A generation of Arizona and Arizona State baseball fans have grown up without seeing the rivalry at the heights it will reside for the next three days — the end of the regular season, a conference title on the line.
That warms the heart of former UA coach Jerry Kindall.
“What you’ll have between the two teams used to be commonplace,” said Kindall, who coached the Wildcats from 1973-96 and won three national titles. “When I started coaching, the season always seemed to come down to the last three games against ASU.
“That happening again stirs up a lot of emotions and excitement for me.”
The schools routinely slugged it out for supremacy in the Western Athletic Conference, but the titanic series have been much more infrequent since they joined the Pac-10 in 1978. A title has not been on the line between ASU and UA since a Wildcats sweep in Tempe in 1989 netted them the Pac-10 South crown.
“There have been great moments in the baseball rivalry the last few years, but not as many as you’d think,” said Bob Eger, who has covered ASU baseball for more than four decades, with the last nine years as a radio game analyst. “The series coming up is as big as I can remember in a long time.”
Both schools are ranked in the top 15 and are eyeing a berth in the College World Series in June.
ASU has clinched a share of the Pac-10 title and, by winning one of the three games, can earn its first outright championship since the former North and South divisions merged in 1999.
With a sweep, Arizona wins a share of the league title and — by virtue of owning the tiebreaker that would come from winning the series — receives the Pac-10’s automatic bid in the NCAA tournament.
“This is going to be a lot more fun,” said ASU assistant coach Tim Esmay, who played at the school in 1986 and ’87. “You always are fighting for bragging rights. We’re fighting to win the Pac-10 title, but both teams have their sights on even bigger prizes, like a national championship.”
Esmay’s biggest memory as a player is from 1987, when the Sun Devils’ NCAA tournament hopes hung in the balance as defending national champion Arizona visited for a season-ending series. Overflow crowds jammed Packard Stadium as ASU swept the Wildcats.
The enmity between the schools in those days was evidently much greater between the fan bases than the teams themselves. The players had great respect for each other, Esmay said, and then-coaches Kindall and Jim Brock — who both joined the College Baseball Hall of Fame this year — were good friends.
Kindall, who lives in Tucson, will attend at least one game of the series. Brock, the Sun Devils’ coach from 1972 until his death in 1994, figures to be there in spirit.
“I think about him every time I look at (his placard) in the outfield,” Esmay said of Brock, a two-time national championship winner. “He gave me a chance to put on this uniform. I know he’ll be watching, loving it.”
A similar mutual respect exists between the current squads, as Sun Devils coach Pat Murphy said of UA counterpart Andy Lopez: “He’s a great guy. I know I’m supposed to hate him. I’m sorry, but I don’t.”
Another reason the level of baseball fire between ASU and UA is not as distinguishable as in other sports: The level of passion that is displayed for almost every Pac-10 opponent.
Over the years, ASU’s series against such schools as Southern California, Stanford and Oregon State have featured super regional-level intensity. When the in-state rival comes up on the schedule, there is no higher gear left to shift into.
“I don’t think there’s one team that we look ahead to any more than the others in the Pac-10,” ASU shortstop Andrew Romine said. “Emotionally and psychologically, you’re pumped up for every team.”
However, will the series against Arizona require an extra jolt because of what is on the line?
“Definitely,” Romine said.
It has taken nearly two decades, but the baseball roads blazed by ASU and UA have intersected at the top of a conference in late May.
And Kindall believes that a near-annual season-ending showdown between the teams could once again be commonplace.
“There were years when there was a dip in the fortunes for both programs, but they have come back strong,” Kindall said. “Of course, I’m delighted that Arizona is a contender again, and ASU is as well.
“Both teams are back, and I think they are back to stay. And that’s only going to bode well for the rivalry in the future.”
Arizona and Arizona State have played 419 baseball games against each other since 1907. Here are four of the most memorable:
May 22, 1967: ASU defeats Arizona 3-2 in a Western Athletic Conference Southern Division playoff game at Phoenix Municipal Stadium as future major leaguer Gary Gentry pitches all 15 innings. The Sun Devils went on to win the second of their five national championships.
June 18, 1976: An ASU team that featured 13 future big leaguers dominated Arizona during the regular season. But the Wildcats win when it counts, with a 5-1 victory in the College World Series semifinals. One game later, the Wildcats have their first national title.
May 12, 1990: “The Catch.” John Jefferson made it against Arizona in football; Golden Spikes Award winner Mike Kelly owns that distinction in baseball. In the sixth inning of a game in Tucson, UA’s Jack Johnson rocketed a high blast to center field that had the looks of a three-run homer … until Kelly timed his leap perfectly and plucked it from over the wall. ASU wins 6-4.
May 21, 2000: The Sun Devils clinch a share of the Pac-10 title by beating Arizona 24-10 in Tucson. Outfielder Mitch Jones surpasses Bob Horner’s single-season school record for home runs, going on to finish the year with 27.
Arizona at ASU
Where: Packard Stadium
TV/Radio: None/KDUS (1060 AM)
Records/rankings: Arizona 39-13, 14-7 Pac-10/No. 13 Baseball America; No. 11 Collegiate Baseball; No. 13 USA Today (coaches). ASU 41-12, 17-4/No. 7 BA; No. 8 CB; No. 7 coaches
Projected starting pitchers: Today — Arizona’s Ryan Perry (0-1, 6.11 ERA) vs. ASU’s Mike Leake (11-1, 3.57 ERA); Thursday — Arizona’s Preston Guilmet (11-1, 1.58 ERA) vs. ASU’s Josh Satow (10-3, 2.21 ERA); Friday — Arizona’s David Coulon (4-3, 4.76 ERA) vs. ASU’s Brian Flores (9-1, 3.89 ERA)
Why not the weekend?
The series is being played the next three days because ASU coach Pat Murphy must depart on Friday night for Indianapolis, where he will serve on the NCAA tournament selection committee. Murphy’s term on the committee began this season and runs through September 2010.
Arizona at Arizona State
7 p.m. today and Thursday, 1 p.m. Friday