Feb. 9, 2013
NC State’s Cinderella ride to the 1968 College Baseball World Series after ACC and Regional titles rivals the school’s 1983 and 1974 basketball editions – the producers of unexpected spectacular seasons.
Even though it’s been 45 years since that trip to Omaha, the players on that roster still have special recollections of that special season.
And many of them believe the 2013 Pack baseball squad has an opportunity to become the second team in NC State history to earn another place among the nation’s elite.
Looking back, things were much different in 1968. College and high school sports weren’t as nearly sophisticated and the athletic budgets were much smaller.
“The only preseason training we went through was to go to Reynolds Coliseum and run the track,” noted Mike Caldwell recently, a freshman lefty at the time.
There was no weight training program for baseball players – and the experts thought lifting weights would make them “muscle-bound”.
Coaches in those days had to wear more than one hat. Former Chicago White Sox utility man Sammy Esposito, State’s head mentor, was also an assistant coach under basketball coach Norm Sloan. That meant he had to juggle duties and schedules when the seasons overlapped.
Some football and basketball players also played baseball. The heyday of specialization in particular sports was in the future.
“We all just loved to play the game,” stated left-hand pitcher Alex Cheek, who teamed with Caldwell and Joe Frye as the team’s thin pitching staff. Sophomore Tommy Smith was also used sparingly in regular-season play.
That Pack entered the season with few expectations of glory – picked to finish seventh in an eight-team ACC after coming off an 11-11 season in 1967.
The 1968 season was the first time since the Korean War in which freshmen could participate in varsity competition.
Great Camaraderie and Team Chemistry
Returnees in ’68 included left-hander Cheek, second baseman Clem Huffman, outfielder Steve Martin (who hit .360 in ’67), speedy centerfielder Steve Boyer, outfielder Freddie Combs (a football All-American), and shortstop Darrell Moody.
Combs’ brother Francis, who didn’t play in 1967, “was a great defensive catcher and knew how to work pitchers,” according to brother Fred.
Caldwell, who went on to play major league baseball in San Diego, Seattle, Cincinnati and Milwaukee, teamed with another freshman – hard-hitting third baseman Chris Cammack (.351) to jumpstart the Pack team after it lost its first three ACC games.
One important thing to note about the previously mentioned players is that they were all from North Carolina – a significant factor which contributed to a tremendous amount of camaraderie and team chemistry.
Esposito was a meticulous teacher of baseball fundamentals and basic game strategy. Even though the team hit with little power – pounding only 12 home runs that season, the Pack scored runs by the hunt-and-peck system.
“We had speed and manufactured runs,” remembered Cheek. “We were not playing to compete, but playing to win. We didn’t read the newspapers. One day someone said we were in first place and it surprised us. We were just having fun.”
Freddie Combs put Esposito’s teachings to good use. “Whenever I hit a single in the gap, I would make the turn, looking to take the extra base. I loved to run as did Boyer, our centerfielder.”
Caldwell remembered, “We just had a group of guys who were tenacious and persistent. Esposito taught us to do the little things (bunting, hit-and-run, stealing, taking the extra base) and with a little luck we did some good things.”
“Our team jelled,” recalled Francis Combs. “The pitchers and I were on the same wave length. We got a slow start but we put it all together.”
ACC Race was a Dogfight
The regular-season ACC race was a dogfight. After the 0-3 ACC start, Esposito’s team went on a six-game winning streak in mid-April, including three against Duke and two versus Big Four rival Wake Forest.
All of the games were close. State didn’t blow out anyone, but neither did the Pack opponents blow out State.
For the first time since the ACC’s inception in 1954, the baseball schedule was unbalanced, as a number of games were cancelled because of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4th.
The Pack lost its first encounter, 7-5, against powerful North Carolina. In the nightcap of a doubleheader, the Tar Heels jumped out to a 6-0 advantage. However, Esposito’s club clawed its way back to win, 7-6, in a game Martin says gave the team confidence it could play with anybody.
Only the league champion could advance to the Regionals and the Pack found itself playing its last regular-season game against Wake Forest at home. A Pack win would give the team the league title, as there was no ACC post-season tournament.
“There was a big standing-room only crowd,” Francis Combs recollected. “I remember the fans standing by that picket fence.”
Caldwell, who had suffered his first loss of the season (4-1) against Maryland on May 10th, was at his best against the Deacons. After Wake’s leadoff hitter – Jimmy Callison – singled, only one other Deacon runner reached base. Seventy-six pitches later, the lefty walked off the mound with a 4-0 shutout and the Pack advanced into the NCAA Tournament.
