Monday, June 28, 2010

UCLA writes its own Omaha chapter

Bruins write their own chapter in California's storied history at the College World Series

By Ryan McGee

Rosenblatt Stadium isn't located in California. Sometimes it just feels like it.

Despite the state of California's storied history at the College World Series, UCLA only picked up its first win this year.

But if one College World Series legend had gotten his way, the event would have moved to L.A. from the Big O more than four decades ago.

Since The 'Blatt first welcomed the College World Series in 1950, no state has sent as many teams as many times as has the Golden State, a total of 13 different teams for a whopping 73 CWS appearances. Only nine times in 60 years has the eight-team field not included at least one school from California. In 1988, half of the CWS field came from the one state.

Just the mere mention of most Cali colleges can immediately cause sports fans to think of Omaha: Southern Cal, Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and Stanford.

UCLA? Um, not so much.

Yet now here are the Bruins, the final representative of the nation's greatest college baseball state in the final days of college baseball's greatest stage. They sit squarely in the catbird seat of the winner's bracket with more pitching arms stockpiled than anyone else in the field and three days of rest before starting Friday's semifinal round. The Bruins are the final national seed standing and now the favorite to be the last team standing at the end of the tournament.

Who woulda thunk?

"Wouldn't that be something?" said Fred Lynn, a USC alum and 1969 All-CWS outfielder. He chuckled as he contemplated the thought of a Bruins title. "USC is really the program and the team that propelled the College World Series and Rosenblatt Stadium into what it is today. That would really be an interesting twist if it was UCLA that won the last series played at Rosenblatt."

Some are calling it Johnny Rosenblatt's last great gag.

Southern Cal owns a dozen national championships, including the second-ever CWS, played in Kalamazoo, Mich. Fullerton owns four CWS titles, followed by Cal and Stanford with two each. Even Pepperdine and Fresno State own one championship each.

UCLA? Zero.

USC has made 21 CWS appearances, followed by Stanford and Fullerton's 16, Cal's five, and Long Beach State and Fresno State with four apiece.

UCLA? This is just its third CWS berth ever. The first came in 1969, when the Bruins were swept in two games. The next came in 1997, when they again went two-and-'cue. So yes, that means that their victories over Florida and TCU brought the Bruins' career CWS win total to two.

USC has 74.

The man who led the USC dynasty was head coach Rod Dedeaux, a charismatic Cajun who migrated west and played baseball for the Trojans in the 1930s. He was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers as an infielder and played in all of two games, back-to-back contests in 1935, and owns one career big league RBI.

He returned to Los Angeles to work for his college coach, Sam Barry, at USC. When Barry was shipped off to fight in World War II, Dedeaux took over the team. Barry returned and they served as co-coaches on the '48 championship team. Two years later, Barry died and Dedeaux was wholly in charge.

This is where you're tempted to say "and the rest is history," but that statement isn't strong enough to describe what Dedeaux did with the Trojans. Before his retirement in 1986 he won 11 more championships, including five consecutive from 1970-74. He retired as the winningest coach in college baseball history with a record of 1,332-571-11 and coached dozens of big leaguers, from Tom Seaver and Roy Smalley to Mark McGwire and Randy Johnson.

He also worked as baseball's consultant to Hollywood, helping actors with their theatrical swings and befriending nearly every A-lister in Tinseltown. Meanwhile, he worked tirelessly to grow college baseball into a big-time sport that could run alongside football and basketball. It was a hard sell in his city, let alone the nation.

And that brings us to the moment when the College World Series nearly bolted for SoCal. Meaning that the CWS wouldn't have merely been a frequent destination for schools from California, it would've been a home game.

Frustrated with the event's lack of growth over its first 15 seasons in Omaha, Dedeaux made a power play in 1964 to have the event moved to Los Angeles. He promised a first-class facility, media coverage, bigger crowds, and was backed by a support group that included some very heavy Hollywood hitters, most notably Walt Disney.

"Can you believe that?" said the late Jack Diesing Sr., shaking his head in disbelief as he discussed it in 2007. "That lit a fire under some people. But Dedeaux? It's hard to imagine the man who became the face of the College World Series in Omaha thinking it should have been somewhere else."

Using Dedeaux's proposal as a motivational tool, Diesing, a local Omaha business leader, convinced the city to start taking the Series more seriously. In 1967, he formed the not-for-profit College World Series Of Omaha Inc., which reorganized the event, refurbished Rosenblatt, and promised the NCAA a bigger piece of the financial pie (as in most of the money). CWS of Omaha is still in charge of the event today.

Omaha's signature event was saved and the memories of Dedeaux's power play soon faded. The coach became a staple of the city and the stadium even years after his retirement. Before every College World Series game he could be seen making his way through the yellow seats in the lower level of the Rosenblatt grandstand, leaning on a walking cane fashioned from a Louisville Slugger and signed by dozens of his former players. He passed away on Jan. 5, 2006 and received a moment of silence in his honor at that June's first College World Series game.

"Rod did for the baseball program at USC what John Wooden did for basketball at UCLA," said former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, a good friend to both coaches. "You have to put Rod Dedeaux on the same level with John Wooden."

During this Series, being played just three weeks after Wooden's death, the baseball Bruins are on the field at Rosenblatt with the initials "JW" inscribed on their uniforms. It's no surprise that they would honor of the memory and legacy of the Wizard of Westwood.

But what the UCLA team may not have realized is that they are also honoring the memory and legacy of Rod Dedeaux, the man who built California's first collegiate baseball dynasty.

Who knows? Perhaps we are seeing the start of the next one.

Ryan McGee is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Road To Omaha: Hits, Hopes and History at the College World Series," which chronicles the excitement and passion of the CWS, is now available on paperback.

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