Try 1 month for 99¢

The University of Wyoming was never very good at baseball.

Hampered by fickle spring weather that forced the team to play the first third of its schedule on the road, an altitude that scared away quality pitchers and a state that couldn't fill a dugout with Division I talent, UW went 1,009-1,057 in its 58-year history, going to the College World Series only once.

On paper, it was an ordinary program mired in mediocrity when the UW Board of Trustees eliminated the sport after the 1996 season.

But somewhere in the losing seasons, the fourth-place conference finishes and the 14-8 defeats, UW baseball carved out a comfortable niche in the Cowboy State's sports psyche. The team swung for the heart, not the brain.

Wins and losses weren't trivial, but what mattered was the fans had a place to watch a game, somewhere in Wyoming to bask in the sunshine of a warm May day and maybe catch a foul ball.

What mattered was UW had a baseball team.

"I thought it was a great experience," said former UW athletics director, football coach and baseball enthusiast Paul Roach. "In April or May, when we had a good weather day and a good game, it was great. A lot of people, especially the baseball fans at the university, probably had some pretty fond memories.

"Maybe not a lot of championships, but a lot of very fond memories."

'A lot of charm'

Eight years later, Cowboy Field is a field only a cowboy could love.

With its lumpy infield grass, uneven outfield and muddy warning track, the neglected park has the feel of an abandoned warehouse. On a recent April day, tumbleweed stretched from the base of the wall to the top of the chain-link fence in the left-field power alley.

"I drove by the field and almost started crying," said former manager Bill Kinneberg, who has been back to Laramie only once since baseball left. "It wasn't in good shape at all. There were soccer goals, of all things, on the field. It was really terrifically sad."

Despite the atrophy, it's easy to see why UW baseball aficionados romanticize the stadium and its bygone splendor, when the grass really was greener inside the fences.

The evergreens beyond the outfield fence are still there, as is the Laramie Range in the distance.

"I think if they put some time and effort into it, it would be just gorgeous," said former UW star Greg Brock. "It would be one of the best parks around. With the trees fully grown, the setting is just great."

With a little TLC, Cowboy Field could be what it once was.

"It was the best place in the league to watch a game," said UW sports information director Kevin McKinney. "Wyoming had the premier yard. It had a lot of charm."

The problem, after all, was never the field.

The problem was the weather - springtime in the Rockies.

While blustery March afternoons and April blizzards are a source of pride to hearty Wyomingites, the moody weather never helped the baseball program. Like a major league team, UW flew south in February and March for a spring training of sorts, only its games against baseball giants in Arizona and California counted.

The goal often was to return to Laramie with something close to a .500 record.

"We had our first 25, 30 games on the road," Kinneberg said when outlining the difficulties the program faced. "I don't care how good of a team you have, that's tough. If you can survive that, you had some great character guys. We knew once we'd get back on Cowboy Field, no one was going to beat us.

"If we could survive."

The Cowboys frequently survived and returned to Wyoming near the top of the Western Athletic Conference in the late '80s and early '90s, when Kinneberg presided over the program. During his tenure as manager, UW won 30 or more games four times, compiling a 212-157 record in seven seasons.

Kinnerbeg and his mustache left UW in October 1992 to become the top assistant coach at Arizona State. After stints at Utah and Arizona, he is now a pitching coach in the Chicago White Sox organization.

"I'm unbelievably fond of it," Kinnerberg said of his time at UW. "For me, it was a chance to - I think I was 25 or 26 at the time - to coach a Division I team at such a young age. It was a great learning experience for me.

"And it was really a fun time in Wyoming athletics. Dennis Erickson had just gotten there, and then Paul (Roach) took over the following winter. There were four or five great years in football and in basketball, too. To me, it was a great time because people in the state were optimistic about the athletic department."

Kinneberg's best team probably was his 1990 squad.

Led by pitcher Scott Freeman and infielder Victor Vargas, UW churned through its schedule, setting a program record with 37 victories. When the Pokes took three out of four from perennial WAC power Hawaii at Cowboy Field with one week left in the regular season, they moved into a tie for first place in the conference.

The Cowboys certainly had enjoyed a number of memorable moments in their history. Not ticker-tape parade worthy, but UW made the College World Series in '56 under Bud Daniel and finished first in the WAC's Northern Division in '66.

UW even won the WAC's Eastern Division in '86 under Kinneberg, but with Utah, Colorado State and Brigham Young also in the East, the division was hardly a beast. Throw Hawaii and San Diego State into the mix and the overall WAC crown was an entirely different animal, one that UW hadn't savored.

To capture the '90 title, the Pokes had to sweep abysmal CSU (the Rams finished the year 9-42 overall and 4-24 in conference) in Fort Collins on the final two days of the regular season.

