Looking Back... Relive Miami's 1982 National Championship
May 25, 2007
"It's not how you start; it's how you finish." That may not be the most original aphorism ever uttered but former Miami baseball coach Ron Fraser was fond of it. And his 1982 team proves the accuracy of the sentiment. Perhaps the least talented of the six teams Fraser had taken to the College World Series, this group caught fire at the right time, riding an eight-game winning streak to Miami's first baseball national championship.
It's said that great college programs don't rebuild, they reload. Miami certainly was a great college program in the early 1980s. It had advanced to the College World Series in 1974, 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1981. The College World Series is a riveting week for fans but it is a pressure-packed cauldron for coaches and players. Eight teams arrive in Omaha, fresh off regional championships, convinced that this is their year. Seven end their seasons with losses. That happened to Miami five times.
Nobody expected the 1982 team to be the one to break that streak. There were huge holes to fill. Miami had seven players drafted following the 1981 season. Catcher Frank Castro went in the first round. Pitcher Neal Heaton took his 42-7 Miami career mark into a 12-year big-league career. Third baseman Mike Pagliarulo went on to play 11 seasons in the majors.
Fraser reloaded. Junior college transfer Nelson Santovenia replaced Castro behind the plate. Phil Lane took over at third and had a monster season, as did first baseman Steve Lusby, who would lead the team with a .374 average, and pitcher/DH Sam Sorce, who would drive in 74 runs. Fraser surrounded these sluggers with a team of jackrabbits, right fielder Calvin James, second baseman Mitch Seoane, shortstop Bill Wrona, left fielder Javier Velazquez, and freshman center fielder Doug Shields among them. Miami would steal at the drop of a hat, hit and run, take an extra base. The Hurricanes were always putting pressure on the opposition's defense, pounding the rock until it cracked.
Of course, they had to stop the other guys from scoring. The 1982 team gave up almost one earned run per game more than its predecessors. There were some struggles early, such as a 14-13 loss to Seton Hall and back-to-back losses to New Orleans. Florida International beat Miami three times, while the Hurricanes also lost to Stetson and Eckerd. But the team learned from its struggles. Mike Kasprzak emerged as the ace of the staff, Danny Smith became the closer, while fellow hurlers Sam Sorce, Rob Souza, and Eddie Escribano gained command and confidence. The defense solidified behind the up-the-middle quartet of Sandovenia, Seoane, Wrona, and Shields.
One of the realities of baseball in Florida is that the teams play lots of home games early. That's a function of geography. Snow-bound northern schools spend the spring down South and it's tough to get much further south than Miami without leaving the country. The Hurricanes played their first 20 games at home. That's an advantage of course, but the coin has another side. Demands for games are high, open dates are rare, and everybody is shooting for a high-recognition team like Miami.
Lane saw both sides of that phenomena. Before becoming a Hurricane, he played at nearby Broward Community College. "We would scrimmage Miami at the beginning of the season," he recalls. "Not official games, didn't count in the record books, or anything. But we got so psyched for those games. It was our season. The same thing happened when I was at Miami. Every time we went out on the field, opponents played their hearts out. There were no days off."
Having a bull's eye on your back helped Miami grow up fast. So did having Fraser on your back. Kasprzak recalls, "At times he was patient, at times he would let us have it. He blasted us when we needed it but only when we needed it. Then he knew how to bring us back up again."
Lane adds, "Coach Fraser was the motivator. We had such confidence in him. When he told us we could do something, we never doubted it."
Santovenia notes, "Coach Fraser was the guy who set the agenda. He established the goals, told us where we were going."
Fraser had a lot on his plate. He constantly had to juggle coaching with fund-raising, promoting, media relations, putting paying customers in seats. Fortunately, when he delegated, he delegated to a bright up-and-comer, assistant coach Skip Bertman. Kasprzak feels that Bertman had "the greatest baseball mind I've ever encountered. He knew what was going to happen before it happened. It was scary how much he knew."
Santovenia adds, "I was new to the program and we had a young pitching staff. Coach Bertman told us he would call most of the pitches to take the pressure off. It was up to us to execute."
