June 26, 2011

Steve Solloway: A trip to Omaha, 25 years ago

It was the last of its kind, a Maine team playing in the College World Series

No one has organized a golf outing or even a barbecue this summer to call the teammates back together. And the University of Maine also has let an anniversary year pass unnoticed.

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Rick Bernardo was an All-America first baseman for Maine, hitting 19 home runs while batting .428 with an .821 slugging percentage as a senior in 1986.

Photos courtesy of UMaine

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Scott Morse was Maine’s starting pitcher in its 1986 World Series opener against Arizona. The Black Bears opened a 7-0 lead before Arizona completed a comeback in the ninth inning to win, 8-7.

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RECORDS STILL STAND FROM 1986

TEAM SEASON RECORDS

Road wins (28), runs (528), batting average (.337), hits (729), total bases (1,117)

TEAM GAME RECORDS

Home runs (7), total bases (47)

INDIVIDUAL HITTING RECORDS

SEASON

Rick Bernardo: Slugging pct. (.821), extra base hits (39)

Gary LaPierre: At-bats (265)

GAME

Bill Reynolds: Home runs (4), RBI (9), total bases (16)

INDIVIDUAL PITCHING RECORDS

SEASON

Scott Morse: Wins, 15 (shares record)

GAME

Jeff Plympton: Strikeouts, 17

"To be honest, until you just said it, I had forgotten the date," said Steve Loubier, the South Portland native who pitched for Maine in that star-crossed season of 1986. Twenty-five years have passed for a baseball team that made Mainers proud.

And then broke their hearts.

This was the last of John Winkin's six teams to reach Omaha and the College World Series. Or, in the words of Gary Dube, an infielder from Biddeford, this team was the last of its kind.

It was a team comprising many Maine players who made themselves known throughout college baseball.

"The fans in Omaha adopted us," said Dube. "We were the underdogs whenever we played outside (of New England). A lot of people couldn't point out Maine with a compass. They just knew we were from up north where it always snowed."

Nine members of that 1986 team were drafted by major league clubs, not including Mike Bordick, who was signed as a free agent by the Oakland A's. Bordick played 13 seasons in the big leagues, far longer than the others.

This was the team of Rick Bernardo, the All-America first baseman who hit 19 home runs for Maine. Of Scott Morse, the pitcher from Vermont who won 15 games, and Bill Reynolds, the catcher from Auburn who hit four home runs in a game late that season.

The Black Bears won 28 games on the road in 1986, a school record that stands. But they couldn't win one in Omaha. With Morse pitching, the Black Bears went up on Arizona 7-0 in their first game. They lost 8-7 on a two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.

In the dugout at Rosenblatt Stadium, Maine players were crushed. Back in Maine, fans turned away from their televisions or radios. Arizona Coach Jerry Kindall remembers that Winkin was in front of him quickly, offering congratulations.

"I knew he was terribly disappointed," said Kindall, more than 20 years later. "But he handled it with such class, such dignity. So did his players, every one of them. I'll never forget that."

Infielder Dan Etzweiler remembered his own pain and said it couldn't match Winkin's.

"We knew he was in a state of despair that night," said Eztweiler from his home outside Philadelphia. "The next day it was business as usual."

Maine had an off day before losing 8-4 to a Louisiana State team that featured slugger Albert Belle. Arizona went on to win the national championship.

When it came time to vote for college baseball's coach of the year, Kindall cast his for Winkin. In fact, Kindall won the prestigious award.

"Wink always told us, the best thing in baseball was winning," said Loubier. "The second-best thing was losing, because it was still baseball."

Loubier has never obsessed over the losses, especially the heartbreaker to Arizona.

"We caught a few breaks ourselves that season," he said. "We won a few games we probably shouldn't have."

Maine went to the CWS with a 41-21 record, the most losses of any team in the field.

"We didn't have great stars," said Loubier. "We had a great team. Wink was the puppet master, pulling all the strings, and we had great camaraderie.

"We went up against a lot of powerhouse teams and we evened the playing fields."

Dube, Loubier and Eztweiler in separate conversations described the sights and sounds of the College World Series. Not surprisingly, they used the same phrases.

"It was surreal as a 20-year-old," said Etzweiler, who grew up in Allentown, Pa. "You had people of all ages asking for your autograph. We walked into a cathedral-like facility and felt at home. We had a chance to do something. It was exciting and I felt blessed."

"Maine was always kind of like the Cinderella team to the people in Omaha," said Loubier. "They got behind us."

Dube returned to Biddeford with a College World Series T-shirt. He wore it for 10 years or so under his uniform while playing in the Twilight League.

"It's all ratty now. The bigger the game, I had to wear it," he said.

Twenty-five years is a long time. Mark Rogers, the pitcher from Mt. Ararat now in the Milwaukee Brewers' farm system, was 5 months old when Loubier took the mound against LSU.

Ryan Flaherty, the Deering High star and minor league all-star in the Chicago Cubs' organization, was born a month or so after Reynolds had his four-home run day. What happened in 1986 becomes more distant with each passing year.

"When Maine hockey was at its peak, we were bigger than that," Dube said. "I was the kid from Biddeford, someone else was from Sanford or South Portland or Hampden. We were Maine kids."

Members of the 1986 team know times are different, although this year Nick Bernardo, son of Rick, played for Maine as a freshman, giving the Black Bears a link to the past.

The NCAA changed the tournament format in 1987 and it became more difficult for a New England team to make the World Series. Eventually, the high school talent that once waited for Winkin to beckon listened to recruiting pitches from other schools, particularly those from the warm-weather South. Several schools in the Northeast have dropped baseball.

Over the years, the men who played for Winkin have come together for reunions organized by former players like Mike Coutts. Many returned to Orono two years ago for a dinner honoring Winkin.

The 1986 team hasn't been singled out for its 25th anniversary, which has led more to nostalgia than griping.

"It's celebrated amongst ourselves when we talk to each other, when we do see each other," said Etzweiler. "I'm not bothered.

"Gosh, that year was the highlights and the lowlights of my career. It was an exciting, exciting time."

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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Additional Photos

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Catcher Bill Reynolds was one of several instate players on the UMaine team that went to the College World Series in 1986. Reynolds played at Edward Little High in Auburn.

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Back in 1986, a team from the University of Maine with a roster heavy with players from the state created memories at the College World Series. Back row, left to right: Coach John Winkin, Bob Whalen, Dan Etzweiler, Bill Reynolds, Scott Morse, Jim Overstreet, Dale Plummer, Jim Childs, Mike Ballou, Rob Roy; middle row: Jim McMichael, Mike LeBlanc, Rob Wilkins, Mike Bordick, Rick Bernardo, Jeff Plympton, Steve Loubier, Derek Aramburu, George Goldman, Colin Ryan; front row: Dan Kane, Jay Kemble, Marc Powers, Dave Gonyar, Gary La Pierre, Mike Dutil, Gary Dube, Don Hutchinson.

 


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