Princes of the city

Almost nobody saw this day coming. June 1, 1991, when Omaha’s cozy, laid-back 42-year summer tradition suddenly feels brand-new. Look up. A plane overhead pulls a banner: “Go Creighton Bluejays!” They’re down in the first-base clubhouse, the hometown team.

By Dirk Chatelain / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, June 25, 2016

25 years later, Creighton’s gritty 1991 Bluejays are remembered for achieving a local team’s CWS dream

Follow the dream up the hill, through the trampled grass and barbecue smoke, past the scalpers and souvenir T-shirts, by the ticket office where sleeping bags covered the concrete two nights ago, right up to the gates of college baseball heaven.
Tear a ticket from your booklet — $2 for general admission is a steal. Squeeze through a concourse reeking of sweat — it’s a muggy 84 degrees. Grab a snow cone and wiggle out a tunnel to the metal grandstands, where you can see for miles.
Almost nobody saw this day coming. June 1, 1991, when Omaha’s cozy, laid-back 42-year summer tradition suddenly feels brand-new.
Look up. A plane overhead pulls a banner: “Go Creighton Bluejays!”
They’re down in the first-base clubhouse, the hometown team. For years, they’ve toiled in front of empty bleachers. Ninety percent of today’s crowd — maybe more — has never seen them play. No matter.
On this Saturday afternoon, the boys in road blue jerseys will pound baseballs into gaps, just as their quirky coach taught them. And Rosenblatt Stadium will roar loud enough to wake the lions next door.
“Bluuue-jays,” they’ll chant. “Bluuue-jays.”
Here they come, out of the dugout for the first time. You ever witnessed a standing ovation for warmups? Twenty-five years later, they’ll remember these first scenes as much as anything during the ’91 College World Series.
“It was like we were gods,” Creighton relief pitcher Eric Kennedy says.
Their postseason crescendo will keep building and building, louder and louder, to the point where the underdogs can’t hear themselves think. It finally goes silent at home plate in the 12th inning against a bitter rival.
“You wanted nothing less than to win the whole thing,” Kennedy says, looking back. “Jeez, we almost pulled it off.”

*   *   *

In April, the 1991 CWS Bluejays returned for their Creighton Hall of Fame induction. They told stories about rotten apples, a moon-shot home run in L.A. and a packed house in Omaha. DAVE WEAVER

More CWS history

Check out a comprehensive look at College World Series history, including tournament recaps, game stories and World-Herald front pages for each day’s action as well as team pages with all-time records, coaching info and more.

Christmas 1989. Seventeen long months before 16,244 packed Rosenblatt for Creighton’s CWS opener.
Kevin Sarver, the new sports information director for CU baseball, is home in Chicago celebrating his only brother’s engagement. Accepting the invitation to be the best man June 1, 1991.
Wait, Kevin told his brother, there’s just one complication. The CWS begins that weekend and Creighton has a shot.
“He looked at me like I had three heads,” Sarver said.
Had Creighton ever been to the College World Series?
“Well, no.”
When is the last time the Jays played in a regional?
For 15 years after that regional, Creighton played its home games at Booth Field, next door to the Salvation Army at 24th and Martha Streets. No lights. No PA system. But lots of rocks in the infield. Any given game day, there were almost as many homeless men beyond the fences as season-ticket holders in the bleachers.
Booth Field’s defining characteristic was a viaduct looming over the right-field fence like Boston’s green monster, about 300 feet from home plate. The Jays loved launching home runs over the bridge.
Their head coach preferred to hit golf balls that way.
Jim Hendry was 28 when Creighton hired him in 1984. He’d barely moved into his office when a school administrator warned him he shouldn’t expect to win. Not with such crappy spring weather — players frequently shoveled snow so they could practice. Not with such a crappy budget — players slept four to a motel room on road trips. Not with academic standards that tended to scare away top prospects.
Hendry didn’t believe in excuses. He hit the recruiting trail.
In November ’84, mighty Wichita State heard about a 17-year-old catcher in Wisconsin named Scott Servais. Schools rarely recruited kids before their senior seasons, so Shocker assistant Brent Kemnitz thought he was in the driver’s seat.
One problem: Servais had already committed to Creighton.
“At that time, Creighton’s not very good,” Kemnitz said. “And I’m like, ‘Wow!’”
Servais opted for Booth Field over the New York Mets, who chose him in the second round of the ’85 draft. Pretty soon, Hendry had a top-five recruiting class. ... at Creighton?
“That’s how good he is,” Kemnitz said.
When recruits visited CU, Hendry skipped 24th and Martha and drove them straight to 13th and B. Rosenblatt Stadium. This, he said, is where you’re going to play in the College World Series someday.
He wasn’t a used car salesman, former Bluejay Mike McCafferty said. He laid out a vision and inspired you to action.
Hendry’s charisma and determination were the perfect complements to a masterful eye for talent, especially in Chicago where he had contacts. But every great program needs a little good luck. In the summer of ’89, a Chicago pitcher named Scott Stahoviak, who’d signed with Creighton, hurt his throwing elbow.
Bluejay assistant Todd Wenberg called Hendry from Rapid City, where he watched Stahoviak play on the Junior Olympic team.
“How’s his arm?” Hendry said.
“Not good at all. But he’s swinging the bat.”
“Really?” Hendry said. “Can he hit?”

