OMAHA, Neb. — Twenty years ago, when the College World Series still felt like a state fair instead of a state party delegate convention, I watched one of the most enduring moments in the history of baseball from 50 feet away.
LSU trailed Miami by one run in the bottom of the ninth inning of the championship game. Freshman reliever Robbie Morrison struck out LSU catcher Tim Lanier with one out to bring up Warren Morris, the Tigers’ accomplished junior second baseman who had missed 39 games in 1996 with a broken bone in his right hand.
He could barely swing a bat and had not homered all season. But with Brad Wilson at third base, Morris yanked the first pitch from Morrison over the wall in right field to secure a 9-8 LSU victory.
It remains the only walk-off homer to win the CWS. Former LSU coach Skip Bertman argues that Morris’ homer is unmatched at any high level of the sport.
Bill Mazeroski’s homer for the Pirates to beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series? He led off the bottom of the ninth inning.
“If Bill Mazeroski struck out,” Bertman said, “they’d still go on.”
Sam Cohen’s dramatic grand slam this month for UC Santa Barbara to beat Louisville and win the super regional? Well, it wasn’t for the national title. And it wasn’t a winner-take-all game.
“If he would’ve struck out,” Bertman said, “they still would have played [a third game].”
Joe Carter’s World Series-winning homer for the Blue Jays came in Game 6 in 1993. Carlton Fisk’s 12th-inning blast in 1975 for the Red Sox forced Game 7.
“It’s the only time it’s ever been done in the history of baseball at this level and the big-league level,” Bertman said last week in Omaha, here to commemorate the 20th anniversary of that national title. “I was just fortunate to stand in the dugout at the time.”
That brings us back to my spot. I was a college intern at the Omaha World-Herald, writing for the first time about the event I had grown up watching from the bleachers at Rosenblatt Stadium.
I had covered LSU and written a feature, four days before the title game, on Morris’ comeback attempt from April 24 hand surgery. He managed just 62 at-bats before the CWS, but Bertman and Morris’ teammates recognized his almost mystical impact on the Tigers.
“Big, jumbo, giant, prodigious, huge,” Bertman said of Morris’ importance days before the famous homer. “It can’t be done without him. … The saddest thing that has ever happened to LSU while I was coaching here was watching Warren anguish and not play this year.”
LSU did not lose a game in 1996 with Morris in the lineup.
“I don’t know whether I sprinkle some magic potion on them or what it is,” Morris told me during that CWS.
My assignment on that championship Saturday was the losing team sidebar. Before internet connectivity and functional elevators at the CWS, the writers often left the press box in the top of the ninth inning to gather in the stairwell by the gate to the warning track that opened in the middle of the backstop behind home plate.
So there I crouched as Wilson doubled and Justin Bowles grounded out. Lanier struck out and Morris walked to the plate. I went over my notes on LSU, the presumptive loser. When he homered, I nearly panicked — as might any college kid whose story had just imploded at a high-stress moment.
The gate opened to the field, and I scanned around frantically for anything on Miami, my new assignment. I saw Alex Cora and Pat Burrell, two of the Hurricanes’ top stars, face down in the dirt at shortstop and third base as Morris ran past with one finger on that broken right hand held high.
It was instantly an iconic image.
I found Cora in the dugout, his face stained with tears.
“We were so close,” he said. “We were one pitch away.”
When public-address announcer Jack Payne read Cora’s name as part of the all-tournament team — he was 3-for-5 in the title game with three RBIs — Cora scoffed and shook his head. He left for the locker room before the rest of his teammates were honored.
It was his final college game. Cora played 14 years in the majors, on the way returning to Rosenblatt Stadium while in Triple-A in the Dodgers’ organization.
The old place wasn’t the same, Cora told me last week. Cora attended the CWS this year for the first time since 1996 to work as an analyst for ESPN at TD Ameritrade Park, the five-year-old downtown gem. I asked Cora if he stopped by the South Omaha site of the old place.
Too busy, he said. No need to relive that ending, I thought.
Morris’ homer still resonates with fans everywhere, especially in Louisiana, of course. Thursday on the SEC Network at 9 p.m. ET, ESPN Films debuts “The Walk Off,” a 24-minute retrospective on Morris’ homer. Director Kenan K. Holley masterfully captured Morris’ backstory, from his LSU roots as a lightly recruited kid out of Alexandria, Louisiana, to the magical ending in Omaha.
“Going to Baton Rouge and going to Alexandria and seeing the effect that home run had on people,” Holley said last week in a QA session after the premiere of the film in Omaha, “they carry that with them now. Everyone remembered it.”
I can relate. This year marks my 20th CWS in the press box — I missed 1997 while out of the state — and no single image comes close to matching the weight of Morris’ homer.
I reintroduced myself to Morris in the theater lobby before the Omaha showing of “The Walk Off.” We hadn’t had reason to talk in 20 years. He played five seasons in the big leagues with the Pirates, Twins and Tigers and works today at a bank in Alexandria.
Far more than for his professional career, Morris is known for the CWS-winning homer.
“People remember vividly,” Morris said. “That’s the greatest thing about it for me — I get to meet these people and have a connection with them.”
His story, Morris said, illustrates that “anything is possible,” a message reinforced this week as underdogs Arizona and Coastal Carolina battle for the national title in the best-of-three CWS championship series, starting Monday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
“I felt there was some way, some how, our team was going to win,” he said. “I went into that game, feeling we were a team of destiny. I don’t know if that’s my little imaginary world, but that’s what I felt. And it came true that day.”