I had the honor of riding with Pat Casey and his family as part of the motorcade which, under a police escort, rolled down Interstate 5 and into Corvallis on Tuesday afternoon. We had just left the raucous scene in Pioneer Courthouse Square, which came 15 hours after coach Casey's Oregon State baseball team won the national championship.
To say that we were all drained would be an understatement. Much of the 90-minute ride was passed in silence. It was clear to all of us that a quiet, reflective ride was apropos for the final hour of our long journey home. And what a journey it was.
The images are indelibly etched on a fan base that seemed to grow exponentially with each gritty Omaha triumph:
• Jonah Nickerson, the pride of Oregon City, making 323 pitches in eight days, never changing expression in the process. I sought for comparisons in my radio broadcasts and came up with Iron Man McGinnity and Sandy Koufax. A reach? Perhaps. But not much of one.
• Chris Kunda of Philomath making play after play at second base that had jaws dropping all over the country.
• Bill Rowe of Ashland hitting a home run in the second game of the championship series, a shot that resonated of Al Weis, Bernie Carbo and Johnny Lindell.
• Cole Gillespie of West Linn, who had transformed himself from role player to the Pac-10 player of the year, coming up with yet another clutch hit or catch.
• Tyler Graham showing up nightly with another ESPN gem.
• Mitch Canham leading in every way imaginable and helping to complete a 5-2-4-6 double play that kept the championship hope alive.
• Darwin Barney of Beaverton playing with joy and the sense that these were games and nights to be savored, à la Pete Rose's comment to Carlton Fisk in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.
• Jonathan Casey, Pat's oldest son, trying to get on the field after the final out and being held up briefly by a well-meaning security guard. 'I need to get to my dad,' Jonathan said. Moments later, an entire nation watched a grateful boy jump into his father's arms, celebrating a championship for the ages.
The conclusion was so perfect, one wonders if OSU alum and renowned screenwriter Mike Rich ('The Rookie,' among others) could have provided a better scenario. The three guys on whose shoulders the consecutive trips to Omaha had been built were all there in the end to deliver the title: Nickerson's stoic courage, Dallas Buck's fiery emotions and Kevin Gunderson's gigantic heart.
Many stories could be told of Buck; one will have to suffice. Midway through the final game, Buck began coming over to assistant coach Dan Spencer in the dugout, not saying anything, just hovering. He'd walk away, then come back a moment later and hover some more. Finally, Spencer asked Buck, 'What do you want?' His answer: 'I want to pitch, if you need me.' Spencer's reply: 'Well, go get your cleats on and get ready.'
Tired elbow and all, Buck was summoned to essentially save the season with runners at first and second and nobody out for North Carolina in the eighth. He throws a ground ball out and strikes out two in a row with nasty sliders in his only relief outing of the season and gets the win, his 13th of the year, when the Beavers score an unearned run in the ninth. That was as gutsy as anything I saw in Omaha.
Gunderson, the soul of the team, told me before the game that he had one bullet left after his 5 1/3 innings the night before, but that it was only a ninth-inning bullet. Buck got the first out, yielded a hit and a walk, and came out. In came Gundy. You know the rest.
Long after the 3-2 victory and the dog pile at Rosenblatt Stadium, we all climbed aboard the team bus to continue the celebration. Players, coaches and coaches' kids all started to rock the bus back and forth with shouting, music, dancing and delirium while we waited for Casey.
When the players saw him emerge from the pressroom they all yelled, 'Everybody shut up! Total silence when Casey gets on!' So Pat gets on. Not a peep. Pat looks up and down the bus and probably wonders, 'Did we lose?' Finally, there was a triumphant, barbaric yawp that you probably heard back in Oregon. Casey burst into joyous laughter, and the celebration continued long into the night back at the Omaha Hilton with hundreds of fans and family members who were blessed to make the trip to the heartland.
I plead guilty to going over the top on the final call of the championship game. People have asked me: Were you laughing, crying or what? The answer: yes. The range of emotion was across the board as I tried to report and emote. If emoting won the day, I don't regret it, because what I saw over 10 days and eight amazing games in Omaha was the stuff of legend.
Mike Parker has been the voice of Oregon State football, basketball and baseball for eight years.