25 Guys Pulling on the Same Rope
Winning championships is all about timing. The last team standing gets hot at the right time. In its quest for the 1994 national championship, the Oklahoma baseball team sealed the deal with one of the most impressive finishes in NCAA Division I tournament history.
The Sooners played 74 total innings during that year's tournament and trailed for just two innings total – 4-1 in the bottom of the fifth in a 10-4 victory against Stanford at the Central Regional Austin; and 2-1 in the bottom of the first in a 4-3 victory against Arizona State at the College World Series in Omaha that required 11 innings.
OU assembled an 8-0 NCAA tournament record to claim the program's second national crown, its first since the 1951 team won the fifth CWS ever staged.
Many factors made the 1994 Sooners special. They were far more talented than people acknowledged, entering that season unranked in the national preseason polls. Multiple players stepped up and delivered in clutch moments. "From top to bottom, our (starting) nine and our pitching was better than their nine," head coach Larry Cochell said.
Cochell credited unwavering leadership coming from multiple directions, particularly from First-Team All-American second baseman Rick Gutierrez, Second-Team All-American shortstop Rich Hills, rightfielder Darvin Traylor, third baseman MJ Mariani and other players who returned from a disappointing 1993 season (31-24) that came on the heels of a 1992 CWS appearance.
"There was one ring we were out to win, and that's the one they give for the World Series."
- Rick Gutierrez
"A lot of kids came back and they came back more determined because that wasn't a very good year," Cochell said.
Leading the charge was Gutierrez, who recalled watching the 1993 CWS at home and saw one of his junior college teammates playing for Texas A&M. "I was with my friend and I told him, 'You know what? Next year we're going to win in Omaha.' " A week later, Coach Cochell called me and he asked me if I was going to sign (after being drafted in the 22nd round) or if I was going to come back and I told him, 'Coach, I'm coming back. We're going to win this whole thing.' "
Last February, Gutierrez was honored at the Diamond Dinner that kicked off a 25th anniversary celebration of the national title team. Gutierrez stunned onlookers when he presented OU with the game ball from the final out of the championship game. He had put the ball in his pocket immediately after the final out, enclosed it in a box and the ball went untouched for a quarter century until he returned it to Norman for the celebration.
It was the intangibles that molded this underrated collection of talent under the motto "25 Guys Pulling on the Same Rope." It was a tight group that to this day still speaks glowingly of their experiences.
"I think about it almost every day," said closer Bucky Buckles, who at the time set a Big Eight and school record with 14 saves.
"We weren't, on paper, the best team, but we had the chemistry and camaraderie."
- Mark Redman
"We had a really good group," said first baseman/designated hitter Damon Minor, who paired with twin brother, Ryan, a two-sport star who joined the team after basketball season. "We all got along. The main thing is, we all hung out. Didn't matter if it was the baseball field, at someone's apartment, a cookout, football tailgating. We were always together. I think that's why we jelled so well together. We just trusted each other so much."
Left-handed ace Mark Redman was among the nation's elite pitchers in his two seasons at OU, going a combined 29-6 with a 2.47 ERA and 294 strikeouts in 1994-95.
"We weren't, on paper, the best team, but we had the chemistry and camaraderie of the team to go out there and not be afraid of any powerhouse team and go out there and play small-ball and get the job done," Redman said. "It took everyone. Even down to the players that didn't get to play that often and down to the players that kept the team morale up."
Remarkably, Redman experienced his success while throwing to Javier Flores, a converted shortstop who started at catcher as a true freshman and wound up being one of the top receivers in school history.
The Sooners entered the month of May with a 32-14 record, then closed out the season by winning 18 of their last 21 games. The final loss is what set off the sprint to home. It was a 6-3 loss to rival Oklahoma State in the Big Eight championship game at All Sports Stadium on May 22. From that point forward, OU not only would never lose again, it would barely trail again.
Pitcher Tim Walton: "Going through the loser's bracket of the Big Eight Tournament, that held our team accountable. A lot of good players learned who they were, going through the loser's bracket. I learned who Coach Cochell was. I'll be honest, I had never seen a coach tell the players to go back to the hotel for air conditioning. This guy got it."
