The narrative leading into this NCAA baseball regional hosted by the University of Miami was easy, understandable and a little off point.
OK, yes, UM coach Jim Morris and FIU coach Henry “Turtle” Thomas had a falling out many years ago and don’t much care for each other. ESPN3 televised Friday night’s first meeting between the schools since 2008, but to hear the preamble it should have been on the Feud Network instead.
The thing is, this postseason tournament is about so much more than personal animus or settling old scores for both coaches — especially for Morris.
Bigger-fish-to-fry is a cliché that comes to mind, but it isn’t quite right. Morris has more on his plate. A different menu in mind.
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Miami’s imperative is to get back to and win the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, nothing less, and Friday’s 6-2 victory over FIU brought the Canes closer. Who they beat was incidental.
Losing to FIU might have amplified the angst, but UM losing to anybody Friday night would have sounded alarms if what has been a stellar season had been suddenly pushed within one game of elimination.
The Canes’ top player, third baseman David Thompson, picked a good night to remind why he is the team’s MVP. He had three hits and three RBI, including a first-inning two-run double that reached left field like a bullet off Giancarlo Stanton’s bat.
FIU had a six-run hole and three errors by the second inning, very much playing the early role of the anxious underdog unaccustomed to the big stage. Early domination by Canes lefty Andrew Suarez didn’t help.
“One of our goals was to start fast,” Thomas said afterward. “It just so happens we didn’t do that.”
The 5,000-seat ballpark was filled — UM’s first sellout since March 3, 2012 — with hundreds of tardy fans turned away. And it was the partisan Canes crowd festooned in orange and green that cheered early and left happy.
“I don’t remember the last time we closed the gates,” Morris said.
Said Thompson called the atmosphere: “Awesome. Hasn’t been that loud once since I’ve been here.”
The two universities are only eight miles separated but worlds apart in baseball tradition, with UM in its record 43rd consecutive NCAA postseason.
FIU has never reached the College World Series and was not even expected to make the NCAA playoffs this year on the heels of a .500 season. So this is all gravy for Team Turtle. “This is their Omaha,” as Canes catcher Zack Collins had said of FIU — somewhat condescendingly but perhaps not inaccurately.
Thomas was Morris’ UM assistant for years before a falling out in 1999 related to recruiting and promising more scholarships than UM had to give. Miami won it all that season, but Thomas has never worn his championship ring.
“They don’t like me, and I don’t like them,” Thomas said of UM in a 2004 interview. “I don’t ever talk to those guys at all.”
Thomas and Morris do not discuss any of that past now. On Friday, they exchanged a cursory, quick handshake sans additional pleasantries in the pregame umpires meeting at home plate. They shook again afterward.
For Morris, getting to a regional was expected, the bare minimum. Going farther, much farther, all the way to Omaha and the CWS, also is expected.
There is pressure on both UM and its coach to do so, pressure far exceeding Friday’s game being against a city rival and adorned with all the coaching-feud talk.
Miami is ranked No.8 in the polls and is the No.5 national seed among the 64 NCAA tournament teams. UM not winning the regional it is hosting would be a huge disappointment. So would Miami not advancing past next week’s super-regional, which it also would host.
The Canes have not reached Omaha since 2008 and last won a national championship in 2001, and there is very much a “this is the year” feel to this season. Also a “this had better be the year” feel.
UM won 13 consecutive regionals through 2006 but has won only two of the previous eight.
Morris, 65, has three seasons left after this to end that drought before he retires and the DH (designated heir) Gino DiMare takes over.
This may well be Morris’ last best chance.
And all that’s in play is his UM legacy, the way he is remembered.
Morris walks to work each day past the new bronze statue of his late predecessor Ron Fraser, the program legend.
Morris has won the same number of national titles (two) in his 22 UM seasons that Fraser won in 30, but the current man knows he will never enjoy the stature or be as beloved as the man they called the “Wizard of College Baseball.” Not nearly.
Winning that elusive third College World Series title before he retires would be the one undeniable, bottom-line claim Morris would have over Fraser.
It wouldn’t be a bronze statue. But it would be his distinction, forever.