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Bisons 1979 title win was a special time

Friday, May 15, 2009

Members of the 1979 Lipscomb Bisons baseball team came together May 1 for a 30-year reunion and toasted the event punch made from white grape juice and ginger ale. If Grand Canyon College had followed a similar protocol the Bisons would not have received NAIA National Championship rings as part of their gathering.

In late May of 1979 Jimmy Carter was president. The Oscar went to The Deer Hunter as “Best Movie”. A first class postage stamp was 15 cents. Saturday Night Fever won the Grammy as “Best Album”.

And Grand Canyon College, which was under the guidance of the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention, had a rule against consumption of alcoholic beverages. Apparently in the excitement of beating Sam Houston State in the Area 2 finals to earn a World Series berth that rule was forgotten. Photos of the Antelopes enjoying a taste of the bubbly were published in a Phoenix newspaper. The leadership of the school informed the NAIA that Grand Canyon College, the No. 1-rated team in the country, would not be attending the World Series due to the rules violation.

The NAIA first asked Sam Houston State to fill the void, but the school was on the semester system and the players had gone their separate ways for the summer.

The door then quickly opened for the Bisons. Lipscomb, which had lost to Birmingham Southern 6-3 in the Area 5 finals at historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala., was on the quarter system. The World Series was being played at Greer Stadium, a then brand new minor league field in Nashville. They also had the right pedigree since they were the 1977 NAIA National Champion.

The NAIA made the decision to make the Bisons the first team to ever play in the national tournament as the result of an invitation.

“In essence, a little bit of the pressure was off,” said pitcher Mark Roberts, a senior and team captain for the 1979 team. “We had pressure going into the Area 5 Tournament and we had the disappointment of being put out. When we went into the national tournament we decided we were going to have fun. We went in relaxed and played really well.

“We were a pretty young team, but we had pitching and we had hitting. There were no superstars. But there were a lot of stars. There was not any one person who carried the team. No matter who was on the mound or who was at bat somebody was going to come through.”

It took 30 years for the Bisons to get their rings, but they still had the confident attitude that helped them win the 1979 National Championship. As extra bonuses they also received reproductions of their road jerseys and hats from that season.

The hair on their heads may have been grayer and thinner and their bodies might have been thicker, but they still had the hearts of champions.

Duke Dickerson, a pitcher for the 1979 team, took a look at the Belmont baseball team, the Bisons opponent for the reunion weekend, and quipped, “Let’s put on our uniforms and play these guys. I know we can beat them.”

In the days after losing in the Area 5 Tournament the Bisons coach Ken Dugan had bemoaned the lack of depth on his team. The 20-man roster featured four seniors, four juniors, eight sophomores and four freshmen.

Despite the overall youth, the Bisons felt they could beat anyone. They entered the World Series ranked fourth in the NAIA. They had been given a second chance. They were playing with found money and they were ready to cash in on their good fortune.

“As seniors we were thinking about graduating and what we were going to do next,” said Roberts. “All of a sudden we got the call and we all looked at each other and said, `hey we can do this’. We knew how talented we were.”

While the move to add Lipscomb was popular with Nashville-area baseball fans there were many NAIA coaches who were openly critical of the decision.

“I realized when the offer was made there would be some people who wouldn’t like it,” said Dugan to Nashville Banner reporter Tom Robinson. “It would have been very foolish for us to turn down the NAIA’s tournament offer.”

The sudden extension of the season forced team manager Chris Snoddy to do some quick work. He had already sent the uniforms to Ralph’s Cleaners, located across from the campus. When he asked for them back he was told that he would have to wait until a newspaper photographer arrived.

“The uniforms were dirty and muddy,” said Snoddy. “I was happy I didn’t have to wash them because we always sent them to the dry cleaner at the end of the season. When I got them back they had not been cleaned so I had to wash them anyway.

“I remember that from the time the announcement was made it was just pure adrenalin throughout the team. They were ready to go.”

Roberts, who works in human resources for General Motors, was thrilled to get the opportunity to play in a few more college games.

“A lot of players had already checked out for the summer mentally and physically,” said Roberts. “We had a rule that there was no facial hair on the team. I already had grown a mustache. When Coach Dugan looked at me he said that is coming off.

“He wasn’t smiling when he said it. I knew he meant business.”

It was also a second chance for at least on player. Reggie Whittemore, who went on to play in the minors for the Boston Red Sox, had been what could best be described as a season-long slump.

“My best year was 1978 with 18 home runs,” said Whittemore, who oversees the Metro Nashville RBI program. “I made All-America that year. The 1979 season was the worst that I had.”

A couple of days before the NAIA World Series began Dugan decided to address Whittemore’s hitting problems.

“Coach Dugan and I were the only people standing in the locker room,” said Whittemore. “One moment the locker room was crowded. Then next minute it was just the two of us. It was like it was planned.

“Coach Dugan got real close to me and asked, `What’s the matter with you chief? What’s wrong? Why aren’t you hitting the ball?’ He yelled at me for about eight minutes.”

Whittemore responded to Dugan’s talk. He hit a solo home run to give the Bisons a 3-2 win over St. Xavier in the opening game of the World Series. They also rolled by Wisconsin-LaCrosse 12-2 and High Point 6-3. Their only loss in the double-elimination tournament was a 3-2 decision against Point Park College from Pittsburgh. And Whittemore ended the series with seven hits.

“Coach Dugan was very inspiring,” said Whittemore. “ He had unorthodox ways of getting to people. He was an amazing man."

In the championship game pitcher Kal Koenig was called on in the seventh inning and struck out seven of nine batters to seal the 5-4 win over High Point. Koenig was rewarded as the World Series MVP, but he might have owed a portion of that trophy to his catcher, Steve Liddle.

“Kal struck out the last hitter from High Point on a 90-plus miles per hour fastball for the last out but there was a little behind the scenes drama leading up to that final pitch,” said Liddle, the bench coach for the Minnesota Twins. “As I got into my stance and started sequencing through my signs to the pitcher Kal kept shaking his head no.

I went out to the mound and asked Kal what he was thinking and he says he wants to throw this guy a changeup. “I said, `Kal are you crazy? You are throwing the ball by this guy and now you want to throw him a changeup? We are going to throw this guy a fastball and that's that!’ I get behind the dish, Kal throws a fastball by this guy and the rest is history.”

During the celebration and pile up of players at the end of the game, Liddle heard a voice through the pandemonium.

“Kal said, `I love you man’,” said Liddle. “Then he asked for the game ball. What a guy.”

Ironically, the Bisons accepted the National Championship trophy from Dave Brazell, the coach of Grand Canyon College.

Once they left the field there was a toast to the win. There were soft drinks and watermelon all around.