Whenever Miami baseball coach Jim Morris sees a replay of gimpy Kirk Gibson hitting his dramatic game-winning homer in the 1988 World Series, Morris never thinks about the joy it brought to Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. Instead he ponders the heartache it caused Oakland A's skipper Tony La Russa.
Morris's reaction harks back to his own Gibsonian tragedy. Three years ago at the College World Series in Omaha, Louisiana State's Warren Morris belted Hurricanes closer Robbie Morrison's first pitch, a curveball, for a two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to seal a stunning 9-8 victory and steal the national title from Miami.
During the ensuing endless summer, Jim Morris endured a recurring nightmare in which he found himself trapped under the bleachers at Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium, unable to escape. Nowadays, whenever he picks up the morning paper and scans the major league box scores to review the progress of his former players, he can't resist also checking what rookie second baseman Warren Morris did the day before for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "I still haven't gotten over that homer," said Jim Morris, choking up at the memory last Friday evening. " Warren Morris could see that curveball 100 more times and never hit it out again."
So the next afternoon in Omaha, during the championship game of the 1999 College World Series against Florida State, the eeriness was almost too cruel to bear. Once again Morris sat in the Miami dugout, one run ahead with two outs in the ninth inning. This time, however, the Hurricanes got the third out. This time Miami won, 6-5. This time Morris got his championship.
As Morris, 47, neared the end of his title quest last week, he couldn't stop dwelling on its beginnings. He reminisced repeatedly about the day in October 1993 that he came to Miami to interview for the coaching job, which was open after the one-year tenure of Brad Kelley. During Morris's tour of Mark Light Stadium, the clubhouse bathroom was being cleaned, and its door was propped open by the Hurricanes' 1974 national runner-up trophy. At any other school that hardware would be revered, but at Miami, which has now made 18 trips to the College World Series, it was a doorstop.
A few weeks later, after Morris had accepted the Miami job, he met Ethel Light, whose family donated the money to construct the stadium. Morris remembers being introduced (as if Kelley's stint had never happened) with the following words: "Mrs. Light, this is Ron Fraser's replacement." Before shaking Morris's hand, Light responded coolly, "Nobody will ever replace Ron Fraser."
In 30 years at Miami the legendary Fraser had a 1271-438-9 record and had won national titles in 1982 and '85. Morris's office is located in the Ron Fraser building on Ron Fraser Way, and it was because of Fraser mat not much was made last week of Morris's being the first coach ever to reach the College World Series in his first six years at a school. The more commonly heard factoid was that the Hurricanes had finished fifth, third, second, third and fifth, respectively, in Morris's first five visits.
Even Morris acknowledged that the team (41-13 in the regular season) he brought to Omaha this year wasn't his best. Gone from the 1998 squad were Pat Burrell, Jason Michaels and Aubrey Huff, the three best hitters in the history of the program, all of whom were chosen in the first five rounds of last year's draft. Six Miami players suffered season-ending injuries, including catcher and cleanup hitter Russ Jacobson.
Yet in some ways Morris considered himself lucky. He replaced Jacobson with Greg Lovelady, a walk-on who was the Hurricanes' bullpen catcher a year ago. Lovelady hit .358 over the last 26 games of the regular season. Morris converted junior college transfer Mike Neu, a righthander, from a starter to a closer and watched him lead the nation in strikeouts per nine innings (14.9). He was surprised to still have righthander Alex Santos, drafted in the third round by the Dodgers in 1998 and the only pick (of 27) Los Angeles couldn't sign. Santos went 13-3 for Miami this year. Morris also welcomed back third baseman Lale Esquivel, who played for the Hurricanes in 1997 but transferred to Alabama and then North East Texas Community College before returning to Coral Gables and hitting .354 with 13 homers and 58 RBIs this season.
"Last year we had bigger stars, but we were divided into cliques," Lovelady says. "This year we've been through so much adversity and so many injuries, but we've hung together as a team."