Time has yellowed the scorebook page a bit, but it tells its story just as clearly as ever.
In a box from the bottom of the ninth inning, there’s a line drawn up the right side with an arrow at the end of it. To the right the letters “HR” are circled. To the left is a “#1” indicating it was Warren Morris’ first home run of the 1996 season. And in the middle of the diamond there’s a red “9” to denote the winning run of LSU’s championship game against Miami.
There are lot of memories packed into that little corner of a baseball scorebook. A scorebook I have no intention of ever throwing away. It’s crammed into the upper cabinet of my desk at home with a program from the last Daytona 500 I covered in 2008 and the last paper ballot the Heisman Trophy folks ever sent out (everyone votes electronically now) and a stack of PGA Tour media guides that’s growing like the national debt.
I’ve been fortunate to witness a lot of amazing things in my sportswriting career. I’ve seen LSU win two national championships. I watched the Bluegrass Miracle pass sail through the air. I stood in the stands at the Superdome on a Monday night nearly 10 years ago as it thundered to life with the unleashed emotion of the Saints’ first home game after Hurricane Katrina.
They were all special, but there was nothing like June 8, 1996. For me, and I’m sure for many of you, it was the Billy Cannon Halloween run we’ve only read about or seen in grainy black and white film.
Memory plays tricks on you after 20 years, but I can’t forget that day. My first time covering the College World Series was a cool week in Omaha, emotionally and meteorologically. That championship Saturday, the sky was a brilliant blue and the temperature was a dry 68 degrees, unthinkable June weather for a South Louisiana boy like myself.
The game fit the setting. It was a back and forth drama played out over that gorgeous afternoon at Rosenblatt Stadium, with LSU rallying from a 7-3 deficit with two runs apiece in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
Miami pushed across one more run in the top of the ninth to take an 8-7 lead and it looked like curtains for the Tigers. Then Brad Wilson, whose daughter and mine are now in the same grade together, smashed a double down the left-field line. He moved to third on a bouncer to first by Justin Bowles, but looked like he’d be stranded there when Tim Lanier struck out swinging on one of Robby Morrison’s nosediving curveballs.
During the ninth, some reporters started to filter downstairs out of Rosenblatt’s then brand new press box. I stayed up there for some reason, perched above the tense crowd. I don’t know why exactly. My job that day was to write what we call a “sidebar” story on one of the key players or a key moment in the game, and back then you could interview players on the field right after.
Maybe I didn’t want to ruin my view for whatever was to come. My instincts have never quite batted .500, but they were on at that moment.
“Now, Warren Morris …”
It all happened so fast, that was all CBS announcer Sean McDonough had time to say, as I later found out. It would have been easy to miss it. Morris swung on the first pitch from Morrison and laced it down the right-field line. My first thought was that it would be a double and that Wilson would easily trot home with the tying run. But the ball, on more of a line-drive trajectory than a traditional home run moon shot, just kept carrying toward the foul pole in right.
“That might go,” I blurted out, not trying to be Sean McDonough or to will the ball to keep carrying, just as an observation. Then it disappeared into the maddening crowd in the right field bleachers.
Like a lot of people in the aftermath, I have no idea what happened next. I don’t remember recording the home run in my scorebook. I don’t know how I got down to the field. Somehow I found pitcher Patrick Coogan, the LSU reliever who had given up the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth and thought he’d lost it but who wound up as the winner. I wrote my story from his perspective, not ever quite believing I was able to do this amazing scene justice.
As I look back two decades later, I am still struck by one overriding thought: Fate is a funny thing. On that windswept Saturday, the place Morris hit the home run was virtually the only place a ball could have made it out of the park the way the gusts were howling in from left. And it was hit by a player who batted second or third in LSU’s lineup before he broke a bone in his hand that required surgery. Without that injury, there’s no way Morris was batting ninth that day.
But sometimes there’s no escaping your fate. Good. Or bad. It finds you.
It found Morris that day and it made him a legend.
I’ve been back to the CWS to cover LSU twice in the previous three seasons. Both times I’ve gone to the site of the old Rosenblatt, on a flattened hilltop off 13th Street that’s now a parking lot for the Omaha zoo, nondescript from the distance except for the two foul poles still towering above it, triangulating on a tiny Rosenblatt replica diamond in the middle.
Nearby there’s the old Zesto’s ice cream shop, now abandoned. Like the CWS, Zesto’s packed up and moved to the north side of downtown next door to TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. It’s a beautiful place but a bit sterile, perhaps because it isn’t seasoned yet by moments like Morris’ now legendary swing.
Maybe there will be another Morris moment at the new park. Maybe it will never be. Probably it’s the same for me and the rest of my career as a sportswriter.
I can live with that.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.