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 the fourth and final story in the series.
By Jim Mashek
LSU arrived in Omaha for the 1989 College World Series as a sentimental favorite, a flawed team with a lot of grit and determination.
While at the CWS, pitcher Ben McDonald was named winner of the Golden Spikes award as the national Player of the Year. He was also selected by the Baltimore Orioles as the No.1 overall pick in the MLB draft, the first and still only LSU player ever chosen first.
LSU dropped a 5-2 decision to Miami in its CWS opener, but the Tigers would stay alive in the losers’ bracket with victories over Long Beach State and then Miami. That put the Tigers into another losers’ bracket showdown, this time with Texas.
LSU coach Skip Bertman mulled over his pitching options before deciding to go with McDonald, who had developed a painful blister on his pitching hand. The Tigers’ medical staff and trainers did everything they could to get McDonald ready for the semifinals against the Longhorns.
“With Ben’s blister, we really didn’t know what to do,” Bertman said. “Curtis Leskanic was really hot, pitching very well. But if we could win two more games, we’d be in the championship game, and I wanted to have Ben McDonald for that game.”
It didn’t happen, however, as Texas rallied for a 12-7 victory over the Tigers. LSU finished its season 55-17, tying the ’86 team record for wins in a single season. McDonald, Leskanic and Russ Springer moved on to professional baseball, but Bertman still had a strong nucleus intact for the 1990 season.
Cleanup hitter Wes Grisham, versatile infielder Keith Osik, second baseman Tookie Johnson and several pitchers – Chad Ogea, Paul Byrd and Mike Sirotka among them – returned for ’90. Gary Hymel moved into the starting role behind the plate and outfielder Lyle Mouton followed McDonald’s lead, leaving the LSU basketball team to concentrate on baseball full-time.
The Tigers won another SEC regular-season championship, shared the tournament title with Mississippi State and then came out of the losers’ bracket hosting an NCAA regional to advance to the CWS.
“After the 1989 team, it almost seemed like going to Omaha was an expectation,” Hymel said.
The Tigers again reached the CWS semifinals. They drubbed The Citadel 8-2 in their opening game but fell into the losers’ bracket with a 7-1 loss to Oklahoma State. LSU again beat The Citadel, this time by a 6-2 count, but Oklahoma State sent the Tigers home with a resounding 14-3 victory at Rosenblatt Stadium. Steve Webber’s Georgia Bulldogs would win the SEC’s first-ever national championship, edging Oklahoma State 2-1 in the title game.
By 1991, the Tigers were a full-fledged national powerhouse. Winning a national championship had yet to happen, but they were getting closer.
“We started eliminating the distractions,” Hymel said. “You get up there to Omaha, and there’s all these equipment reps with merchandise and giveaways. There’s lots of pro scouts. We got up there, and we basically said, ‘We don’t need this.’
“Skip closed batting practice (to the fans and media) and the environment was a little bit different. It’s like we were kind of on a mission.”
LSU was seeded fourth among the eight CWS teams, but the Tigers broke out the bats and dominated the competition. LSU rolled to an 8-1 victory over SEC rival Florida in first-round play, a 15-3 triumph over Fresno State in game two and a 19-8 blowout of Florida in game three to advance to the national championship game.
Then, playing for its first national championship in school history, LSU stopped Wichita State 6-3, with the Tigers dogpiling near the mound at Rosenblatt Stadium. Hymel, a senior catcher from Baton Rouge, hit four home runs in the tournament and was named the Most Valuable Player.
“Going to LSU was the best decision I ever made,” said Hymel, who reached Triple-A baseball in his seven-year pro career with MLB’s Montreal Expos.
Third baseman Chris Moock, who also grew up near Baton Rouge, said Bertman often reminded the players what LSU began building in 1984.
“When you got to LSU,” Moock said, “one of Skip’s points of emphasis was, ‘You owe a lot to the people who came before you.’”
That sort of continuity, captured by Bertman’s five national championships, is perhaps best explained by longtime LSU manager Russell Rome. He was a high school catcher at East St. John who earned his engineering degree “on the six- or seven-year plan” while toiling with Tigers’ baseball.
“Coach Bertman would always like to say, ‘We’re getting a Harvard education in baseball,’” Rome said. “To me, and to a lot of the guys in my time, it was more like a Harvard education in life.”