It’s been 20 years since the University of Alabama baseball team came up just one game short of the national championship. The 1997 team is widely considered to be Alabama’s best ever, and no team ever came closer to winning a national championship.
The 1997 team was a titanic force on offense. It had four players that hit 20 home runs, seven players with 15 home runs, and batted .340 as a team. The Crimson Tide hit 160 home runs in 70 games that season and averaged 9.7 runs per game.
These are the memories of the 1997, as told by players and coaches from that year. Part II can be found here.
Head coach Jim Wells had guided UA to the No. 1 seed in the College World Series in 1996, but LSU won the national championship. The core of that team returned, and a handful of key pieces were added. When the team gathered that fall, the goal was clear. Alabama was capable of winning a national championship in 1997.
Second baseman Joe Caruso: “I turned down the draft in 1996, when I was drafted by the Oakland As in the 19th round, and one of the things I told the pro scouts that sat in front of me was ‘I’m going back to Alabama to win a national championship and there’s no amount of money that you can give me that would deter me from going back.’”
Outfielder/pitcher Roberto Vaz: “They had players that were returning that were really good like Dustan Mohr, Joe Caruso, (David) Tidwell. We were lucky enough to get (pitcher) Pete Fisher to come. He transferred in. I was the No. 1 junior college transfer at the time. And then we had the No. 1 freshman with Danny Chavis coming from Sarasota. We were lucky with the amount of players that we got to combine with what was already there.”
Assistant coach Mitch Gaspard: “Just about everyone we signed and recruited, we hit on. A high majority of them turned out to be really good players.”
Third baseman Andy Phillips: “My freshman year we went to Omaha. There was expectation but it was new to us, too. The excitement coming into ‘97 after we’d been there and had a lot of returning players but also some really good incoming guys. The expectation was really high going into that year. Fortunately for us, we lived up to that expectation.”
Head coach Jim Wells: “You get out there in the fall and not only did you have a decent core of guys coming back, but we caught a break and recruited some high school and juco guys. I think most of those guys, Frick and Vaz and a couple others were All-Americans and you think you’ll get a portion of them. And all the stars aligned and they all got there.”
Right fielder Dustan Mohr: “In 1997 we knew when we got there, ‘We’re not just here, we’re going to take this to the end.’”
Pitcher Michael Daniel: “I signed at Alabama, and that was the goal. We’re going to the College World Series, we’re going to win a national championship. Anything less than that, I didn’t accept it. That’s why I signed there. When I went in the fall, that was everybody’s mentality: We were going to the World Series.”
Assistant coach Todd Butler: “The national championship was the goal. It wasn’t talk; it was real. To tell you how serious these guys were, when we won the SEC tournament in Columbus, Georgia that year, this team didn’t dogpile. They didn’t celebrate. They shook hands.”
The nucleus of the team had been to the College World Series as the No. 1 seed in 1996 but finished short of a national championship. Wells and the coaching staff added a couple more pieces to supplement its strong group of returners. Among those was Roberto Vaz, the nation’s No. 1 junior college player. Vaz became an everyday starter who hit .400 with 22 home runs. He was also a key left handed pitcher, closing games and coming in as a spot starter. He was a national finalist for the Golden Spikes, given to the best player in amateur baseball that year.
Wells: “We were able to pick up Roberto Vaz, who for one nine-month period was the best player any of us had ever been around, because he could do so many things. It was one of those rare times when you were solid at every position.”
Vaz: “When I went on my recruiting trips, I didn’t really know anything about Alabama football at the time. During my recruiting trip I went to a football game. I didn’t know that they said ‘Roll Tide Roll’ on kickoffs. It was just noise. I knew they were saying something but there were so many people screaming and I didn’t know what it meant. So I asked somebody ‘What are you saying during kickoffs?’ They looked at me like I was crazy. They said ‘Roll Tide Roll.’ Then I noticed the Tide boxes, the toilet paper rolls, everything clicked at once. The amount of passion they had for their team was incredible. I felt that at that time Alabama football was struggling and the baseball team was doing really well. So I thought that if the passion for the football team was like this, then the baseball team must be even better. I think what also signed the deal was that I was coveted by a lot of colleges, a lot of universities. Coach Wells was the only coach that didn’t really guarantee me anything.”
Caruso: “He bumped everybody back in the order. He made us a more complete lineup for sure.”
Gaspard: “The thing that sold me, that sophomore year when he was in junior college, (coach) Ty Harrington called me and said he was walking out to the mound… They had a guy named Frankie Rodriguez on the mound. Frankie later went on to pitch for the Red Sox for a little while. He’s playing in the final game against Blinn Junior College to go to Grand Junction for the World Series. He says ‘Frankie is done, he’s about 120 pitches. They have first and second, one out.’ Long story short, he walks out to the mound and he’s going ‘My god, I’ve got some guy in the bullpen I know can’t get them out. Frankie is done. What am I going to do?’ Roberto had not pitched for them all year. He played center field every day. (Harrington) says ‘As I’m walking to the mound, Vaz is jogging in from center field during the mound visit. I get to the mound and Roberto comes right up to me as I’m there and says “Hey, you want to go to the JUCO world series?” Yeah. “Give me the ball.” And sure enough, pop up, punchout, we go to Grand Junction.’ He was that kind of guy.”
