Jacksonville Sports Day

LOOKING BACK: Tampa Baseball Wins First National Championship

Tampa Baseball Coach Joe Urso

By Joey Johnston

National championships are now an annual expectation for the University of Tampa baseball program. After all, the Spartans have won eight titles. The championship rings keep getting bigger and more gaudy. UT’s reputation is well-known from coast to coast.

One team got things started — the 1992 Spartans — and few people saw it coming.

But when the Spartans (42-19) defeated Mansfield University 11-8 to win the NCAA Division II College World Series at Montgomery, Ala., it became clear that UT baseball was here to stay. And if anyone still had doubts, the 1993 Spartans (43-21) did it again, clinching back-to-back national titles.

Momentum had been gathering for a few seasons.

In 1987, the Tino Martinez-led Spartans were national runners-up.

In 1990, featuring the likes of Sam MilitelloPaul Russo and Ozzie Timmons, the Spartans finished third at nationals.

The 1992 Spartans, their roster filled with Tampa Bay area products, got the needed confidence by defeating rival Florida Southern 2-1 in the regional finals at Lakeland, its second victory against the Mocs in as many days. Then it was on to Montgomery.

“We knew we could get there and we knew that if we got there again, we were going there to win it,” said Lelo Prado, now a deputy athletic director at the University of South Florida, who was entering his fourth season (at age 29) with UT in 1992. “For so many years, it was about getting past Florida Southern, then we were able to do that.

“I never worried about our team. They were gamers — all of them. Old-school, hard-working guys. Extremely talented. I don’t think 1992 was our best team on paper or a team that was expected to win it, but those guys knew how to seize the moment. They knew how to get it done.”

The Spartans, strengthened by 15 games against Division I competition, had an enviable mix of offense, defense, pitching, leadership and moxie.

Senior second baseman Joe Urso — now UT’s head coach — and sophomore shortstop Rodd Kelley got things going. Junior third baseman Brian Zeletel provided the power. Outfielders David Dion and Eric Foster were clutch performers. Versatile senior Julio Ramirez was big on chemistry and leadership. Catcher Greg Hamilton lent stability.

Pitchers Matt HudsonGary GrahamSam Steed and Jason Fondren, plus relievers Steve WhiteMark Jones and Shawn Slade did their jobs.

Especially Hudson, nicknamed “Bulldog,” who always started what he finished. Hudson had three complete-game victories in the postseason, including the championship game, when he allowed 15 hits (and a 4-0 first-inning deficit), but showed his tenacity in a 125-pitch win.

“UT baseball has had lots of great moments, but we were the team to get things rolling,” Urso said. “We were doing it with mostly local kids (14 players from the Tampa Bay area) and Coach Prado built such a strong atmosphere. We took so much pride in putting that uniform on.

“It was really the start of the Spartan family that we still talk about today. We were in this together. We have made that last. Even now, when things aren’t going well, we have seniors that tell the team, ‘No, this is not going down, not on my watch.’ I think all those feelings really started in 1992 and we’ve been able to sustain it.”

Hudson, an outside salesman for an industrial firm who also has a cattle business, said he’ll never forget the feeling of getting the final out then landing at the bottom of a celebratory dog-pile in the infield.

“I still wear my championship ring all the time — and I wear it proud,” Hudson said. “We set the precedent that has become a UT standard. We helped transform UT from a nice little Division II school to a program that gets respect as a national powerhouse. When we got it rolling, we got it rolling.”

But heading into the regionals, UT was crestfallen.

Due to a scheduling quirk, UT had a two-game series at the University of Miami that ended one day before the regionals. Before the finale at UM, Prado and some of the pitchers left for Lakeland and the regional meeting. Pitching coach Marty Reed ran the team.

This was a UM team that would finish 53-8 and reach the College World Series semifinals.

Heading into the ninth inning, UT had a stunning nine-run lead against the Hurricanes.

Then, everything crashed.

The Hurricanes scored 10 ninth-inning runs, including two homers, and rallied for a once-in-a-lifetime 12-11 victory against the disbelieving Spartans.

In the pre-cell phone, pre-Internet era, Prado sat in a Lakeland hotel room, wondering what happened to his team. When the rest of the glassy-eyed Spartans finally arrived, they told the improbable tale. Heading into the regionals, the UM debacle seemed like something to forget.

Instead, the Spartans remembered.

Boy, did they remember.

