The 1997 Alabama baseball team is still widely considered the best in school history 20 years after its time. The Crimson Tide went 56-14 and reached the national championship game in the College World Series behind a legendary offense.
LSU had beaten Alabama on the final day of the regular season for the conference championship, but the postseason was still ahead. Alabama went to the SEC tournament in Columbus, Georgia looking to prove they were the nation’s best team. Alabama lost a game to LSU, but came back to face the Tigers in the championship game.
Pitcher Michael Daniel, who had bounced in and out of the rotation through the year, got the start and the win. Alabama had beaten LSU in two of three regular season games and beaten the Tigers 12-2 for the SEC tournament championship.
Head coach Jim Wells: “At that point, you want to win the SEC tournament and it’s always special to beat LSU. You’re kind of now starting to think on a larger scale, going ‘If we’re the two best teams, we’ve beaten LSU three out of four here. We have a chance to win this thing.’ You don’t dwell on that. It was nice to win that, but when you have a team like that, you realize you have a chance to maybe win the whole thing.”
Second baseman Joe Caruso: “(The regular season) taught us a lesson going into the SEC tournament that we cannot get into a championship game against LSU and lose again. We beat them pretty handily that year in the SEC tournament for the championship, because we were refusing to lose to them in a championship environment again.”
Pitcher Michael Daniel: “I went out and gave up a home run to the second batter, which was Blair Barbier. It was like ‘Oh, man.’ I ended up giving up three hits but two of them were home runs. Once I got out there and calmed down, pitched my game, it turned out real well. Nobody knew what to expect when I went out there to throw, because it was so up and down for me during the season.”
Alabama had earned the right to host an NCAA regional that season. In 1997, the NCAA tournament had eight regionals with six teams. The six winners advanced to Omaha for the College World Series.
UA was 3-0 in the tournament and entering the regional championship against Southern Cal. The Trojans were talented and went on to win the 1998 national championship. Alabama needed a walk-off to win in extra innings and reach Omaha, but they took a major loss just before the game. Star outfielder/pitcher Roberto Vaz, one of the nation’s best players, was lost for the season to a freak injury.
Outfielder/pitcher Roberto Vaz: “We’re taking batting practice. USC was coming into the field. They were walking down the right field line, because you came in from right field at that time. With a round of seven, I hit six home runs and one off the fence right next to the entrance. As I was running to first, I’m looking at the ball I hit that’s going up against them. It scattered the team, kind of shocked (USC) a little bit because that ball came out of nowhere. And there was a ball on the chalk about halfway up the line, and I stepped on it and cracked a bone in my foot. It wasn’t a bad injury, but it was just bad enough where I couldn’t play. The break was completely through the fifth metatarsal, which is like your pinky bone. They call it a Jones fracture, which is usually a basketball injury from cutting.”
Assistant coach Mitch Gaspard: “I can remember it like it was yesterday, because I’m throwing BP. He comes down the line after his last swing, and he’s running to first base like we do. Steps on a ball and kind of rolls his ankle. He hobbles to the dugout and doesn’t say much. And so you’re thinking he rolled his ankle … They send him up to the hospital before the game started to get X-rays. We’re thinking he’s going to come back with a sprained ankle and he comes back with a cast, on crutches. We’re going ‘Oh my god, we just lost Vaz.’”
Assistant coach Todd Butler: “To this day, when I throw batting practice or I’m watching BP, I’m always making sure the balls are out of the way when they run around the bases or down the line.”
The injury to Vaz weighed heavy on that team’s history. Outfielder Mark Peer stepped in for Vaz and hit three home runs in Omaha to make the All-World Series team, but there was no replacing Vaz as a pitcher. Alabama’s pitching staff had also lost Manny Torres. The Crimson Tide were without two key arms in the most crucial part of the season.
Vaz: “I did try to see what my options were about playing, but our team doctor at the time advised against it. He felt like I had a good shot to get drafted and if I were to play with a broken bone in my foot, then I could possibly tear all the tendons and rip some cartilage off the bone. He was like ‘Even though you’re probably going to have surgery regardless, you probably don’t want to have that kind of extensive surgery on an extremity like your foot.’ That was a tough decision for me. I still think about it to this day.”
Four teams from the SEC West reached the College World Series that season. Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn all reached Omaha. UA eked past Mississippi State and future big-leaguer Eric Dubose in its opening game, but then lost to Miami in the second game to fall into the loser’s bracket. The team had to win its next three to reach the national championship. At those times, the national championship game was decided by one game. Teams didn’t have the chance to reset their pitching staffs.
Alabama turned to Michael Daniel in the national championship. He had held LSU to two runs in the SEC tournament championship, but the Tigers were ready. They took a 9-0 lead after two innings and went on to win 13-6 in the national championship. Alabama had only given up that many runs twice in that season.
Daniel: “The game starts and I gave up a leadoff home run. That was a good pitch, but I struck him out on the pitch before and Al Davis missed the call. I’m telling you, it was a changeup on the outside corner, and he missed it. The next pitch, fastball away, he flicks his wrist at it and hits it down the left field line, a left handed hitter. It kind of snowballs from there. It was like ‘Man, how do you slow them down?’ It continued. Then the pitcher behind me, and it went on to the next one and the next one. We didn’t give up runs like that. LSU was on that day. That’s all I can say about them. They were prepared for it. They had seen me two weeks before and I three-hit them through seven. Then all of a sudden, their toes are on the plate looking for that pitch away.”