The Regionals were held in Gastonia and the ACC champs faced other powerful conference winners – Alabama, East Carolina and favored Florida State.
Masterful Pitching Performance
A second consecutive masterful pitching performance by Caldwell against SEC champion Alabama resulted in a four-hit, 3-1 triumph in the opening game of the double-elimination tournament.
State held on to a 7-5 victory in its second tourney encounter. After building a 7-0 lead, Frye was eventually knocked out as East Carolina made its comeback bid. Smith, who hurled only 15 1/3 innings during the regular-season, came on in relief and retired six consecutive hitters after allowing a single. State prevailed, 7-5.
The Pack entered the championship round with no losses while Florida State lost once to East Carolina, 2-1, in 13 innings in the tourney opener.
On the brink of elimination, the Seminoles edged the Pack, 15-12. The teams used 10 pitchers who yielded 29 hits and 15 walks.
Consequently, Esposito’s Cinderella Pack was still one victory away from the school’s first trip to the College World Series which was established in 1947.
Once again, Caldwell put the team on his back – hurling a four-hit, 4-1 triumph and sending State to its first CWS.
“We had no business being there,” Caldwell theorized.
Cheek’s take: “I’ve played on a lot of teams, but this one was special. Everybody was so competitive. Our attitudes rubbed off on each other.”
State, the ACC and NCAA District III champions, arrived in Omaha with little or no fanfare. Perennial powers like Texas, Southern Cal, Oklahoma State and St. Johns gathered most of the media’s attention.
While those teams were discussing what color matches of uniforms they were going to wear, it was discovered that the Pack only had one set of uniforms to use for the duration of the tournament.
Esposito’s virtual unknowns entered the tournament with the same attitude they had displayed all season long – to just go out and have fun playing the game. There were no expectations placed upon them and yet they showed their same determined, gutty demeanor.
Three Pack Aces Used in Opener
Southern Illinois knocked Caldwell out of the box in the first game, taking a 4-1 lead until State knotted the score with a three-run seventh. Southern pushed two more runs across in the bottom of the inning to take a 6-4 lead, but the never-say-die Pack rallied to win the contest, 7-6.
The Pack had used their three aces – Caldwell, Cheek and Frye to avoid going to the dreaded loser’s bracket in the double-elimination affair.
St. John’s put the Pack in the loser’s bracket with a 3-2 victory in which Caldwell and Frye each pitched six stellar innings. The game was won on one of the most controversial calls Esposito and his players had ever witnessed.
With the score tied at 2-2, Ralph Addonizio led off the St. John’s 12th with a triple. The next hitter grounded to Cammack at third as Addonizio then broke for the plate.
The umpire ruled Addonizio out on a tag at the plate. The St. John’s runner then turned around and returned to touch the plate and the umpire changed the call and ruled him safe.
According to the players, Esposito went ballistic. That sent the Pack into the loser’s bracket.
“I remember that play at the plate,” noted Francis Combs. “I had been taken out for a pinch hitter. It was about midnight. We couldn’t believe it. Fred said if we had won that game, we would have won the championship.”
In what Esposito said was one of the guttiest performances he’d ever seen, Cheek hurled nine innings in a 6-5 victory over Texas the next time out. State’s three ace pitchers of Caldwell, Cheek and Frye were totally exhausted and unavailable as powerful Southern Cal awaited.
Smith then took the hill, rose to the occasion and yielded only two runs to a USC team which had nine future draft choices on its roster. However, the Pack offense finally went completely stale and the Pack prepared to go home after a 2-0 loss.
Even though the clock struck midnight and the glass slipper didn’t fit, that 1968 team defied all odds in coming within a whisker of getting the opportunity to play for a College World Series title.
“Someone asked if we could play with this current NC State team,” laughed Cheek. “I say we could win three or four, but we are sixty-five years old,” he chuckled.
In a more serious tone, he replied, “I am really, really excited about this (2013) team. Obviously, the have the talent to do something special with pitching depth and speed. I actually think they can hit better than in 2012.”
Caldwell agreed, saying: “This 2013 team has a collection of good hitting, pitching and experience. I am looking forward to seeing them play.”
Fred Combs, who attended a hot stove league banquet in which Carlos Rodon received an award, believes a solid recruiting class will help propel the Pack into the national limelight .
One of his favorite memories is a home run he hit in the CWS against Texas in the 6-5 triumph. “It wasn’t a walk-off but it helped win the game. The ironic thing is that I hit more home runs in the Durham semi-pro league when Francis and I were playing after our college days than I did at State.”
George Cox, GoPack.com