Miami made some big road trips late in the season. The Hurricanes won three out of four at South Carolina, including a 19-2 pounding that ended the series. Miami beat Georgia Tech twice in Atlanta, then finished the regular season in Tempe against loaded Arizona State, the defending NCAA champions. The home team won two of three but all three games went down to the final pitch.
The extended road trip fine-tuned Miami for the postseason. Lane says, "We just played and played and got better by playing."
Santovenia agrees. "Sure we lost some games to teams that maybe we shouldn't have lost to. But the coaches made sure we learned from those losses. Learn and grow."
Kasprzak adds, "The Arizona State series was huge. These guys were really good and we proved we could play with them."
Still, Miami ended the 1982 regular season with 17 losses; the 1981 team lost 8 times in the regular season. Miami opened the NCAA Tournament at home. It was a four-team, double-elimination affair but Miami didn't need the mulligan. They blasted Stetson 18-2, South Florida 9-4, and Stetson again, 15-3.
Smith says, "Winning the regional gave us tremendous confidence. We became very focused. We looked forward to practice, we looked forward to talking about practice."
The College World Series was a homecoming for Lane, who was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa; lived in Omaha until he was nine; and learned baseball watching the local minor league team. "We played in some great places," says Lane, "but I never got the chill I got when I stepped on the field at Omaha. I had grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in the stands. I was pumped."
Sometimes this kind of thing backfires, but not for Lane. He hit a three-run homer in the second inning of Miami's opener against Maine, part of a seven-run onslaught that drove Maine ace Bill Swift from the mound and gave him his first loss after nine wins. Sorce scattered five hits in seven innings, while Souza and Smith finished up. The final was 7-2.
Wichita State was next, fresh off a 7-0 win over California-Fullerton. Kasprzak started against Wichita State ace Don Heinkel who was 16-3. Back-to-back home runs by Lane and Santovenia in the fourth staked Miami to a 4-3 lead going into the bottom of the sixth. But Phil Stephenson led off that inning with a single for the Shockers.
This was an opportunity for Wichita State. Stephenson was college baseball's top base stealer and there was little question that he would try to get the tying run to second. But it also was an opportunity for Miami. Earlier in the week Miami had practiced a trick play designed for such a situation. The play is reminiscent of the joke about the circus dog that jumps off a tower 90 feet high into a pool of water six inches deep. It's a great trick, but you can only do it once.
Kasprzak says, "It took a perfect storm for it to work." The storm arrived. It was twilight, meaning it was hard to see the ball. Stephenson was an aggressive base runner and the game situation practically demanded a steal. Stephenson had a big lead. Bertman called the play. Kasprzak stepped off and threw over. Stephenson dove back. They did it again; same result.
The third time was the charm. Kasprzak stepped off and faked a throw to first. Santovenia wasn't involved in the play but had the best seat in town. "Everybody sold the play," he recalls. "Mike made a really good, hard fake." First baseman Lusby leapt for the imaginary bad throw, cursed, and started chasing it down. Second baseman Seoane and right fielder Mickey Williams sprinted to the bullpen area, where several Miami players were ducking to get out of harm`s way. Stephenson bolted for second, Kasprzak calmly tossed the ball to Wrona and the stunned Stephenson was out.
The play has been everything from the Great Deception to the Grand Illusion. Even Lane was fooled. "I wasn't in on it," he laughs. "I was scrambling to third, getting ready for the play there. I was fooled and I knew we had practiced it."
Kasprzak realizes he'll probably be telling this story to his great-grandchildren. He says, "It was within the rules, it was ethical, and it worked." He cautions, "It was a lot of fun and I can talk about this forever but people need to remember that this was one out in a week of outs. We had to make a lot of other plays to win."
In fact, Wichita State got the tying run to second in the ninth but Smith picked him off, sealing the 4-3 win.
By this point junior Smith was emerging as Miami's secret weapon. Kasprzak says, "Danny was a good pitcher all season long. But by the end of the year he was virtually un-hittable."
Santovenia adds, "Danny was a fiery competitor. When he took the mound, you just knew the other team was in trouble. Lights out."
Smith wasn't born a reliever. He struggled as a starter; he was, by his own admission, "immature." Bertman suggested a change and Smith went along. It wasn't easy. "Coach Bertman demanded perfection, every inning, every pitch. When you messed up and came off the mound, you went to the other end of the dugout. You were held accountable and that's the way it should be. If you listened and you worked, you couldn't help but improve. I lost the fear factor."
