By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Here’s the thing about dynasties. When championships come in bunches, like the five College World Series titles LSU captured between 1991 and 2000, it means that subsequent reunions and anniversaries of those triumphs will also come in bunches some time down the road.
LSU honored the 20-year anniversary of the 1997 national championship club at Alex Box Stadium prior to a game on May 6. Arguably Skip Bertman’s most dominant club, the ’97 Tigers set a Southeastern Conference record for victories (57) and an NCAA record for home runs that’ll never be broken (188). LSU homered at least once in all 70 games that season.
Shortstop Brandon Larson belted an SEC-record 40 home runs and drove in 118 runs, earning All-America honors. He and Doug Thompson, who famously recorded the final out to seal LSU’s back-to-back championships, threw out ceremonial first pitches side by side during the reunion ceremony.
Thompson, now the radio color analyst for LSU baseball games, sat down with Tiger Rag to share memories of that magical season, stories from the Baton Rouge Regional that refused to end and thoughts on how the sport has changed in the two decades that’ve passed since.
James Moran: It’s kind of eerie that we’re doing this interview before LSU takes on South Alabama in a midweek game. I know you’ve got some fond Jaguar memories from back in your playing days.
Doug Thompson: South Alabama beat us in the regional here and put us in our own loser’s bracket. We had to play Long Beach State, and literally we gave up a grand slam and were down three runs in that game. We were down to our last outs, and Eddy Furniss hit a home run to tie it 7-7 that I’m telling you — it was fate — cleared the wall by inches over the 330-foot marker. We ended up playing 11 innings before we scored seven runs to win, but it was like 2 a.m. and we had to come back and beat South Alabama twice.
When I tell you people were passing out, players and fans alike, it’s because the games were so great. The fans at that time were so rabid for another trip to Omaha that they were literally passing out due to dehydration. They wouldn’t even go to the concession stand to get water. Literally I can remember they would stop innings and then they’d just keep innings playing because people were getting carried out on stretches.
I remember I had to throw nine innings in the first game against South Alabama. No lie, I threw four pitches in the bullpen and Coach Bertman sat down next, lit up a stogie and said ‘Why’d you come here?’ Of course I’m all juiced up, I’ve only thrown four pitches but he says ‘That’s enough, you’re loose.’ I said ‘I came here to win a national championship.’ He says ‘Look, I need you to throw the whole game. Even if the score is 16-8, I need you to have tough skin and pitch the whole nine innings. If you do that, we’ve got a chance.’ Sure enough, I don’t know how many pitches I threw that day, but it was a bunch. We beat them in that opener and allowed ourselves a little bit of room with our pitching staff. We beat them handily in both games and went to Omaha like two days later and started off against Rice.
It was like the longest regional ever. We had rain for what felt like seven days. I remember once during that regional it got to a point where we had to eat, so we all got on the bus and went to TJ Ribs. We’re all there in our uniforms in a back room at the TJ Ribs off Acadian. And literally, I thought they were kidding, our coaches came in as soon as the ribs got to the table as said ‘Alright, boys, time to go.’ They’d moved the game time up 30 minutes so we could get in the rest of whatever game it was. I remember getting on the bus and guys having barbecue sauce on their pants because we had to eat and go so quickly. It was amazing. But it is apropos with South Alabama randomly here tonight as we talk about the ’97 season. They were a big part of the ’97 season.
JM: Do you remember going into that season thinking it’s ‘national championship or bust?’ The team was already defending champs.
DT: I remember at that point you could sense the vibe that just getting there wasn’t going to cut it. And we never thought about just getting there. It was always win it again. Coach Bertman, what he did that year to able to replace guys like Warren Morris and Jason Williams, to bring in a bunch of JUCO guys like myself and Brandon Larson, I don’t think anybody expected those guys as well as the guys who’d already been in the program to buy into the system. But Coach Bertman at that point was already the master. It was like playing for the Dean Smith of college baseball. We all knew that, so there was no rub back. Whatever he said we believed in. There was never a thought that, just because we were rebuilding, that we couldn’t go back to Omaha and challenge again.
Listen, we knew what nobody else did after the fall. This was before guys like you would get on twitter and in an instant say this is what the team looks like. Nobody was out here to see all of the homers that were leaving the park that fall. So we knew Larson and Blair Barbier were tougher than everyone thought they were going to be.
The biggest hurdle we had to get over was losing Kevin Shipp three or four weeks into the season. People don’t know it, but that guy was one of the best pitchers to come through this program. Imagine what losing Alex Lange this year would’ve done to this LSU team. Imagine what that would’ve done to this fan base. But I was blessed to get an opportunity to step up and be a weekend starter.
I fit right into Coach Bertman’s system. I was a location guy. I didn’t overpower people, but I believed in every sign that was put down and I was perfect for the system. The system was perfect for me. Between Patrick Coogan and me, we had a great year pitching off each other’s back.
And all of the great championship teams would beat the opponent’s No. 1 pitcher, but that team responded more than perhaps any of the others. I remember Tim Hudson and Auburn coming here when they were No. 1 in the country. Four teams from the SEC West were in Omaha that year. So Tim Hudson was on the bump against us on a Friday night and we chased him early. Like he had to run with his tail between his legs out to center field because we just hurt his feelings. The next day I threw the only complete-game shutout of my time here at LSU. Then we got rained out on Sunday. So they came in as No.1 and got their feelings hurt getting beat 15-1 in two games. Then we became No. 1. We’d started that season 19-0. So we were very confident and very tough between the ears.