*   *   *

That spring of ’89, the Jays moved from Booth Field into their new on-campus home, the CU Sports Complex.
They still didn’t have locker rooms — they dressed in their dorm rooms. Their batting cages were still in the basement of the old gymnasium.
“We were in some pretty dark spaces watching 90 mph pitches coming at you,” McCafferty said.
But they did have Astroturf, one of just three schools in America. They promoted it like it was the seventh wonder of the world, Wenberg said.
One problem: “That field was like a trampoline,” Kennedy said. There was no sand under the asphalt base, so baseballs bounced like Super Balls. Routine bouncing balls turned into doubles.
“Actually a great home-field advantage,” Wenberg said.
Except when Wichita State came to town. The Shockers were the Darth Vader of the Mo Valley. From 1985-90, they went 24-2-1 against Creighton. One rainy day in Omaha, a Bluejay ripped a line drive down the line, good enough to score the winning run from first base — until the ball bounced over the fence.
Ground-rule double. Winning run stops at third. Creighton eventually loses. Even Wichita State felt guilty, Kemnitz said. “We’re like, ‘Man, I’m sorry.’ ”
Hendry kept working. He preached “total team commitment.” He shared three rules: Show up on time, don’t be a jerk and work your tail off. (His language was a little more colorful.)
Players called him “Big Cheese.” He could crack ’em up and read ’em the riot act, all in the same day.
When McCafferty showed up late for the bus, Hendry made him drive to Iowa State by himself. When Chad McConnell missed a class, Coach yelled at him all the way to the parking lot. Expletive this, expletive that. Hendry returned to the field, looked at the team and said, “What’d you think?”
In 1990, the Jays finally made a regional, where they beat Clemson twice and nearly toppled Texas on the Longhorns’ home field.
A few months later, Kevin Sarver walked into Hendry’s office with a theme for the ’91 media guide. Remember the goal you’re always talking about, Coach?
“... To play in June!”

*   *   *

Nine days before June 1991, Creighton was stuck in rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles.
The Bluejays were slated to open NCAA tournament play the following day on Southern Cal’s home turf. But first, they had a banquet at Lawry’s in Beverly Hills. Hendry didn’t get the memo regarding dress attire.
“We roll in half an hour late,” Wenberg said. “We’ve got kids wearing cut-off shorts, shirts that haven’t been ironed or washed in weeks.”
Minnesota is decked out in maroon blazers. USC and Pepperdine are West Coast smooth. Creighton comes as the Clampetts.
“Everybody had to be like, ‘Who are these dirtballs?’ ” Wenberg said.

“Everybody had to be like, ‘Who are these dirtballs?’ ” Wenberg said. The best offense in the country, that’s who.

The best offense in the country, that’s who. Creighton was hitting .355. Averaging more than nine runs per game. You could find ’em in the batting cages of the old gym, every morning and every night.
Stahoviak, the injured high school pitcher, had turned into the college player of the year at third base. He was batting .450 with a .600 on-base percentage. And he had plenty of help.
Creighton was seeded fourth in the six-team regional. It won the first two, then met powerhouse USC.
Wenberg, the pitching coach, got ejected early after arguing balls and strikes. Rather than retire to the locker room, he moved up into the bleachers, where relievers worked as messengers — “Cheese wants to know who you want up in the ’pen.”
What Creighton needed was offense. Trailing 6-2 with two outs in the eighth, the Jays strung together three singles. Then McConnell stepped in.
The sophomore first baseman was South Dakota’s high school player of the year — in football. Good enough as an option quarterback that Tom Osborne recruited him. Hendry persuaded him to play baseball.
McConnell, who’d struck out seven times in 11 regional at-bats, crushed a 1-2 hanging curve over the 395 sign in center field. 6-6.
“It was like ‘The Natural,’ ” Kennedy said. “Time stood still. McConnell hit this ball to the freaking moon.” According to longtime Trojans coach Rod Dedeaux, the only player who ever hit a ball farther at USC’s field was Mark McGwire.
The Jays weren’t home free. USC loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth. That’s when Hendry spotted a half-eaten rotten apple in front of Creighton’s dugout.
If we get out of this mess, he told two players, I’ll finish that apple.
No. 3 hitter Jeff Cirillo hit a screamer to Stahoviak for one out. Then All-American Mark Smith, who hadn’t grounded into a double play all season, went 6-4-3.
Hendry didn’t hesitate. He grabbed the apple out of the dirt and finished it in three bites.
In the 10th, Stahoviak tripled and scored the winning run on McConnell’s groundout. And two days later — needing just one more victory to qualify for the College World Series — Creighton throttled Hawaii 15-8.
“I’ll go to my grave looking over at Hendry in the dugout after we beat Hawaii,” said Sarver, the SID. “Seeing the expression on his face. It meant so much to him.”
The Jays could’ve flown all the way to Omaha without a plane. But when they stepped off the jetway at Eppley Airfield, about 500 fans — more than their average home-game attendance — were waiting at the gate.
“I’ll promise you,” Hendry told the crowd, “we’re not done yet.”

