Cliff Gustafson regretted the words almost as soon as they left his mouth.
It was way back in 1989 when Texas A&M fielded perhaps the best college baseball team to never make it to Omaha. The overpowering Aggies, brimming with talent like Chuck Knoblauch and John Byington, had just crushed their competition and were poised to qualify for the College World Series with one more win in the Central Regional they were hosting.
A&M had pummeled Jackson State, BYU and South Alabama, outscoring them by a whopping 65-13. But then came LSU and Ben McDonald and friends, and the Tigers put the Aggies in their place with twin defeats, 13-5 and 5-4 in 11 innings, to deny them a trip to their certain coronation as national champs.
Texas, meanwhile, was taking care of business at home. The Longhorns swept through their home regional en route to a second-place finish at Omaha. The night Texas beat New Orleans to punch its CWS ticket, the usually reserved and humble Gustafson stood at home plate to thank the Disch-Falk Field crowd and uttered the phrase that would burn Aggies’ ears forever: “Where are the Aggies now?”
Funny you should ask.
Because A&M is right here in the 512. The third-seeded Aggies will open the Austin Regional against a seriously good Indiana team on Friday afternoon, praying for a run similar to its remarkable success in last week’s SEC tournament and playing for the first time in a Texas-hosted regional. Fitting, right, if they and the Longhorns can play?
“It’d mean more to the fans that it means to us,” A&M’s All-SEC shortstop Braden Shewake said. “We’ve got to play our best baseball all week long or we’re not going to get to play them. In the SEC we go to a lot of places where the fans aren’t with us. I know the fans like to see us get together. For us it’s just another baseball game.”
What’s odd is that neither A&M nor Texas has a superior club loaded with high-round major-league draft prospects. But both were firecracker-hot down the stretch when the Aggies went 3-1 in the SEC tournament and the Longhorns, before they went 2-and-BBQ in the Big 12 tournament, won five of their last six games to clinch their first regular-season conference title since 2011.
And neither may be the most gifted team in this foursome. Second-seeded Indiana, a disappointing fifth-place Big Ten team that is suddenly hitting its stride again with tons of pitching depth and power that produced 63 home runs, may well possess the most talent on paper. And Texas coach David Pierce warns against overlooking his first-game opponent, SWAC champion Texas Southern, because the Tigers can run with the wind and have much more offensive punch than usual.
But it’ll be the Longhorns-Aggies flavor that juices up the sellout crowds this weekend, assuming the bracket cooperates for the 6,347 fans who bought tickets. While the rivalry since A&M’s exit from the Big 12 has largely been confined to wishful thinking by columnists and reminders by UT fans if Justin Tucker’s name rings a bell, the baseball relationship between these two marquee programs 100 miles apart stands as arguably the most passionate after football. Here’s another shot for the Aggies, who in history have six CWS appearances to Texas’ six CWS titles.
Oh, the two sides have played in a basketball tournament in the Bahamas, and Jerritt Elliott’s volleyballers have dominated the Aggies the last two years and Karen Aston’s women hoopsters got the best of Gary Blair’s bunch in that SEC-Big 12 Challenge in Little Rock, of all places, four years ago. And Texas’ women netters just beat the Aggies.
Baseball, however, has reconnected and should more with a three-game series every season or at least single games, one at Disch and one at Olsen Field.
“We haven’t gotten that far yet,” said Rob Childress, A&M’s outstanding coach. “I think playing each other is a good thing for our fans, our sport and both programs from an RPI standpoint.”
The two have played single games against each other the last three years — A&M leads 2-1 — and will meet in Austin in 2019. Texas also beat the Aggies in the Rice regional in 2014. But these Hatfields and (Colt) McCoys should tangle regularly, especially in football and baseball, unless one side or the other is too scared. (Tom Herman and AD Chris Del Conte, for the record, want it.)
Childress isn’t fearful at all but has to weather a more grueling schedule in the SEC, which has 10 teams in NCAA regionals. So don’t plan on a three-game series any time soon.
Indiana coach Chris Lemonis, who’s from Baytown Sterling and as a kid attended bonfires and A&M football games with his best friend, whose daddy was an Aggie, notes his Hoosiers might sneak under the radar during all of this Aggies-Longhorns hatefest.
“I don’t think Texas fans ever cheer for A&M,” Lemonis said, “so we may be the beneficiary of that.”
Maybe. But one thing is for certain. Fans are the true beneficiary of an A&M-Texas meeting, no matter the sport.
So where are the Aggies now? Right where they belong, in Austin. Bring your popcorn.
NCAA Austin Regional
Friday-Monday, UFCU Disch-Falk Field
Friday: (Game 1) Texas A&M vs. Indiana, 4 p.m. (ESPN2); (2) Texas vs. Texas Southern, 8 (LHN, 104.9)
Saturday: (3) Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 1:30 p.m.; (4) Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6
Sunday: (5) Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 2 p.m.; (6) Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 8
Monday: Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser (if needed), 6 p.m.