UW claimed all three of the opening acts against its Border War rival and led 9-6 in the seventh inning of the finale. But the Rams rallied, tying the score and sending the game into extra innings. In the bottom of the 10th, Scott Orcutt slugged a solo home run, shattering the Cowboys' championship dream.

"When we lost to CSU, I was as low then as I've ever been after any football or basketball game," McKinney said. "We were going to win the WAC."

They never would.

Aside from its debilitating schedule, other obstacles always seemed to block UW's path home.

What altitude does to a breaking ball is well documented. When pitchers heard Laramie's altitude - 7,220 feet, some 2,000 feet higher than Coors Field and its tee-ball-like scores - most wondered if that would also be their ERA and asked which way to sea level.

So much like the Colorado Rockies, the Cowboys tried to overwhelm their opponents by bludgeoning them into submission one base hit at a time.

The '88 team, for instance, knocked the ball around at a .350 clip. Bill Ewing, who batted .405 for his UW career, led the nation in home runs in '76 when he slugged 23. Brock, who later was a fixture in the Milwaukee Brewers lineup, holds the Cowboys' record for hits in a season with 86 in '78.

"Yeah, when you play at 7,000 feet, the ball is going to travel," Brock said. "You learned to hit which way the wind is blowing. … But we had some pitchers, too."

While UW specialized in hurlers who would grind it out no matter what the score, the program certainly wasn't bereft of quality arms. One of Brock's teammates, Felix Oroz, made it all the way to Triple-A after his time in Laramie.

When the Cowboys won a combined 73 games in '89 and '90, Freeman and Barry Goldman both left their fair share of hitters muttering. Freeman was named All-WAC both years and Goldman is the program's all-time wins leader with 30.

UW's proximity to Denver allowed the team to get an occasional ace like Goldman, who was from Colorado and wanted to pitch close to home. The University of Colorado had dropped its program in '80. In fact, since CSU and UW eliminated their teams, Air Force is the only Front Range school playing baseball.

With the relative dearth of Division I prospects in Wyoming, UW stocked its lineup with players from Colorado like Goldman or with diamonds in the rough like Brock, who was a late bloomer out of Oregon.

Jeff Huson, who excelled as an infielder for UW in the mid-'80s and later played for the Baltimore Orioles, fits into the latter category.

"I didn't have many choices coming out of junior college," Huson said. "I don't know if I would've made it to the major leagues if it weren't for Wyoming."

Once those players made it to UW, they found their niches.

So did the program.

"I thought we had some good teams there," Brock said. "I wouldn't have traded my experience for anything. Yeah, it was cold and windy. … (But) I really thought the whole program stood out. My experiences were great."

Shades of gray

There was one obstacle UW couldn't shake - one catcher who blocked the plate and held on to the ball no matter how hard the collision.

"Another big challenge we faced was all the talk of dropping baseball," Kinneberg said. "It was talked about all the time, and it was even talked about in the State Legislature.

"What other state in the country would talk about baseball in their state legislature? That's something I learned right away, that the University of Wyoming was the University of Wyoming and there was nothing else."

Before Dave Taylor took the managerial position at UW in '95, he went to Roach, who was still the AD, and asked him about the scuttlebutt he'd been hearing.

"I had heard prior to taking the job from one of the other coaches in the conference, 'Once (Roach) retires, they're going to go after the baseball program," Taylor said. "So I asked him about it and he said, 'There's no truth to that.'"

With a severe budget crunch at the university and Title IX compliance gaining teeth, it was apparent UW was going to eliminate a men's sport. The athletics department planned to add women's soccer and women's tennis, and that money had to come from somewhere.

"Unfortunately, coalbed methane hadn't been found yet," said Terry Roark, who was UW's president at the time. "We had to make a lot of cuts to the university's budget. We felt like athletics had to take its share as well."

UW faced a $9.7 million shortfall and the trustees looked to pare $6 million off the school's budget while hiking tuition. The athletics department was asked to cull approximately $200,000 from its books.

But Roach had good reason to believe what he had told Taylor.

Before he retired in October 1995, Roach recommended UW drop men's track and field - not baseball - to save the necessary funds.

"We did a survey of alumni and some fans - a pretty good cross section of the state - and baseball was a pretty high priority to them," Roach said. "It was something they wanted."

And it was something he wanted.

"I don't care if I say this now, Paul Roach saved that program year after year after year," Kinnerberg said. "He saved it because he had a passion for baseball and he wanted baseball in his athletic department. He made it a priority in his talks with the president.

"The day Paul announced his retirement, I knew baseball was done at UW. I don't know what happened behind closed doors, but there's no doubt in my mind, because of him, we had an extra 10 years of baseball at Wyoming. He never missed many home games.

"He's one of my heroes. He went to bat for baseball."

College baseball meant something to a number of folks in Wyoming.

"It was special," said Wyoming native and Rocky Mountain News baseball columnist Tracy Ringolsby, speaking for a state of hardball enthusiasts.

