Editor’s note: In honor of former LSU baseball coach and athletic director Skip Bertman’s 82nd birthday on May 23, freelance writer Jim Mashek wrote a four-part series of the formative years of Bertman’s eventual five-time national champions dynasty. Mashek covered LSU baseball for the Morning Advocate in Baton Rouge from 1985 until 1989 and as a freelancer in 1990. This is Part 2.
By Jim Mashek
Former LSU baseball coach Skip Bertman’s fourth Tigers’ season in 1987 was a year of ups and downs, which included outfielder Albert “Joey” Belle’s histrionics and occasional temper tantrums.
It all came to a head in the SEC tournament at Georgia when some Mississippi State fans taunted Belle with racist slurs. One State fan brandished a long 2×4 while deriding Belle from a hill beyond right field. Belle left the playing field to chase the abusive fan.
When the Tigers returned to Baton Rouge after going 1-2 in the SEC tourney, Bertman decided if Belle wanted to remain with the team, he would have to apologize to his teammates, the fans and the media for his behavior over a long, trying season.
Belle declined, and Bertman dismissed him from the team before LSU made the short trip to compete in an NCAA regional as the third seed at the University of New Orleans.
Cal State-Fullerton was the No. 1 seed, followed by UNO and LSU, but sixth seed Southern University did the crosstown Tigers a solid by beating Fullerton 1-0 in the first game of the tournament. LSU knocked off Tulane and UNO before defeating Fullerton with a CWS berth on the line, and the Tigers were going back to Omaha.
LSU closed ranks after Belle’s departure and truly came together as a team.
The Tigers had one .300-plus hitter – outfielder-third baseman Jack Voigt – in their lineup after Belle’s exile. But the pitching staff was deep, with weekend starters Stan Loewer, Mark Guthrie and Gregg Patterson (SEC series opened with Saturday doubleheaders in those days) along with closer Barry Manuel and freshmen standouts Russ Springer and Ben McDonald.
The 6-foot-7 McDonald played LSU basketball during his first year and got a late start in baseball. He gave up the grand slam to Stanford’s Paul Carey that lifted Stanford to a 6-5 walk-off victory over LSU in the College World Series, ending the Tigers’ season at 49-19. They went 2-2 in the CWS.
“We had some very good baseball fortune that year,” Bertman said. “It was tough, for everybody, especially Ben, to lose that way in Omaha.”
McDonald left town and went to work in summer ball – in Alaska, of all places – before returning to campus ready to assume a new role with the Tigers’ pitching staff.
“It’s weird, sometimes, how setbacks can affect you mentally,” McDonald said. “That grand slam (against Stanford) actually set me forward. . .I never wanted to feel that kind of pain again.”
Bertman brought in some fresh faces for the 1988 season, including junior college standouts catcher Mike Bianco and outfielder Craig Cala. McDonald and Springer were back to bolster the pitching staff, as McDonald decided to concentrate on baseball full-time.
In the final week of regular-season play, LSU got swept in a three-game series at home by Auburn. The Tigers then traveled to Mississippi State for the SEC tournament and won just one game in Starkville. They waited on NCAA tourney bid with a solid but not spectacular 39-21 record. But. . .
“We didn’t make the NCAA tournament that year,” Bertman said.
McDonald and Bertman were part of the U.S. Olympic team that summer, McDonald as a pitcher and Bertman as an assistant coach.
Bertman recruited some promising pitchers for the ’89 squad, which would go down as one of the most memorable in school history.
“We knew we had big-league pitching coming back for 1989,” junior first baseman Pete Bush said. “Everybody was ready to go the next fall.”
McDonald had become the most celebrated player in college baseball. He had a commanding presence on the mound, exceptional control and a strong repertoire of pitches.
Pro scouts began following him everywhere. But as it turned out, LSU had six future major league pitchers on the 1989 roster – McDonald, Springer, lefty John O’Donough, freshmen right-handers Paul Byrd and Chad Ogea, and Curtis Leskanic, one of the most colorful players LSU baseball has ever seen.
“Players who came to play for me, they had to be mentally tough,” Bertman said.
That may have been the great equalizer for the ’89 LSU team that sometimes struggled defensively, particularly on the left side of the infield. The Tigers went 18-9 in SEC regular season play, finishing second behind Mississippi State, before they hit the road to play in the SEC tournament at Florida.
By this point in his LSU tenure, Bertman almost had a disdain for the SEC tournament. The Tigers were usually already assured of an NCAA tournament bid, and often hosted the six-team regionals that determined the eight teams for the College World Series.
But after going 1-2 in the SEC tourney, it wasn’t a sure thing that the Tigers would host a regional.
“We thought we had an outside shot at hosting,” McDonald said. “They were playing regionals up in Connecticut, in those days, and we thought we might go up there as a No. 1 seed. Maybe go to Texas and be a No. 2 seed in Austin. Nobody really thought we’d be going to Texas A&M.”
Alas, that was the reality. LSU would be the No. 2 seed in College Station.