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David Fleming
June 16, 1997
LSU had the dirt on Alabama and won its fourth College World Series in the '90s
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June 16, 1997

Tiger Mania

LSU had the dirt on Alabama and won its fourth College World Series in the '90s

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The little plastic bottle sat on the same shelf during each of LSU's games at the College World Series in Omaha. It was next to the pine tar, just a few feet away from the Tigers' on-deck circle, so that players could shake it or take a whiff for good luck before batting. Inside was mostly dirt, collected a year ago from the lefthanded batter's box after Tigers second baseman Warren Morris, who's now in the Texas Rangers' farm system, hit a two-run homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to give LSU its third NCAA title of the decade.

Until South Alabama stunned the Tigers in an NCAA regional game in Baton Rouge on May 24, the bottle had been sitting atop the TV in the home of LSU reserve infielder Keith Polozola. By the time the bottle reached Omaha last week, it also contained chips from the team's lucky wooden bat and one of outfielder Wes Davis's teeth. Even if the bottle failed to inspire the team, LSU had a backup charm in place. It just so happens that LSU is 14-0 whenever fan Bill Ourso of Clinton, La., wears his lucky purple-and-gold-lettered socks, which were last washed in 1991.

Thankfully, the aroma inside the bottle was inspiration enough. "In this bottle is what we wanted to get back to—Omaha," says Polozola, a senior. "It smells like leather and dirt inside. And victory, too."

Go ahead and laugh. In last Saturday's NCAA championship game the second-seeded Tigers jumped to a six-run lead in the first inning and pounded No. 1 Alabama 13-6 to win their fourth national title in seven years. Someone should tell them luck has had nothing to do with it.

"The LSU baseball program is kind of in a glass case now," says Tigers shortstop Brandon Larson, who was named Most Outstanding Player of the Series after hitting .368 with three homers and eight RBIs. "People can walk by and admire it. They can't touch it or breathe on it, but they can just look at us and admire all our national-championship trophies." This dynasty, Larson says, will last "for many more years to come because of two words: Skip Bertman. With him around it's like we're all playing for a deity."

Since Bertman took over the program in 1984, the Tigers have won six SEC titles and qualified for the College World Series nine times. They have also won 50 or more games in a season eight times, including this year's SEC-record 57 wins (against 13 losses). Each of LSU's championships (1991, '93, '96 and '97) has come while using fewer scholarships (11.7) than Southern Cal (as many as 20) had in winning six titles between 1970 and '78.

The Tigers' recent dominance has sent success-starved fans in Baton Rouge (last NCAA football title: 1958) into a tizzy. More than a million fans have come to LSU's Alex Box Stadium during the last 10 years. But Bertman's influence on the game goes far beyond the bayou. A former high school coach in Miami and an assistant at the University of Miami from 1976 to '83, he is the author of two books—an autobiography and a popular instructional guide. Coaching Youth League Baseball. Last summer he coached the U.S. Olympic team to a bronze medal in Atlanta, and in 14 years at LSU he has sent 19 players to the big leagues, including Albert Belle and Ben McDonald.

In Saturday's final the silver-haired Bertman, a cross between a Marine sergeant and your favorite grandpa, faced a prot�g�. Alabama coach Jim Wells started as a graduate assistant at LSU and patterned his program after his mentor's, using many of the same warmup drills, field signals and plays. "Maybe I should have hid a page or two from Jim while he was here, huh?" joked Bertman. Alabama (56-14), which demolished LSU 28-2 on May 10 and beat the Tigers again, 12-2, eight days later in the SEC Tournament championship game, had to come through the losers' bracket after falling to Miami earlier in the week. The Tide wound up beating the Hurricanes twice, 8-6 last Thursday and 8-2 the following day, to get to the final, but having to play five games in six days took its toll on Alabama. None of its four pitchers made it more than four innings on Saturday, and even veterans like senior second baseman Joe Caruso, who hit .560 while setting a series record with 14 hits, were noticeably shaky in the field with a record crowd of 24,401 looking on.

LSU, meanwhile, seems to thrive on pressure-cooker games. All four of its titles, in fact, have come when LSU was the lower seed in the championship game. "I saw a sign during a game at Georgia this year that read: 56-0 OR SKIP'S GOTTA GO," said Bert-man, a four-time national coach of the year. 'And you know what? They were only half kidding. Our fans want us to win 'em all."

The Tigers almost did. Despite having just two starting position players back from last year's team, LSU opened the season 19-0 and closed it, in a testament to Bertman's teaching and motivational skills, by winning all four of its games in Omaha. Not that LSU is without heavyweight talent. Larson hit 40 homers this season and was drafted in the first round by the Cincinnati Reds on June 3, and homegrown junior righthander Patrick Coogan finished the season with a 14-3 record and 144 strikeouts.

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