictures, the former LSU third baseman stands behind a pile of his teammates. He has triumphantly raised his arms, and his head tilts back as he screams. Holding his hat in one hand, Garcia celebrates the 1991 national championship.

The photo sits framed inside his mother’s house, forever commemorating one of the greatest moments of his life. Garcia also keeps a copy readily available on his phone. He hasn’t displayed the photo in his own home yet. He doesn’t want to gloat or draw too much attention to himself.

“Maybe one day,” Garcia said. “I'd like to show it to my kids when they're old enough.”

Thirty years have passed since the picture was taken. On that day — June 8, 1991 — Garcia and the rest of LSU’s players won the baseball program’s first national championship with a 6-3 win over Wichita State.

To the players and coaches on that team, the title feels as relevant and special as ever. After four College World Series appearances under coach Skip Bertman, LSU broke through in 1991. The Tigers then won four more national championships over the next eight years, establishing themselves as one of the premier college baseball programs in the country. They also won the 2009 championship.

Now, the same year LSU celebrated the 30th anniversary of its first title, the baseball program entered a new phase with the hiring of Jay Johnson last week. Part of the pull he felt toward LSU came from what the school accomplished during Bertman’s tenure.

Johnson often watched LSU play in the College World Series during the ‘90s. He believed Bertman was the greatest college baseball coach of his lifetime. He viewed LSU as “the ultimate” destination, and now in charge, he wants to return LSU to consistent championship contention, an expectation started by the 1991 team.

“Once the '91 team did it, that set the standard for every team that ever followed,” said Dan Canevari, a graduate assistant at the time, “because you were supposed to win the national championship or it didn't matter.”

The 1991 team entered the season with high expectations. Many of its players had experienced the College World Series twice before. They understood Bertman’s system. They boasted balance in the lineup and depth on the mound. They believed they had the talent to capture a title and set a goal of 49 regular season wins, fourth-year outfielder Lyle Mouton said.

LSU rolled through most of its schedule. It maintained a record well above .500. But Chad Ogea, a junior pitcher, said “we weren't playing up to our potential” early in the season. Some players were thinking about the Major League Baseball draft. At one point, Mouton said, Bertman made the team do 49 wind sprints to match the desired number of wins.

About a week later, LSU got swept at Kentucky in late April. Bertman held a pointed team meeting. Canevari called it the “'Wrestlemania” speech.

“‘You think you guys are a bunch of prima donnas,’” Ogea remembered Bertman saying. “‘They ranked you No. 1, but you're nothing but a bunch of blue collar workers.'”

LSU won eight of its next 11 games to finish the regular season. Though the Tigers lost the Southeastern Conference tournament, they swept their NCAA regional to reach the College World Series for the third straight year. Unsatisfied with playing there but not winning a championship, the players viewed the experience as a business trip.

Once LSU arrived at the Embassy Suites, Garcia opened the drapes in his room to look at the pool in the middle of the hotel. As a freshman in 1989, he had to carry Bertman’s bags, and Bertman had asked him to look at how many players were in the pool. Garcia counted eight or nine.

“‘Ooo, that's a problem,’” Garcia remembered Bertman saying. “‘See, these guys are just happy to be here.'”

LSU sports news in your inbox

If you're a Tiger fan you won't want to miss this newsletter. Sign up today.

The next year, Garcia noted less than a handful of players in the pool. In 1991, no one was in the water.

“It felt like we were never going to lose any game we walked into,” Canevari said. “Let's go in here and coach this team and get this thing over with. That's kind of the way we looked at it.”

During LSU’s four games, it set College World Series records at the time for most runs per game (12), slugging percentage (.603) and fielding percentage (.993). It won twice by double digits. Its closest margin of victory was in the 6-3 final against Wichita State.

The championship delivered LSU arguably its most exciting athletic moment in decades. The school hadn’t won a national title in one of its major sports since the 1958 football season.

There in 1991, the baseball team gave the entire fanbase pride. The sports’ popularity spread. Attendance swelled. LSU built a new stadium. It invested further in the program. The Tigers won five more championships.

“It set up everything,” said Canevari, who became the pitching coach for Bertman in 1997. “The first championship shows you that you can do this. Up until then, there's always a little self doubt.”

As the program continued to win, the players on the 1991 team watched as future teams built on the foundation they created. Some of them helped capture more championships. Others moved into professional careers. Eventually, they all stopped competitively playing the sport.

As LSU searched for its next coach, the players texted and called one another, trying to find information about the process. Many of them wanted LSU to hire Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco, a former LSU catcher and assistant coach. They still feel invested in the program they helped form. They hope Johnson can replicate Bertman’s success.

“We have tradition,” Canevari said. “We have guys that built the program from the ground up that want their younger brothers to understand what it took to get here and the expectations are here for you to win the championship. If you need any help, we're right here to help you.”

“Connect with the past,” Mouton said, “but don't let the past be some kind of ghost that hinders them from moving forward and being successful.”

Over the years, Ogea started a landscaping company and underwent a knee replacement. Canevari coached other schools in the area before accepting a position with the Tiger Athletic Foundation because “I coached back in the day when nobody got paid.” Mouton joined Coca-Cola. They married and divorced and started families. Many of them stayed in Baton Rouge. They see each other at reunions and communicate through group texts.

“Everybody's dormant for a while until everybody says something and then everybody comes out of the woodwork,” Ogea said. “I guess that lets us know we're all still here.”

Now 51, Garcia still remembers putting on his socks before the championship game and visiting the White House. He played minor league baseball for five years. He eventually settled back home in Miami, where he runs a business with fishing boats and restaurants once owned by his father. He manages like Bertman, demanding perfection on garnishes.

“It feels every bit 30 years ago because my knees don't feel great,” Garcia said as he walked out of the gym last week. “I tried playing catch with a friend not too long ago. I threw fine. The next day, I couldn't raise my right arm above my shoulder.”

Maybe he should have stretched longer in college, he said. Perhaps he needed to ice his shoulder more often after games. But Garcia didn’t want sympathy. He understood aches arrive with getting older.

Besides, the games and practices that created those pains gave him some of his fondest memories and closest friends. He wouldn’t have the picture without them.

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com