After 29 years some memories can become a blur.
But Ahwatukee Foothills resident Greg Steen clearly remembers the summer of 1981 when he was on the last Arizona State University team to win a NCAA College Baseball World Series.
Steen was an infielder on that ASU team that beat Oklahoma State, 7-4, on a warm, humid night in Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium.
The Sun Devils are back in Omaha and playing in Rosenblatt Stadium again this week with a good chance of bringing back their first national championship since 1981.
“I never thought it would be that long,” Steen said. “In a way you want to be remembered as the last ASU team to win a national championship and World Series, but then you want ASU to win a national championship again, too. Why have another school win it?”
Since 1964 the Sun Devils were becoming regulars in Omaha and won the national championship in 1965, 1967 and 1969 then didn’t bring home another title until 1977. The 1981 championship was part of that tradition.
But it wasn’t until 1998, when the Sun Devils
lost a marathon 21-14 slugfest to the University of Southern California that ASU was back in a championship game.
ASU was also third last season and in 2005.
Steen is a Yuma native who played on that title team as a sophomore.
“It was totally awesome,” said Steen, an area manager with Starbucks Coffee and an assistant baseball coach with Stan Luketich at Desert Vista High School the past 10 seasons.
“I was ecstatic that I could play at ASU and then earn a starting position on a team that had some pretty good talent,” he said. “There wasn’t anywhere else I ever wanted to be.”
There certainly was some talent on that team.
Shortstop Donnie Hill was drafted in the first round of the June amateur draft by the Oakland A’s and played for nine Major League seasons with the A’s, Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins.
Outfielder Kevin Romine went on to play seven big league seasons with the Boston Red Sox while Alvin Davis played seven years with the Seattle Mariners. Ricky Nelson also played for the Mariners and Lemmie Miller was with the Los Angeles Dodgers for part of one season.
This is the final College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium. The games will be moved to Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha starting next season.
Rosenblatt has hosted the College World Series since 1950 and as the event grew so did the seating capacity.
But there weren’t any outfield bleachers when ASU met Oklahoma State in the 1981 championship game.
The Sun Devils had lost to Oklahoma State earlier in what was then a double-elimination tournament and that helped to add to the hype of the championship game.
“I remember there were so many people there that night that they had people standing on the field because there weren’t enough seats,” Steen recalled.
If a team got through the early rounds of the double-elimination tournament it could count on getting some days off while other schools fought it out in the loser’s bracket.
In an unconventional move, head coach Jim Brock would bus the team 45 minutes west to Lincoln to practice at the University of Nebraska.
“It was a college field,” Steen said, “but it had a turf infield. I think part of it was to get us out of Omaha and let us hang out together. It was kind of cool because none of us had ever seen the University of Nebraska.
Steen admits the details of that game aren’t as clear as they had been.
“But I remember that Kevin Duke did a heck of a job on the mound,” Steen explained, “and when they had runners on first and second we set up a pick at first base and got the guy out. That was a sweet call in a championship game and that killed them.”
Duke pitched a complete game allowing four hits.
The celebration at the hotel went on until sunrise the next morning.
Steen, like all the members of the team, got College World Series championship rings similar, at the time, to big league baseball World Series jewelry.
“I didn’t wear it to work every day, but yeah, I wore it for a long time,” Steen said. “People would recognize it. Then I jammed my finger playing basketball, and I can’t get it on anymore.”
A year later, with several of the same players back, the Sun Devils had a shot to go back-to-back but lost to Cal-State Fullerton in the regional at ASU’s Packard Stadium. Fullerton went on to win the College World Series.
“That ’82 team was as good, if not better, than the ’81 team,” Steen said.
And he feels that this year’s team could end the drought.
“They have a good shot to win it,” he said. “They have great pitching, good hitting and while the defense may not be as good as the pitching and hitting, I think they have a good chance to win it all.”