Julio Ramirez wrote ‘Miami’ on a fungo bat,” Urso said. “We kept saying, ‘Remember Miami.’ It was a symbol that it was never over. We had to fight to the end. We couldn’t let it up. And we didn’t.”

Foster went 5-for-12 in the regionals, including a seventh-inning solo home run in the seventh against Florida Southern, earning Most Valuable Player honors.

Once in Montgomery, the Spartans swept through the field, defeating Lewis (6-2), Missouri State (7-4), Lewis again (15-2) before beating Mansfield in the title game.

“We got beat by the best team we played all year,” Mansfield coach Harry Hillson said afterward.

Urso went 9-for-16 during the tournament and clinched College World Series MVP honors. Hudson got the complete-game win and finished 12-3. Kelley had four hits, including a homer.

Meanwhile, as UT made history, Martinez was playing for the Seattle Mariners against the Boston Red Sox. Underneath his uniform, Martinez wore his UT baseball T-shirt. Somewhere during a 3-0 win against the Boston Red Sox, Martinez peered into the stands to his wife, Marie (Prado’s sister), who gave a thumbs-up.

The Spartans were national champs.

“It meant a lot to everyone on our team — and everyone who had ever played for UT’s program,” Prado said. “We had a lot of players returning (14) and I actually thought the 1993 team was going to be our best team. So yeah, we celebrated, but I was also thinking, ‘Hey, we’ve got a chance to do this again.’ ”

That’s when the Spartans learned about the adversity of trying to repeat.

“We got out of the gate a little slow,” Prado said.

During one dismal road trip to Alabama, the Spartans lost twice against Livingston and were beaten 22-0 at Auburn. Upon UT’s return to Tampa, at about 3 a.m., a disgusted Prado told his players to meet at the track in about three hours.

They ran.

And ran.

And ran.

“The way to get to their hearts is through their feet,” Prado said.

The Spartans promptly won 10 straight games and finished the regular season on a 29-10 run. But when the regionals began at Plant City, the Spartans were pummeled by Rollins, 14-8, and stood one defeat from elimination.

Instead, the Spartans got their second wind. They never lost again, defeating Florida Atlantic (12-1), Rollins (11-6) and FAU in the final (8-5) when Jeff Gordon got the victory in his first start of the postseason.

The return trip to Montgomery was equally rousing. UT defeated North Dakota (10-6), Troy (13-1), Troy again (4-3) and Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo (7-5) in the title game.

“They seem to defy every adversity they encounter, which makes them the clutch team they showed us here,” Cal Poly SLO coach Steve McFarland said afterward. “Talent-wise, many of the teams here were equal, but Tampa has that little extra something … and I don’t think it’s luck.”

The Spartans smacked 12 homers during the four-game College World Series. In the final, Dion had two homers (winning tournament MVP honors), while Zaletel and Ryan Valerius had solo shots. Graham (10-4) got the victory, collecting a popup near the mound for the final out. He immediately presented that game ball to his father, Terry.

“We had a really talented team and a really determined mindset,” said Graham, now the principal at Durant High School. “With the local players we had and the schedule we played, we were ready by the end of the season.

“We knew it was a great achievement. But I’m not sure we knew just how special it really was. All these years later, I think we do. It was incredibly special. We were the first two teams to win the national title and I think we laid the foundation. I think it has carried over into today.”

Urso, who has won five national titles at UT’s coach, can vouch for that.

“When you walk on that field and see the Tampa jersey, you know it means something,” Urso said. “I can’t tell you how many times that equaled an early error by the other team, a 2-0 lead for us, just because of nerves.

“We went to Carson-Newman this year and their whole team stayed there to watch us hit batting practice. Yeah, they made a few errors in the first inning. Their coach told me, ‘We’ve never watched someone else’s BP before. We never played (nervous) like that before.’

“I do think our program has something intangible, something that has carried forward, something that ever player feels. The 1992 season was a long time ago. But that’s when it started. And it’s still going, even today.”

Joey Johnston has worked in the Tampa Bay sports media for more than three decades, winning multiple national awards while covering events such as the Super Bowl, World Series, Final Four, Wimbledon, the U. S. Open, the Stanley Cup Finals and all the major bowl games. But his favorite stories have always been about Tampa Bay Area teams and athletes. A third-generation Tampa native, he was a regular in the Tampa Stadium stands at University of Tampa football games.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *