NC State baseball: ’68 College World Series team set standard

calexander@newsobserver.comJune 14, 2013 

— Alex Cheek remembers N.C. State’s team bus leaving its hotel in Omaha, Neb., first making one turn, then another.

Laughter filled the bus that day in 1968. It was a baseball team happy to still be playing in June.

Then, there was one last turn. In the distance was Rosenblatt Stadium.

“It was a big stadium full of people,” Cheek said. “Everything got real quiet on the bus. It was like, ‘Whoa, where are we?’ ”

Welcome to the College World Series, boys.

The Wolfpack won’t be making quite the same ride this year. For the first time since ’68, the Pack is back in Omaha, Neb., but it will playing at TD Ameritrade Park. Rosenblatt is gone, the old ballpark now razed, but the experience should be much the same.

The Wolfpack, which beat Rice in the NCAA Super Regional, has talked and dreamed of going to the College World Series this season.

It’s here. The coaches and players did it.

Those who played in 1968, on a team coached by Sam Esposito, see much of themselves in this year’s team.

“The pitching is very solid, the team speed is very close,” said Cheek, a senior left-hander in ’68.

Mike Caldwell, a freshman left-hander on the ’68 team who won 137 games in the majors, said the lineups also were similar.

“There’s no real go-to guy,” Caldwell said. “Trea Turner is as close as they have to a go-to guy, and (Tarran) Senay has a little power, but there’s no player where the other team says, ‘This is the one guy we have to shut down to beat them.’

“But everyone contributes. And it’s a scrappy bunch that finds a way to win.”

The ’68 team did that. It won the ACC championship, going 13-4 in conference play. It moved on to win the District III championship in Gastonia – then the NCAA step to Omaha – by beating Florida State.

Expectations? There were none, Cheek said.

“We were just 11-11 the year before, played just 22 games,” he said. “We got off to kind of a rocky start in the conference (in ’68), then put it together. Later, someone said, ’Hey, you’re in first place in the conference, you’re ranked 14th in the country.’ We had no idea about any of those things.

“We just played baseball. When we won the district in Gastonia they said we would go to Omaha. It was like, ’OK, let’s go to Omaha.’ ”

Similarities in ’68, ’13

The Wolfpack this year was ranked eighth nationally by Baseball America in preseason, its highest ever. Turner, who moved from third to shortstop for his sophomore season, and sophomore left-hander Carlos Rodon were preseason All-Americans.

Caldwell, who would pitch 14 years in the big leagues, said he first met Rodon when Rodon was 9 or 10 years old. Rodon said the two first worked on pitching mechanics at Caldwell’s North Raleigh home, then they had some skull sessions on the art of pitching when Rodon was a senior at Holly Springs High.

“I told him things like, ‘You don’t understand how good you can be,’ ” Caldwell said. “He has untapped potential. He wasn’t quite as successful this year as last year. When he learns how to pitch and trusts his fastball more … He ought to throw it 80 times a game.”

Caldwell, always competitive and crafty on the mound, won 22 games for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1978, when he was second to the New York Yankees’ Ron Guidry in the AL voting for the Cy Young Award. He soon will be inducted into N.C. State Athletic Hall of Fame.

The ’68 Pack had Caldwell, Cheek and freshman Joe Frye as its starting pitchers. All three went 8-2. All three were relievers when needed.

“And we all hit,” Cheek said. “We all hit and loved it. Frye may have been the best hitter on the team other than Chris Cammack.”

Cammack, a freshman from Fayetteville, played third in ’68 and might have been the best athlete on a team that had many good ones. Cammack recently has faced some health issues, as has former All-American outfielder Steve Martin, and the two have become a rallying point for their teammates.

“We were and still are a very close-knit group,” Caldwell said.

Freddie Combs was a senior outfielder in ’68. An All-America safety on the 1967 football team, he chased down fly balls while his brother, Francis, was behind the plate handling the pitchers.

“Like this year’s team, we knew how to manufacture runs and we knew how to win,” Freddie Combs said. “But you’ve also got to have some breaks in baseball. Good play and good luck. We had that.

“There have been other good teams at State. I never would have imagined it would take this long to have another one go to Omaha.”

Close calls, good times

Once in Omaha in ’68, the Pack won close games against Southern Illinois and Texas and lost in 12 innings to St. John’s after a disputed call at the plate – the St. John’s runner called safe – that still rankles the ’68 guys. The Wolfpack then faced Southern California, losing 2-0 in the semifinals to the eventual NCAA champion despite a strong pitching effort from Tommy Smith to finish 25-9.

Against St. John’s and Southern Cal, second baseman Clem Huffman hit balls in the gaps that could have scored runs, only to have outfielders make tough catches. “We were so, so close,” Huffman said.

Many memories still are fresh. Huffman remembers his first look at the Rosenblatt field – “So beautiful, what a rush,” he said. Combs, who rarely hit homers, remembers his two-run shot that spurred a comeback against Texas. Caldwell said the flight to Nebraska was his first time on an airplane.

“Compared to now, the College World Series wasn’t as big a deal,” Francis Combs said. “The games weren’t televised. But we got first-class treatment. They met us at the airport, had a banquet. It all felt pretty big to us.”

Cheek said about a dozen players from ’68 could be in Omaha for the College World Series. They’re honored this year’s team put “1968” on their lockers at Doak Field and respect men now in their 60s, several of them grandfathers.

“I told some of the players this year they were probably tired of hearing about this ’68 thing so much,” Cheek said, laughing.

Huffman said N.C. State coach Elliott Avent held a reunion during 2005 for the ’68 team, bringing them together for the first time in many years. Avent had Caldwell and Cammack speak to his team this season, and their words were meaningful.

“Elliott has done a terrific job embracing the ’68 team,” said Huffman, who lives in Charlotte.

Freddie Combs noted the 1968 Wolfpack team long had the distinction of being the first and only one to get to Omaha. It had been that way for 45 years until Sunday night, when the Pack beat Rice 5-4 in 17 innings, when it became Omaha-bound.

“Now we’re just the first team, not the first and only team,” Combs said. “Believe me, that’s fine with us.”

Cheek was in the Doak Field stands late Sunday when the Pack won. There might have been a tear or two.

“It’s fun to play, fun to get the big hit or home run, fun to win games and go to the College World Series,” he said. “But to me, being there, seeing them win, knowing what it meant to them, was the biggest thrill it could possibly be. No one could be prouder than our bunch.”

The ’68 bunch.

Alexander: 919-829-8945; Twitter: @ice_chip

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