The Crimson Tide got off to a hot start, opening up with 15 straight wins. The team was loaded top to bottom, but the lineup was Alabama’s strength. Nine players from 1997 would go on to be drafted, including seven hitters. Mohr and Phillips went on to have major league careers.
Phillips: “It wasn’t just the wins. It was how we were winning. Really right out of the gate, we were playing pretty well in every phase of the game. I think that just speaks to the preparation that the coaching staff, Coach Wells had.”
Butler: “The starters would say ‘We have to have 10 runs by the fifth inning so the guys on the bench can get their at-bats.’ And when they came in the game, they hit .300.”
Caruso: “Even though we were extremely talented, we all bought into each other. ‘Hey, nobody swing at this guy’s curveball in the third. Hey, this guy is trying to give us a fastball in. Don’t do it, turn it around.’ We would attack a team’s pitcher with all of us instead of just individual hitting. I think that was a big deal.”
Offense dominated that era of college baseball, but Alabama took it to another level in 1997. The program set school records for batting average, runs, hits, RBIs, home runs, triples, doubles, slugging percentage that year. All of those records still stand, 20 years later. It was exciting for fans, but frustrating to pitchers.
Vaz: “Gorilla ball is what they called it.”
Daniel: “I had a game against South Alabama in Tuscaloosa there, I gave up three home runs in a row to the same part of the field on really good pitches. It was a ball away at the knees, and they put a barrel on it and it went out to the exact same spot on all three pitches. I remember Coach Wells came out there, like ‘Dang, I haven’t seen that before.’ Stuff like that, you knew there were going to be home runs hit. You just tried to minimize how many. It was crazy how the ball would fly out.”
Wells: “We’re playing Ole Miss later in the year and I’m trying to motivate them, because we’re better than they were. I’m saying ‘Hey, this guy is really good and we’re going to have to play for a run early.’ Robbie Tucker is up and I give him a bunt. He can’t get it down, give him a bunt again, he looks even worse. I said ‘That’s it. Swing it.’ And he hits the longest home run… I don’t know what has happened in the last eight years but it was supposed to be the longest home run ever hit in that stadium. It hit the top of the light pole. I walked to the dugout and I said ‘You know what guys, I think that’s going to be the last signal I give all year.’ … I think that was the last signal I gave. Because you have to play for the homer. People were doing that because if you played for one run, you could easily give up three to five in the next inning.”
Caruso: “It made it a game where you never felt like you were out of a game because you could score seven runs in an inning.”
Alabama hosted LSU in the season’s final regular season series. LSU was the defending national champion, and most considered it to be a meeting of the two best teams in college baseball. The Crimson Tide needed to sweep the Tigers to win the conference championship.
Vaz threw a complete game to win on Friday, just his second career start. Then the Crimson Tide erupted in a 28-2 win on Saturday to clinch the series. But LSU recovered from losing the first two games and won the third game to clinch the conference championship.
Butler: “We knew in the fall of 1996 that we would play LSU to win the SEC and we would probably play LSU in Omaha. We knew that in the fall of 1996. The scouts were coming through and saying that the best two teams were LSU and Alabama.”
Vaz: “They had Brandon Larson who hit 40 home runs that year and was a Golden Spikes finalist along with myself that year. Really mirror images of each other.”
Gaspard: “Coach Wells, myself and Todd Butler were in the office on a Thursday, talking about pitching and how we’re going to attack LSU. LSU had quite a bit of left-handed hitting, so we were trying to go through, figure out who we wanted to start and those things. Vaz had been throwing mainly out of the bullpen for us. He came up to the office when the three of us were there and knocked on the door, and presented to Coach Wells. He said ‘If you start me on Friday night, I’ll get game 1. Just figure out the next two.’ He had really been throwing out of the bullpen all year. Vaz started that game and hit a big homer late. He started that game and basically rolled out and got that one.”
Mohr: “We knew it would be between us and LSU. We knew what they had coming back. They had an older team coming back too with some good young pieces added. To beat them as badly as we did, all year, not just the 28-2, I feel like we dominated them.”
Caruso: “Being a four-year starter at Alabama, I can tell you I’ve never seen anything like that (28-2 win) against another SEC team, especially the caliber of LSU. But if you know anything about LSU baseball, they figure out a way to get it done. I knew the next day was going to be a dogfight because LSU players are molded to win championships, not just to win games.”
Wells: “I know some of the kids on (LSU) and the coaches. They said (head coach Skip Bertman) got them together and they thought they were getting ready to get chewed out. He brought them into the outfield after the game and he says ‘Hey guys, let’s go back to the motel, get a good night’s sleep, get something to eat. They can’t possibly do that again.’ What a great line. A veteran coach. They came back the next day and basically threw the same guys we shelled the day before and won the Sunday game.”
Phillips: “You can be playing as well as you can be, and you can get beat. Certainly in that last game, that’s what happened. LSU, they beat us in that last game to win the SEC. But it doesn’t diminish anything we accomplished that year up to that point.”