Wells: “When you face a good team for the second time and it’s the same guy, they made some adjustments. They knew his best pitch was a fastball away, so they got on top of the plate, looked for it and jumped on us early.”
Right fielder Dustan Mohr: “Michael Daniel starting that game, that’s a tough spot for him. He didn’t have a lot of innings going in. To start in the national championship game against LSU, that was a tough situation for him to be in. He did as good as you can expect. They were so good offensively that you just couldn’t make mistakes or they were going to make you pay for them. That’s what transpired there at the end.”
Caruso: “They have a big first inning. Then Michael Daniel came out and settled back down for the second inning, and unfortunately I made an error that kept the inning alive and they ended up scoring three. With two outs, I make an error, then they walk two, and get a big double. If you just make the routine play right there, it remains a 6-0 game and I believe we have a chance to come back and win. I think the second inning was a bigger detriment to our team than the first inning, which I take a lot of responsibility for.”
Third baseman Andy Phillips: “In my mind, I look at it as they won two rings from us. The two games that had rings on the line, they won both of them. But they had to beat us. That was the thing. We didn’t give them anything. They had to beat us.”
Butler: “When we lost that national championship, that team was in shock. Because they fully expected to win that game. That was pretty tough.”
LSU had beaten Alabama again to win the national championship. The two teams split their six games that year 3-3 and entered the final day of the season with the same record. Players and coaches still wonder what could have been if Vaz had not been injured.
Gaspard: “I feel, and always will, if he’s in there, we’ve got a national championship in baseball. He’s that kind of player and had that kind of year.”
Caruso: “You never discredit the national championship winner in LSU, because they obviously made it there and deserved to win but I really would have liked to have seen our best versus their best. Roberto on the mound against Patrick Coogan, their best arm. It would have been a great baseball game. I said this the whole time, we were by far the best team in the country. We just had one of the best players in the country unable to play. When you take him out of the equation, they become the best team in the country because they have the right guy on the mound at the right time.”
Vaz: “I felt like the games we lost were both games that I’d be pitching. We had Heath (Henderson) pitch Game 1, I would have pitched Game 2, and then I would have came back and pitched that championship game. I think from a pitching perspective, that’s what really hurt more than anything. I think offensively we were good enough to pick up the slack with me not being in the lineup.”
Wells: “Years later I went over to East Mississippi Community College to help them coach. I remember the head coach, Chris Rose, goes ‘Coach, you know you would have won that World Series if Vaz hadn’t gotten hurt.’ I had never allowed myself to think that. Not saying that we would have, but I would have liked our chances if he hadn’t stepped on that ball.”
Butler: “I fully believe that if he would have been healthy, I think the University of Alabama would have won its first national championship.”
The season ended one game short of a national championship. But to those players and coaches, the 1997 team was still the high water mark of Alabama baseball. UA went to Omaha in 1996 and 1999 as Wells built a powerhouse. But the legacy of the 1997 team is on a separate level.
Wells: “That was the best team. We had some awfully good teams but when you have eight of your nine guys as home run threats, four of your guys hit 20 homers or more, you’ve got this guy named Vaz who hits over .400, hits over 20 homers, can pitch on Friday night to win the big game against their No. 1 guy or can close out one of the other two games, or two of the next three… It was a very good team with a freakish player in Vaz who brought a whole other dimension.”
Butler: “I wake up at night in a sweat with nightmares about how great that team was, because I haven’t seen a team like the ’97 team and I’ve been coaching 28 years.”
Mohr: “I played in the ALCS in ’02 and the division series in ’03, and those were good experiences. In both instances we just got beat by a better team. The ’97 championship has been the hardest thing to get over. I’ll never get over it, because I know we were better than the result of that day. That’s the one day that I think back and think ‘What would I have done differently?’”
Gaspard: “I’ll tell you what, ’96 was a really good club too. But ’97 was just more of an electric-kind of team. Every guy in the lineup could leave the yard at any time.
Daniel: “I still think that Alabama team was the best team in the country. I still think we were a better team, position by position, than LSU was. They were better than us that day. There’s not anybody I would swap for a player off of their team. That’s how solid it was all the way around.”
Phillips: “The amount of wins and those type of things, it’s hard to argue there was a better team than that 1997 team.”
Caruso: “The reason I turned down the draft in ’96 to come back and play the game, was because it was what we had hoped for: The highlight of our careers. It 100 percent was the highlight of my baseball career. Because you saw a group of guys from all over the country, from California to Mississippi to Pennsylvania to New York, Alabama, you name that team, we were from all over the place. We all came together for one common goal: to be the best baseball team that we could possibly be a part of.”
Vaz: “That college year was one of the most special years of my life. I’ve gone on to do some pretty amazing things and accomplishments in my life, personally. But as far as where Alabama baseball and that year ranks, it’s really high. I still come back to Alabama now. People remember when I played. I’ve seen kids that I took pictures with that are now adults. Alabama in general has had a profound effect on my life.”