Coach Bertman use to say that ’97 team was the toughest, grittiest team he’d ever coached. It was the team that didn’t believe that they couldn’t. I don’t know if it was dumb, young or some combination of the two. Some would say we were arrogant, but I’d say we were just confident that we had everything there at the time for LSU to continue being a beast. That ’97 team certainly carried on the tradition, and I’m really proud to be a part of it.
JM: So Skip had almost a mythical stature to him with you before you even got here?
DT: Skip was a legend when I got here. Skip said two words to me on my recruiting visit basically. My first bullpen, he watched me and literally I threw two pitches. I threw a fastball and a curveball and he said ‘Ok, wait a minute. That’s enough.’ Two pitches. He’s like ‘See, you can win here. You’ve got to trust me. If you trust me, I’ll make you an All America.’ And I couldn’t believe it. This was Skip Bertman telling me this! And he’d only seen two pitches! I remember telling my dad ‘Skip Bertman told me I could be an All American!’ The guy had already won three titles. And Morris had just hit that bomb. It was one of the biggest plays in sports history. I understand it’s not the biggest in sports history, but it is in college baseball history. Think about it: everyone knows where they were on that day. I happened to be a recruit that had just signed with LSU, so my house was going crazy when Warren hit that ball. And when I got here, there weren’t other programs on this level. This was the best program in the country. So when you came here as a recruit, whether you were or not, you felt like the cream of the crop. It was all because of Skip and what he did for this university.
JM: Obviously you guys had gone through so much just to get there. What do you remember about Omaha?
DT: It was a fight to get there, but again, the team was so tough and resilient. Tom Bernhardt jumped over a fence in the first inning against Rice to drag a home run ball back. Larson hit a home run late in the game against Matt Anderson, who was the first pick in the draft that year. Guy had a fastball that touched 101 mph, and Larson hit a home run over the scoreboard to put us ahead late.
Then we had two battles against Kyle Peterson and a Stanford team that had a couple other big time guys. The thing I remember about that is Kyle, who is from Omaha, had to write an article in the local paper and it was like ‘Another tough day at the ballpark…’ If you look at the stats, we hurt Kyle Peterson’s feelings in Omaha a couple times.
And then, here we are, Alabama. I’ve asked a couple of guys on that team what it was like on the way to the ballpark that day. They were all business trip, coaches screaming for everybody to keep their mouths shut. Our bus, we were in the aisles dancing to the jazz band. Complete opposite. Although they’d beaten us 28-2 in the regular season, we never thought there was a chance we’d lose. Skip had told Coogan and I the day before that he wanted us to both go as long and as hard as we could. He told Coogan he was going to start it and I was going to finish it.
Coogan must’ve punched out the side on nine pitches in the first inning. I remember thinking ‘Oh man, Coogan is electric and we just put a six spot on the board? This game is over in the first inning.’ At one point the momentum started to feel like it was turning, and Skip went to me to kind of stymie that. I got two big punch outs to get out of the inning and that was it.
We were able to score a few more runs and put out foot on their throat, if you will. And the rest is history. Being able to throw the last pitch and being at the bottom of the pile, I really don’t have words for that. I’d done that hundreds, if not thousands of times in my front yard in Biloxi, Miss., off the side of the shed. Who hadn’t? What 12-year-old pitcher doesn’t sit out in the front yard throwing into some net going ‘It’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs….’ To be able to do it was surreal then. It’s surreal now when I watch it. I sit here and watch the clip on that big screen every day, and it’s still surreal. And for my son, Cameron, it’s surreal for him. To be able to do something like that is so extra ordinary and such a blessing for me and my family. One of the most special times in my life.
JM: What was it like seeing all those guys again at the reunion?
DT: Seeing all those guys was awesome. Nobody has changed a bit, and I’d still put my money on that team. Just maybe now in like a beer league softball championship. Everybody has kids, and seeing who they’ve become as men and fathers and business people was really cool. I wish we had more time. Kristen Cain did an amazing job setting all of that up and everything. We got to sit down in the right field hitting cages during the game and we went to L’Auberge after. But it was just great to see everyone. That was a special year for everyone involved, and one that’ll never be lost in the history books because I don’t think another team is ever going to hit 188 home runs again in one season.
JM: That’s something I wanted to ask you about. Obviously you still watch a ton of games now, so how striking is the difference in the sport itself from those days?
DT: Oh, look at the ERAs. If you take all of the top pitchers from the Juiced Bat Era — my last year, 1998, was when they made the modifications — were at the absolute height of it. Take my numbers and Patrick Coogan’s numbers, because you’ll see strikeouts and things that’re similar to Anthony Ranaudo or even Aaron Nola, but you’ll see how many runs and hits you gave up is a huge difference.
I agree they had to make a change, but I think they went too far. I think they should’ve done it more slowly, and hopefully they’re doing things like playing with balls that have a lower seam to try to bring some distance back into the game. I hope they make a change in Omaha. That park is way too big to have a College World Series with the way the bats are right now. I’d like to see the fences brought in 20-30 feet around the ballpark. I think a lot of people would because home runs are exciting. But it’s one of those that had to be done. 188 home runs in 70 games is a lot.
JM: Last one I’ve got for you. How much have you enjoyed this role with the radio network?
DT: I love it. And I’ll love it as long as my kids don’t mind me being up here. I love baseball. I love LSU fans. I love talking about baseball and being connected to the program still. I just love every aspect of it.