"We focused on what our prize was after that loss and we went after it."
- Bucky Buckles
Mariani: "Everyone was just somber. We knew we were better than that. What are we going to do? How are we going to find a way to get this thing done? Everybody just kind of checked themselves. Everybody kind of looked in the mirror and said, 'What can we do to just find a way and just get it done?' It started after that tournament. Everybody's attitude changed."
Gutierrez: "Losing that Big Eight championship game against Oklahoma State, I knew that I came back for a reason. I knew that we didn't come back to win the Big Eight. We tried and we came up short. So I told the team, 'Big Eight is over. We've got better plans now and we got to get ready to go to the College World Series.' "
Minor: "After that loss to OSU, we were like, 'You know what, we're not going to end the season this way. That kind of kept our fire lit."
Buckles: "We focused on what our prize was after that loss and we went after it."
OU had five all-conference selections during the regular season (Gutierrez, Hills, Traylor, Redman and Buckles) and the Big Eight Player of the Year in Gutierrez.
The Sooners also had multiple candidates for Most Outstanding Player at the CWS.
"It wasn't just one guy. It was just one of those magical times. It was really special."
- Damon Minor
Here's how loaded OU was: Gutierrez batted .563 in the CWS (still the seventh-highest batting average in tournament history), but it was junior centerfielder Chip Glass who was tabbed MOP. During the regular season, Glass had three home runs, the same number of homers he had in the CWS alone. He also turned in clutch defensive plays, including a potential game-saving diving catch in a 4-3 victory over Arizona State.
"That's the thing about that team. It wasn't just one guy," Damon Minor said. "It was Chip Glass one day, it was Rick Gutierrez, it was Aric Thomas leading off, Darvin Trayler, Javy Flores, my brother (Ryan). It was just one of those magical times. It was really special."
In an Omaha World-Herald story, Glass recalled after that Big Eight championship loss to OSU one of his teammates was moaning about how he had "lost his chance for a (Big Eight championship) ring."
Gutierrez got in the player's face and told him, "I don't give a crap about that ring," Glass said. "He said there was one ring we were out to win, and that's the one they give for the World Series."
OU was sent to hostile territory for the six-team NCAA Central Regional -- Austin, Texas -- where it was joined by rival Texas and perennial power Stanford.
After disposing of No. 6-seeded Arkansas State 10-3, the top-seeded Sooners posted a 10-4 victory over No. 4-seeded Stanford. That was followed by a 15-3 rout of No. 3-seeded Texas and a 6-3 victory over the Longhorns to win the regional and advance to OU's second CWS in three seasons.
Conditions were brutal in Austin. The Sooners played nothing but days games with temperatures in the high 90s and reportedly reaching 114 degrees on the artificial turf. "I remember that turf was so hot," Damon Minor said. "I figured out why they (the Longhorns) wore white cleats real quick. It was fun beating them on their own field."
Players agreed the demanding conditions in unfriendly territory helped prepare the team for the challenge that awaited in Omaha.
Many members of the 1994 team have remained in baseball and softball as longtime coaches and instructors. Four members of the squad reached the major leagues: former All-Stars Redman and Russ Ortiz as well as the Minor brothers.
Three were among the nation's elite softball coaches that competed at this year's Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City.
Walton just finished his 14th season as softball head coach at perennial national power Florida and Thomas serves as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. Pitcher Kenny Gajewski (6-2, 3.62 ERA in 1994) just finished his fourth season as Oklahoma State's softball head coach, advancing the Cowgirls to the WCWS as a No.13-seed after eliminating defending national champion Florida State on its home field.
Ryan Minor is manager for the Class A Frederick (Md.) Keys while Damon Minor is the hitting instructor for the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats. Buckles is a pitching instructor for local kids in Victorville, Calif., and Gutierrez is a former minor league manager. Others still involved in baseball are Hills, plus former pitchers Steve Connelly and Shawn Snyder.
Story written by John Rohde, special contributor to SoonerSports.com.