Smith became the prototype reliever. He used his fast ball to get ahead in the count, a change-up to keep batters off balance, and a knee-buckling curve to put them away. Smith didn't nibble. "My attitude was `this is what I've got, see if you can hit it.' I went right after them. I threw what had to be thrown."
Top-ranked Texas followed Wichita State. Sorce was matched against a pitcher named Roger Clemens. Yes, that Roger Clemens. The tension was unbearable. Smith says, "I was never so tight. Every pitch and every play meant something. It was exhausting."
Spike Owen led off the game with a triple for the Longhorns and scored on a single. Texas wouldn't score again. Lusby and Seoane drove in runs for Miami and the pitchers and the defense made it hold up. Sorce went five, while Smith finished with four scoreless innings, allowing only two hits and striking out five. Smith says, "We certainly didn't take anything for granted but I think we won the title with that game."
Miami was the last undefeated team left in the double-elimination tournament. Opening-day victim Maine had fought its way up through the loser's bracket with wins over Cal-Fullerton and Stanford. Maine knocked out Souza early in the rematch but Escribano came in and stopped the bleeding. Miami led 4-3 going into the top of the ninth before erupting for six runs; Seoane and Sorce each drove in two runs in the inning. Smith gave up a run in the bottom half of the ninth, making the final 10-4.
Wichita State eliminated Texas 8-4, bringing up another rematch. Kasprzak got the nod, again matched against Heinkel. By this point the Miami ace was approaching 160 innings for the season. "I know that sounds like a lot," he says, "but it didn't seem that way at the time. I guess I just didn't get tired."
Wichita State jumped to a 3-0 lead, propelled by a two-run homer by star slugger Russ Morman. Again, Miami relied on the big inning. Six runs came across in the fifth, the last three on a home run by Lane. It was Lane's 25th home run of the season, a Miami single-season record that has withstood the challenge of such notables as Greg Vaughn, Pat Burrell, and Aubrey Huff.
Miami added to the lead with a run in the sixth and a pair in the eighth. Smith worked the last two innings for the 9-3 win. He vividly recalls the last inning. "I just stopped and looked around at everything, the crowd, the stadium, just savoring the moment. I knew it would never come again."
Finally, Miami was the last team standing, the first team from the southeast to win the title since Wake Forest in 1955. Smith was named Most Outstanding Player, while Lane and Santovenia joined him on the All-Tournament team. Interestingly, Wichita State placed five players on the All-Tournament team. Smith says, "I didn't get a trophy. But if I had, I would have figured out a way to cut it into six or seven pieces, one for everyone who deserved that award."
Fraser seemed stunned by the title. He told the press, "This is something I've been chasing since 1974 and something I thought we'd never get this year. I told them they couldn't expect to be as good as our past teams because they weren't as smart, because they made so many mistakes. We did play poorly early. We'd get in a slump and didn't know how to get out of it. We lost a lot of games, more than we would normally lose but the losses were worth it. We were paying our dues. Then the mistakes became fewer and fewer. They began to play well under pressure. They wanted to prove me and everyone else wrong."
Fraser went on to win another title in 1985 before retiring and Miami has captured two more since under his replacement Jim Morris. Bertman built a powerhouse at LSU, winning five NCAA titles.
Baseball remains important to these players. Quite a few are still involved in the game. Santovenia is a construction supervisor in Miami, while Smith is a policeman in Coral Gables but both help coach local high school teams. In fact, Smith just helped Miami's Palmetto High School to the state semifinals.
Many of the players went on to the pros but only Santovenia made it all they way, playing 297 games in the majors, mostly for Montreal. "It was a down-to-earth team, playing for the same goal. We all did our part and played together. Sometimes, that's a better recipe than having two or three superstars. Great pitching and timely hitting will carry you a long way."
Kasprzak, who's in the mortgage business in Jacksonville, agrees. "Other teams were better on paper but we had a knack for getting it done. We struggled all season but maybe the struggling helped prepare us for the College World Series."
Phil Lane is a contractor in Fort Lauderdale. He sums up, "It's carried over for 25 years. It was a great experience with a great bunch of guys. You can't put a price on it and you can't take it away."
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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