Creighton's Scott Stahoviak turned into the college player of the year at third base after being injured as a high school pitcher. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

*   *   *

Creighton had played one home game since May 1. School was already out and most players had moved out of their dorm rooms or apartments. The hometown team didn’t have homes. Hendry suggested they bunker down at the Marriott. Steve Bruns stuffed his possessions into his 1981 Ford pick-up in the parking lot.
When the Jays walked into a pancake house for breakfast, they got a standing ovation. When they turned on the TV, they saw fans camping out at Rosenblatt for tickets. They signed so many autographs that Kennedy pitched an idea to Stahoviak: How ’bout I sign your name and you sign mine?
“I apologize to any kids out there that are now grown adults that have a fake Scott Stahoviak autograph,” Kennedy said.
In those days, the NCAA Baseball Committee seeded the CWS after regionals. Creighton was handed the No. 7 seed, opposite 60-8 Clemson. The potential second-round matchup: Wichita State.
Buoyed by 16,000 new fans, Creighton dominated Clemson. In the fifth inning, already leading 2-0, the Jays went double, double, double, triple.
Kevin Sarver, completing a promise to his brother, watched the CBS broadcast from a priest’s bedroom in Chicago, about 15 paces from the altar. He hustled out for the wedding ceremony, then ran back in time to see Mike Heathcott claim his 15th win of the season. Heathcott changed undershirts four times, but he completed the game.
“At the end, they were chanting, ‘Blue-jays, Blue-jays,’ ” Heathcott said. “Holy cow, I was getting goose bumps, and I still had to get people out.”
Brian O’Connor, the Creighton closer who now coaches at Virginia, has seen a lot of first-time CWS qualifiers “crap their pants.” Not Creighton.
“We seized the moment.”

Shatel: 25 years after Creighton's College World Series run, Jim Hendry at times second-guesses his exit

What if he had never left?

It seems like a silly question to ask Jim Hendry. After all, it seems like he never left Creighton. It seems like he’s always been here, like it’s always 1991.

But it’s been 25 years since his Bluejays were the first men on the moon. Twenty-five. Imagine that.

Read more from columnist Tom Shatel, including a Q&A with former CU coach Jim Hendry.

*   *   *

Creighton faced Darth Vader six times in 1991 — before the College World Series. The Shockers won all six. Combined score: 70-15.
“You could put Illinois State’s or Bradley’s uniforms on them and we probably would’ve been 50-50 against them,” Wenberg said. “It was as much mental as anything.”
Wichita State owned the nation’s best ERA, 2.94. That day, Shocker starter Tyler Green was picked No. 10 in the draft by Philadelphia. The Twins picked Stahoviak No. 27.
The fans didn’t notice; they were trying to find seats. Jack Payne, the public-address announcer, urged people to make room: “Scootchie-ootchie.”
The record crowd of 18,206 included Andy Benes. The San Diego Padres pitcher was scheduled to work the next night at Wrigley Field, but his manager granted him permission to stop en route to Chicago and watch his brother, Alan. The freshman was starting for Creighton.
The Jays, in their home whites, struck for two runs in the first. This stadium is shaking, ESPN broadcaster Mike Patrick said.
Wichita State responded in the fourth — 2-2.
From there, the pitchers waged a duel. Green struck out 14 in nine innings, confounding Creighton with his knuckle curve. Benes, eventually a first-round pick himself, retired 12 in a row, leaving in the ninth to a standing ovation.
“New ballgame,” Shocker closer Jaime Bluma said. “I thought we might play nine more.”
In the top of the 12th, Wichita State’s Scot McCloughan, son of former Husker football legend Kent McCloughan, mustered an infield single off Brian O’Connor, scoring Jim Audley.
The Jays didn’t give up. Jason Judge was hit by a pitch. Pinch-runner Steve Bruns advanced to second on a groundout.
Then came the defining moment. Twenty-five years later, it’s the first thing that comes to mind for everybody on the field that night. The action took nine seconds, and it’s arguably the best pure baseball play in College World Series history.
Creighton’s Dax Jones lined a 2-2 slider into center field. Hendry waved Bruns around third base. Audley fielded the ball in center and fired home, where Doug Mirabelli straddled the plate.
The runner dove head-first between the catcher’s legs. Mirabelli received the ball off one bounce and slapped the tag on Bruns’ back. The umpire didn’t hesitate.