Thus, talk of eliminating the game, eliminating that part of their lives, understandably aroused passions that affected the tenor of the argument then, just as it clouds recollections now.

What happened is as black and white as can be: The UW Board of Trustees rejected the notion of purging track and field and instead targeted baseball. On Jan. 26, 1996, the trustees nearly unanimously approved $6 million in cuts, and UW baseball went the way of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hank True was the only trustee to vote against the proposal.

Why it happened, why the trustees banished baseball instead of track, involves neither black nor white but shades of gray.

Those who made the decision - or had the power to shape it - say track was spared because of the kids.

"Track was something that took place in every high school," Roark said. "There are (no) high school baseball teams. It probably makes more sense to keep track and field because of that. It's also a sport in which both men and women can compete."

Not only does the Wyoming High School Activities Association sponsor track and field, but a fair number of those students go on to compete for UW. Twelve of the 29 members (41.2 percent) of UW's 2003-04 men's track and field team hail from Wyoming.

"It's very simple," said Dave Bonner, who was a trustee at the time. "Track and field was a venue of opportunity for Wyoming kids. It's as simple as that."

The trustees also had good reasons to cut baseball. The program's spring break tour through California and Arizona siphoned money from the athletic department's account, and it kept the players out of the classroom for an extended period of time.

And there isn't any high school baseball in Wyoming, just American Legion ball.

The folks on the other side of the fence, the people inside the fences, said the trustees eliminated baseball because some members simply disliked the game.

"(I) do not buy," said Taylor, when asked if he believed the trustees' explanation. "I know there was some vested interest in the track program in the trustee arena."

Taylor and others pointed to Bonner in particular as holding a grudge against the sport, a notion Bonner vociferously rejected.

"Did it hurt like hell to get rid of baseball? Yes, it did," Bonner said. "… It hurt me, it pained me to be on the side that baseball should go. Baseball had to go because we had to make the budget work. At the time, we felt that was a decision that should be made and had to be made.

"It had to happen."

Baseball proponents also are still upset the trustees axed the sport shortly after Roach retired, when interim AD Dan Viola was running the department.

When asked if the trustees should have waited until a permanent AD was in place to make such a major decision, Viola said, "To be honest with you, yeah, I probably think so."

"But I know that a number of the trustees had been looking at the program for a number of years," added Viola, who is now the AD at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. "I kind of felt that when Roach retired, that was their opportunity to act on it."

For the record, Viola came up with an alternative plan that would have spared baseball by reducing scholarships and travel budgets for the men's and women's swimming and diving and track and field teams.

The trustees voted to eradicate baseball before hearing Viola's sales pitch.

"I thought it was (a viable option)," Viola said. "But the trustees had already made up their mind, which I thought was a real shame."

Would they have done away with the sport if Roach or a like-minded AD were in charge?

"I don't know that it would've been cut," Roach said. "The timing was done a year after I retired, which was interesting.

"Hey, maybe, maybe not."

Lee Moon, who ultimately replaced Roach, said the trustees technically didn't do anything wrong.

"You'd love to have baseball, but they made the right decision," Moon said. " … What are you going to do? Roach made a recommendation that they drop track and field. There were some trustees and very high-powered alumni that had some interest in track and field.

"As I've come to know over seven years, that's the politics of Wyoming."

No matter what you believe, it's doesn't change what happened.

"Obviously, they're nowhere close, but the two saddest days I've ever experienced here is the van crash when the (cross country) runners were killed (in September 2001) and when we dropped baseball," McKinney said. "I'll preface that with any time we drop a sport, it's tremendously sad.

"But I'm a baseball guy. I miss it terribly. We talk about it every spring."

Striking out for good

There is a club baseball team at UW.

It began play in '02, wears the same uniforms the varsity did and plays on the same field.

But it's not the varsity team.

That squad likely has struck out in Laramie for good.

"To add another sport just doesn't make sense," said current AD Gary Barta. "I would say there's not even a reason to."

UW's athletics budget - the smallest in the Mountain West Conference - is stretched to the breaking point as it is. With Title IX, adding baseball would mean adding women's softball, too.

Maybe it's for the best.

When Moon became AD, people used to pester him occasionally with the idea of bringing baseball back. Barta said no one has even broached the subject with him.

Isn't that what happens when something you love's been taken from you?

You move on.

But you don't forget.

"I think anyone who's gone to Wyoming knows how special of a place it is," said Huson, whose wife, Wendy, is from Cheyenne, and whose son, Kyle, frequently wears a Casey Bramlet jersey to school. "People used to ask me all the time, when I was in the majors, where I went to school. I'd say, 'Wyoming.' They'd say, 'They have a baseball program?' I'd say, 'They used to.'

"I'm very proud to have gone to Wyoming."

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.
0
0
0
0
1

Load comments