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‘River Rats’ Remember ’68 Series

The most exciting moment of the 1968 College World Series was not the controversial play at the plate that cost NC State a win against St. John’s. It was not the 2-0 loss to eventual national champion Southern California. It was not even the plane ride to Omaha, the first ever for the two dozen mostly North Carolina natives who made up second-year head coach Sam Esposito’s roster.

The most exciting moment was exactly 45 years ago today, Thursday, June 13, when Esposito told his team that after two sweaty games, someone was taking pity on the Wolfpack (and everyone in its vicinity) and would wash their heavy woolen uniforms.

“There was a pre-tournament meeting that was mainly to talk about which uniform combination the teams would wear,” said Chris Cammack, a Fayetteville native who was a freshman third baseman on the 1968 team. “They went around the room and teams would say ‘We’ll wear the gold pants with the white shirts or the red shirts and the white pants.’ Every combination you could think of.

“Every time they came to Coach Esposito, he said ‘I think we will wear the white uniforms with red pinstripes and red socks.’ Those were the only ones we had.”

Earlier this week, as current head coach Elliott Avent’s team packed up for the school’s second trip to the College World Series, ending the school’s interminable 45-year drought, the pressing question was which of the dozens of uniform combinations  the Pack would take, since the NCAA allows only three different sets per team.

Nebraska Bound

The CWS has changed in many ways in the nearly half century since the Wolfpack made its only other appearance. Old Rosenblatt Stadium, which had been expanded multiple times through the years, was razed in 2010, and gleaming TD Ameritrade Park Omaha was built to replace it.

Omaha has become not just a medium-sized city on the Midwestern plains, but college baseball’s ultimate destination, in the same way Cooperstown is for the professional game.

The current team, ranked seventh in the nation, qualified for its trip by sweeping No. 13 Rice last weekend in the NCAA Raleigh Super Regional. The week before, it won three straight in the four-team Raleigh Regional to advance.

Avent’s team, led by super sophomores Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner, has now won 49 games on the season, matching the most in school history. While getting to Omaha was always the goal, the coach and his team aren’t just looking for a participation ribbon. They have their sights set on winning the baseball program’s first national title.

Iffy Chances in ’68

Team photo
The 1968 team is the greatest in NC State history – so far.

It was hardly the same in 1968. When the Pack opened the season, Esposito said the team’s prospects were “iffy” – and he wasn’t referring to its chances for winning a national title. He thought his team might have a tough time matching the 11-11 record posted by his inaugural team in 1967.

Esposito had just 25 players on the roster. He had only three pitchers, two of which were freshmen. Both Cammack and shortstop Darrell Moody began the season with injuries and senior pitcher Alex Cheek pitched the second half of the season with a broken toe.

It was, however, a plucky team. Esposito called them his “River Rats,” because they were so hard to get rid of.

“Two things stand out about them,” Esposito said in assessing his team. “They loved baseball and they played real hard, just busted it every day.”

Though it only hit 12 home runs all season, the team scored nearly seven runs a game. Esposito, a member of the famed 1959 Go-Go White Sox, put pressure on opposing defenses by running his team at every opportunity. The Pack stole 59 bases on the season to its opponents’ 19.

“We didn’t have any heroes, no jealousy, we just played together like family,” said Steve Martin, who was named second-team All-America after the season.  “Coach Esposito was one of the greatest coaches I ever played for. He taught us to win, he taught us to play hard and to play to win. We thought we were going to win every games we played.”

And for a while they did, taking 14 of their last 16 regular-season games, including a one-game playoff against Wake Forest on the final day of the season to win State’s first ever ACC title. In that 4-0 win, freshman lefthander Mike Caldwell threw a one-hit shutout against the Demon Deacons to secure the title.

Greatness in Gastonia

The team traveled to Gastonia’s Sims Legion Field, the longtime host of the NCAA District III playoffs, where the champions of the ACC, the Southeastern Conference and the Southern Conference and an at-large team met in a double-elimination tournament. At-large Florida State was the overwhelming favorite.

Caldwell beat Alabama in the opening game, and the team cruised by East Carolina. The pitching-depleted Pack lost a 15-12 shootout to the Seminoles, setting up a winner-take-Omaha finale the next day. Caldwell, pitching his second game in five days, was masterful yet again. He allowed a hit on the first pitch of the game, but catcher Francis Combs promptly threw the baserunner out trying to steal second. The only other Seminole runner who got on base that day was wiped out with a double play.

Caldwell, a native of Tarboro, N.C., who had roots in Gastonia, revealed his motivation afterwards.

“I’ve always wanted to go to the College World Series,” he said, “but what I really wanted was to take my first ride in an airplane.”

No one on the team, other than the worldly Esposito, had ever been on an airplane before. On a roster made up of farm boys and small-town Legion stars that was a motivating factor.

Wins and Losses

Sam Esposito headshot.
After Sam Esposito took the helm, Wolfpack baseball never again had a single losing season.

At the World Series, the Wolfpack beat Southern Illinois in its opener, a far less dramatic game than this year’s Omaha opener against rival North Carolina. The Pack lost 6-5 in 11 innings to St. John’s, a game that turned on a controversial play at the plate. Caldwell pitched another gem to eliminate second-ranked Texas, a landmark victory for the Wolfpack program.

In a Saturday night marquee game against Southern Cal, for the first time all season, little used freshman Tommy Smith, who had pitched only 15 1/3 innings all season, was called on to face the top-ranked Trojans. He shut down USC’s powerful offense, but for the first time all season, the Wolfpack failed to score a run, despite having runners in scoring position in each of the final four innings.

A game-saving catch by USC’s centerfielder off freshman Clem Huffman’s fly ball ended a threat in the sixth, and the Pack couldn’t get a run home after loading the bases with three consecutive singles in the eighth. State’s season ended with a 25-9 overall record.

Waiting on History

As last Sunday night turned into Monday morning, several members of the 1968 team were on hand at the end of the Wolfpack’s 17-inning marathon victory over Rice, the longest NCAA Super Regional game ever played. They had waited so long for this moment, a few extra innings and a 77-minute rain delay weren’t about to chase them away.

So when the Pack scored in the top of the 17th and held on for the 5-4 win, there were no happier faces than those on Esposito’s River Rats. They weren’t quite ready to jump in the postgame dogpile at Doak Field at Dail Park, but they hung around long enough to congratulate Avent and every player on the team.

“We are pretty happy to change our designation from the only team from NC State to make it to the College World Series,” said Cheek, “to being the first team to do it.”