*   *   *

That moment reminds Bruns of an old saying. The only thing more intimidating than a full stadium screaming is a full stadium going quiet. “It was dead silent.”
Audley was still picking himself up off the ground in center field, trying to catch his breath.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘Oh, my gosh, did I just do that?’ ”

Creighton runner Steve Bruns is called out at home plate, preserving a Wichita State College World Series win. JEFF BUNDY/THE WORLD-HERALD

If Jones hits the ball any softer, Creighton scores. If Audley is playing any deeper, Creighton scores. If the throw is 3 feet to the left or 3 feet to the right, Creighton ties the game with a runner on second base, one out and Stahoviak on deck.
“I don’t even wanna think about what might’ve happened after that,” Bluma said.
Instead, just after 11 p.m. on June 3, 1991, Wichita State recorded the third out and won, 3-2.
The game drew the highest TV rating in CWS history, larger than any Sunday night baseball broadcast on ESPN that season. It vaulted Wichita State into the driver’s seat — and put Creighton in a bind.
The Jays hammered Long Beach State the following day 13-4, earning another date with Wichita State. Heathcott went back to the mound for an encore. He hung tough for a while — it was 3-3 in the fifth. Wichita State ran away from there, 11-3.
Creighton was done, its final four losses of ’91 against the same opponent. From ’85 to ’91, the Jays were 2-32-1 against Wichita State. The eight straight in ’91 hurt most.

Outfielder Jim Audley is carried off the field after throwing out Creighton runner Steve Bruns at home plate, preserving a Wichita State College World Series win. The play has been called “The Throw.” JEFF TUTTLE/THE WICHITA EAGLE

Creighton's Scott Stahoviak shakes hands with Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson. RUDY SMITH/THE WORLD-HERALD

“It’s mind-boggling, even today,” Heathcott said. “Impossible. I would’ve bet my house against it.”

Wichita State’s loss to LSU in the national championship game didn’t stain the 12-inning win over Creighton. Shocker fans still reference “The Throw.” Bluma’s watched it 1,000 times, and he gets goose bumps “every single time.”
“To be honest with you,” Bluma said, “I don’t know if we were the better team. We just happened to win those eight games.”

*   *   *

One minute, you’re fighting to win a national championship. The next, Heathcott said, you’re looking for a ride back to your apartment.
The ’91 Bluejays spent thousands of hours together — in batting cages and buses, hotel rooms and dugouts — chasing a goal. Suddenly, they went their separate ways.
By July, Stahoviak was a pro baseball player and Bruns was interviewing for accounting jobs. Perception had changed, though. Not just in Omaha, Kennedy said, but nationally.
“When you told people, ‘I played at Creighton,’ it meant something,” he said.
Hendry and Shockers coach Gene Stephenson were good friends. After the ’91 season, Nutrisystem hired them to compete in a weight-loss contest. When it was over, they appeared in a commercial. How’d it go, guys?
“Just like the season,” Stephenson said. “We beat ’em again.”
In December ’91, Hendry departed for a development position with the expansion Florida Marlins. His replacement, Wenberg, dug a hole down the left-field line at the CU Sports Complex and, with the help of his team, burned and buried a decade’s worth of notes on Wichita State. The ’92 Jays won the season series, 3-2.
Fourteen players from the ’91 team were eventually drafted, including three first-round picks. Five Bluejays made the big leagues. Today, they live in 15 states, from Hawaii to Virginia, working in vastly different fields. But you don’t accomplish what they did and surrender the bonds.
On a random day, one guy might send a text message to 10 teammates and the replies go back and forth for hours.
In April, the CWS Jays returned for their Creighton Hall of Fame induction. They lined a tunnel at TD Ameritrade Park and waited to be introduced to the crowd. Suddenly, they felt 19 again, restoring old nicknames, laughing so hard it hurt. Soon they were telling stories about trampoline turf and rotten apples, a moon-shot home run in L.A. and a packed house in Omaha.
At the Hall of Fame banquet that night, 60-year-old Jim Hendry and his old dirtballs dressed in their finest attire. And Coach gave a speech. I told you the night before the College World Series that your lives would never be the same, he said.
“I don’t think I knew how right I would be.”

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