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This explains how it is that Texas doesn't so much play good baseball as good Gusball, a gambling, run-a-bunch style in which nobody worries about hits. Eleven times this year the Horns have had more runs than hits. In 1981 Baylor got Gussed but good when the Horns scored seven runs on one hit in the last inning to win 13-6.
Like all good coaches and managers, Gustafson is crafty and cunning and, yes, sometimes wrong. For example, in the 1973 College World Series, with the score tied in the bottom of the eighth, he ordered his pitcher to walk USC's Ed Putnam and pitch to the next hitter. That's how Gustafson became probably the only skipper to deliberately create an opportunity to face Fred Lynn—who homered as Texas lost.
Mostly though, Texas wins by going its own sweet way. For example, perhaps no team on any level takes more pitches. Further, Gustafson doesn't just coach, he teaches. Says Arkansas Coach Norm Debryn: "Gus really believes that repetition is the mother of skill." No wonder that 25 Longhorns have played pro ball after learning at Gustafson's knee. Besides Hooten, the list includes Cub Catcher Keith Moreland and Infielder David Chalk, once an All-Star for the Angels.
Gentle as Gustafson may be, nobody has ever accused him of not having enough gravel in his gut. A year ago, a high school catcher from California, Jeff Hearron, had promised to come to Texas. But he subsequently wavered and said he might go instead to Arizona State. Gustafson called Hearron, who said, "I'm going to pray over my decision." Snapped Gustafson, "So am I, only I'm going to pray that the Lord will forgive you for being a liar." Hearron is now the Texas catcher.
One of Gustafson's favorite sayings is "Don't let yourself down. Remember, to thine own self be true."
And the players respond to that?
"I doubt it," he says.
This simple, straightforward attitude was imbued in Gustafson when he was growing up in south Texas, the son of a sharecropper who fought the drought and the weevils and two cantankerous mules while attempting to scratch out a living growing cotton. His father died at 38, and young Cliff went to work in the fields. "I don't know that cotton-pickin' can teach a fella a whole lot," says Gustafson, "except that when there's work to do, do it." Later he nibbled at the fringes of a pro career, but instead accepted a job as baseball coach at South San Antonio High, where his 13-year record was 344-85-5, including seven state championships and, as a finale, a winning streak in 1966-67 of 45 straight. When Darrel Royal, then the Texas athletic director, called Gustafson about the Texas job, Gustafson was embarrassed to be making such a lofty sum as $11,500 at South San, so he told Royal he was earning only $10,500. Royal offered him the same amount to come to Texas.
The overriding point is that Gustafson wins not because he loves baseball but because he cherishes it, nurtures it and holds it close to his heart. "The only bad thing," he says, "is that the agony of defeat sure lasts a lot longer than the ecstasy of victory. It shouldn't be that way."
The other night Gustafson was singing songs to Janie and reflecting on the joys of baseball. "It's the atmosphere of the game," he says. "It's that free feeling you get out in the ball yard catching and throwing. In what other game do you get so many chances to visit with your opponent? What's better in life than standing around the batting cage ribbing each other? And what other sport has a statistic as well known or understood as a batting average? You ask any player what he's hitting and he'll say, 'Oh, I don't know. Something like .267.' All baseball is, really, is entertainment for the fans and recreational activity for the players. Of course, nobody believes me when I say that." Believe him.