OMAHA, Neb. - It could come down to a game of home run derby in the 1997 College World Series, which opens Friday with six of the nation's top home run hitters and the NCAA record-setting team coming to Rosenblatt Stadium.
Alabama coach Jim Wells said during a coaches news conference Thursday that he learned what the baseball does in Omaha when he came in as the top seed last year.
"The thing I remember is we lost 47 baseballs in the first two days of BP (batting practice) last year," Wells said. "It was amazing how the ball flew out of here. I watched the highlights of the World Series last year and we're hitting homers and our center fielder is diving over the fence. Balls are just flying out.
"I didn't realize it was like that until I got here," Wells said. "But with our particular team, I like that facet of it."
Top seed Alabama (52-12) meets Mississippi State (46-19) Saturday in the final first-round game.
There were a CWS-record 48 homers hit in the 1996 series, which ended fittingly on a two-out, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth by Warren Morris that gave LSU a dramatic 9-8 victory over Miami.
Without Morris and several other members of that title team, LSU coach Skip Bertman returns with a club that this year broke the NCAA season record for home runs with 178. Alabama wasn't far behind with 153. UCLA hit 140, first-time qualifier Rice hit 119 and Stanford 99.
Rice has NCAA individual leader in Lance Berkman, who hit 41, while LSU brings in Brandon Larson with 37.
Bertman, whose second-seeded Tigers (53-13) meet No. 7 Rice (47-14) tonight, won't blame all the homers on "juiced baseballs" or alloy bats. He believes the weight room and major league draft have as much to do with it as anything.
Bertman said more young athletes are dedicated to getting bigger and stronger in the weight room, while the major league draft gobbles up most of the top-notch high school pitching prospects before colleges have a chance to get the best arms enrolled.
But, Bertman and the other coaches noted, there is no doubt Rosenblatt is a hitters' park. Pitchers have noticed, too.
UCLA All-American Jim Parque will get his chance to try to keep the ball in the park when the fourth-seeded Bruins (45-19-1) make their first CWS appearance since 1969 Saturday against fifth-seeded Miami (49-16).
"I've never played here and have only seen a lot of homers hit on TV," he said with a big smile. "The key is going to be keeping the ball low, basically, and hoping the wind doesn't blow out."
Stanford All-American Kyle Peterson grew up in the Omaha area and spent a lot of years watching baseballs fly out during CWS games.
"There's likely to be a lot of balls leave the park," he said. "It happens every year. It's a ballpark built for that to happen. I just hope I'm not on the mound when it does."
The third-seeded Cardinal (43-18) open the tournament this afternoon against No. 6 Auburn (49-15).
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