Four hours before the start of last Saturday's College World Series championship game, Stan Payne awoke in Room 309 of the Omaha Sheraton. That afternoon the University of Georgia freshman pitcher, who missed much of the Bulldogs' season because of mononucleosis, would start for the first time in two weeks—in the season's climactic game, a nationally televised showdown against the nation's most fearsome offensive team. But all that Payne, a notably loose 19-year-old, seemed really intent on contemplating was...cartoons.
"He was watching a Smurfs episode about time travel," marveled Payne's roommate, junior first baseman Doug Radziewicz.
Some eight hours later, Payne and his teammates found themselves national champs, 2-1 winners over Oklahoma State. Going into the game, the Cowboys had won 11 straight, and they were 7-0 in the postseason, having scored 83 runs and collected 100 hits. In three of its playoff games OSU scored 14 runs; in another, 17. The team's batting average in the series was .390—133 points better than the combined average of the rest of the field. In short, the 'Pokes, like Ray Charles on the piano, figured to pound out Georgia.
OSU seemed all the more sound as the consensus choice because Bulldog coach Steve Webber had used his two all-tournament pitchers, junior Dave Fleming and senior Mike Rebhan, in two games earlier in the week. That left Webber with the 6'3" Payne, a lefthander from Athens, Ga., to overcome Oklahoma State's heavy metal on Saturday. Payne, who was 6-1 with a 4.50 ERA during the regular season, said that by game time, "I was never so nervous in my life."
He needn't have been. Payne, who chose not to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers when they drafted him in the second round last June, struck out six and yielded only four hits before Fleming, pitching on "all adrenaline," relieved him in the seventh inning. Though Fleming had pitched a complete game only three nights earlier, he shut the door on OSU and the college baseball season by striking out the side in the bottom of the ninth. It was a wonderful moment for Georgia, which had a baseball history steeped in neither tradition nor self-esteem.
"If you had told me before the season that we'd win it all," said Radziewicz, who hit .333 in the series, "I'd have asked, Who's fixing it?"
"Everyone's long-range goal should be to at least talk about winning a national championship," is all a jubilant Webber would allow. In the kind of language Georgia fans best understand, he likened each of the Bulldogs' six world series games to "a bowl game."
It has been a decade since Vince Dooley's Georgia football team won the national championship. The Diamond Dawgs went to the world series in '87, but until last weekend football was all that mattered in Athens. That changed when Dooley, now the athletic director, sought out Webber in the postgame celebration at Rosenblatt Stadium to tell him that Georgia baseball would now get shelf space in Butts-Mehre Hall. Butts-Mehre Hall—for the uninitiated—is the campus building whose principal exhibit is Georgia's football hardware; the shrine is known to pilgrims as Dawg Mahal.
Truth be told, Georgia, which finished the season 53-19, has of late played between the lines more like the Georgia team that plays between the hedges. Before posting only a safety on Saturday, the Dawgs won the northeast regional in Waterbury, Conn., on May 27 by beating Rutgers 20-9. Then, on June 3 in Omaha, the Dawgs beat top-seeded Stanford 16-2 after exploding for 11 runs in the sixth inning and chasing All-America pitcher Mike Mussina, who would become the 20th pick (by the Baltimore Orioles) in last week's draft. On Friday, Georgia and Rebhan beat Mussina again, this time by a 5-1 score.
Against OSU on Saturday the Dawgs got single runs in the fourth and fifth, on a sacrifice fly by rightfielder Bruce Chick and a single by third baseman Jeff Cooper. With the score 2-1 in the seventh, the Cowboys' Brian Kelly tried to score from third on a ground ball to shortstop J.R. Showalter. Sophomore Terry Childers, the Georgia catcher who two weeks earlier had been knocked unconscious against Rutgers in a collision at the plate, took the throw—fatalistically. "In the regional I didn't hold on to it—or so they told me," he said. "I said to someone that next time they were gonna have to kill me to knock the ball away." Kelly lowered his left shoulder and left Childers horizontal, but he didn't dislodge the ball.