Sunday, May 17, 2009

High-Flying To Fort Worth

Chris Ello, the radio play-by-play voice of San Diego State baseball, is with the Aztecs as they prepare for the start of the 2009 Mountain West Conference Tournament on Tuesday in Fort Worth, Tex...Today: a look at how SDSU finished up the regular season...Tomorrow: a preview of the MWC Postseason Tournament.


"He just hit a (bleepin') three-run bomb!" screamed Willie Judd, San Diego State's Academic Advisor, into the walkie-talkie cell phone.
"He just hit a (bleepin') three-run bomb!"
On the receiving end of the thrilling communique was Aztecs head baseball Coach Tony Gwynn, excited too, but also concerned about the group that had crowded around him.
"Hey, Willie, that great!" Gwynn said. "But watch what you're saying because I'm in the hotel lobby...and there's a bunch of other people here with me."
What Gwynn was doing in a hotel lobby as Aztec shortstop Ryan O'Sullivan's two-out, ninth-inning home run sailed deep over the left field fence to tie the score, 7-7, in Saturday's regular season finale against Utah...we'll get to in a moment.
But suffice to say -- as SDSU now gets set to begin play in the 2009 Mountain West Conference Tournament in Fort Worth, Tex. -- it has been a season worth yelling about for the Aztecs. With a 37-19 record (the best in Gwynn's seven seasons), SDSU figures to receive an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time in 18 seasons when the 64-team field is announced next Monday.
The Aztecs can claim an automatic NCAA berth by winning the conference tournament, but host TCU (ranked 14th in the nation), along with solid clubs at New Mexico and BYU, may have something to say about that.
No team, however, is heading into the tournament on a bigger high than the Aztecs, who following O'Sullivan's dramatic blast, would go on to win, 10-9, in a marathon game that took 12 innings and 5 hours, 3 minutes to complete.
(O'Sullivan, who saved the game in the ninth with his home run -- his second of the game -- also came in to pitch with the bases-loaded and two outs in the bottom of the 12th, retiring the final hitter to pick up, well, the official save...Calling it the most exciting game he has ever played in, you can hear all of his postgame comments below).
Gwynn, meanwhile, had been ejected from the game in the bottom of 7th-inning for arguing a call made by the home plate umpire that he (correctly) felt had cost his team three runs. Utah's Austin Jones, batting with the bases loaded, hit a ground ball down the third-base line (foul by four or five feet it appeared) which was shockingly ruled fair. After all three runners scored to increase Utah's lead to 7-3, Gwynn came out of the dugout.
He pleaded his case for several minutes, went back to the dugout, asked pitching coach Rusty Filter to change pitchers, stewed some more, and then when he felt the umpire was trying to bait Filter into an argument, yelled a little bit more -- and was given the heave-ho (for only the second time in his career, by the way).
Jones, the batter, told Aztec infielders during the pitching change that he was so sure the ball was foul that he stopped running -- and only started up again when he surprisingly heard the "fair" call. Filter called it one of the "five worst" calls he had ever seen.
Gwynn, whose easy-going demeanor has always endeared him to San Diego fans, said he never argues calls that are questionable. "But this one was so obviously wrong," he said.
But now what to do? With no clubhouse available to retreat to, Gwynn had to find someplace to go after he was ejected. (Baseball rules don't allow an ejected coach to simply go and sit in the stands -- or press box).
So he began a rather frustrating walk across the street to the Aztecs' team hotel (lucky, in this case, because the Aztecs normally stay much further from the ballpark when they're on the road).
Only, being that he's Tony Gwynn, he couldn't even get that far.
"Some lady came racing up behind me as I was crossing the street, and wanted me to sign a Wheaties box for her," the Hall of Famer said. "I told her that this was a hell of a time for her to be asking me. She said she knew it wasn't a good time, but that she had run all the way over. So I signed it for her."
(See Mr. Ump? You kicked one of the greatest guys ever out of that game).
Gwynn finally reached his destination, ran upstairs to his room for a quick shower, then back down to the lobby to call Mike Sweet, the Aztecs Director of Baseball Operations, to find out what was going on in the game -- a game he was certain his team had lost.
Sweet, sitting in the stands behind home plate with Judd, charting pitches and using a radar gun to time the speed of SDSU's hurlers, informed his coach that the game wasn't quite yet over, but that things were looking rather grim.
Busy with his other duties, Sweet handed the walkie-talkie phone over the Judd, along on the trip to help oversee Aztec players who had Final Test Exams to deal with while away from campus.
Judd, a big lovable guy, and ex-football player at Weber State and Iowa State, grabbed the (microphone?) and started doing his best play-by-play impressions for the coach, who had settled into a lobby chair across the street.
Moments later, the big guy erupted as O'Sullivan's homer improbably tied the game.
"Sorry about the language, coach," Judd said. "It's just that I tend to get a little excited."
He wasn't the only one.
As the epic struggle continued for another hour-and-a-half, Judd passed along pitch-by-pitch updates to Gwynn ("Not always the easiest to figure out what he was saying," said the coach)...and Gwynn did his best to help his team (Filter and bench coach Mark Martinez had taken over the actual coaching duties after Gwynn had been dismissed).
When the Aztecs put two runners on in the top of the 12th -- with the game still tied and slugger Eric Castro coming up -- Gwynn told Judd to yell out to Castro to take a deep breath before he stepped into the batters box. Judd yelled out to Castro, who took a deep breath...and then came through with a tie-breaking single.
Later, after it was finally over, Coach and Academic Advisor-turned-radio guy shared a laugh or two back at the hotel. Then they shared the laughter with everybody else. And deep into the night it went.
On Sunday, with the team traveling from Utah to the MWC Tourney in Fort Worth, Judd stood up on the team bus and reminded all the players to check in with him so he could make sure their exam work was up-to-date.
He didn't need a walkie-talkie cell phone to make the announcement....but nobody would have been surprised if he had.

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