View Full Version : And Now for Something Completely Different

10-27-2005, 06:32 PM

I thought that you would get a kick out of this article. I used to play pickup BB with Freddie and Francis at the local Y in Raleigh. Freddie turned out to be an All American DB for the Wolfpack and their White Shoes defense in '67. Enjoy. I posted this in the fan section also.

TIM PEELER: Remembering Esposito's 'River Rats'

The 1968 baseball team, the only squad in school history to reach the College World Series, will reunite at Homecoming this weekend.

Oct. 27, 2005

RALEIGH - There was perhaps no greater surprise in NC State athletics history than what happened in 1968, when a wet-behind-the-ears coach took a young team within sight of the school's first national championship.
It didn't happen in football or basketball, but on the baseball diamond, behind the guidance of former Chicago White Sox utility infielder Sam Esposito.
This weekend, nearly four decades later and more than a quarter century after its last reunion, the members of that team are gathering back in Raleigh to remember one of the sweetest, if somewhat forgotten and unexpected, chases for a national championship in school history.
Esposito, who never had a losing season in his 21 seasons as State's head baseball coach, didn't know what kind of team he would have in 1968. In his initial year at the helm, State went 11-11 and there was no reason to believe that the Wolfpack would contend for the school's first Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
But Esposito had two freshman pitchers, future Major Leaguer Mike Caldwell of Tarboro and Joe Frye of Fairmont, and a wily veteran in senior lefty Alex Cheek of Greensboro, and that was enough to keep the Wolfpack competitive nearly every time it took to the field.
It was not an offensively dominant team, though third baseman Chris Cammack and outfielder Steve Martin both won All-America honors that year, thanks in part to timely hitting. The Wolfpack also got help from a pair of football cross-overs, outfielder/defensive end Freddie Combs of Hertford and shortstop/quarterback Darrell Moody of Asheboro, plus some solid catching from Freddie's brother, Francis Combs.
But it was pitching that helped the Wolfpack win the school's first ACC title. Caldwell clinched the league championship with a masterful 4-0 victory over Wake Forest in the regular-season finale, allowing only a single on the first pitch of the game. That runner was erased by catcher Francis Combs while attempting to steal second and the only other baserunner that day was wiped out in a double play.

Caldwell, motivated by the opportunity to take his first airplane ride, won two games for the Wolfpack in the NCAA Region III playoffs in Gastonia, as Esposito went toe-to-toe in the final game with his old Chicago White Sox teammate Fred Hatfield, who was the coach of Florida State.
Caldwell, who went on to pitch in the majors for 14 years for four different clubs, beat the nationally third-ranked Seminoles 4-1 that evening with a five-hitter, qualifying the Wolfpack for the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., and giving the baseball world a peek at his future success.
The native of Tarboro spent 14 years in the big leagues with San Diego Padres, San Franscisco Giants, the Cincinnati Reds and the Milwaukee Brewers. He had a career record of 137-130, which includes two the Brewers' victories in the 1982 World Series, which they lost in seven games to St. Louis. Caldwell was 22-9 for the Brewers in 1978, finishing second to the New York Yankee's Ron Guidry for the American League Cy Young Award.
As a freshman, however, his fastball/sinker combination helped the Wolfpack accomplish something that hadn't been done in the school's 65 seasons of baseball before or the 36 seasons afterwards: a trip to Omaha for the College World Series.
The three pitchers each compiled 8-2 records for the season, and combined to pitch 21 complete games during the Wolfpack's 34-game schedule. The three pitched 14 complete games in the Pack's final 16 regular-season games, with Cheek pitching the second half of the season with a broken toe he suffered while jumping down steps while trying to sneak out of the school infirmary.
It was a remarkable season for Esposito's two dozen "River Rats," all but three of whom hailed from North Carolina. Esposito, who had played for the 1959 Chicago White Sox team that lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series, brought with him an energy and exuberance that the Wolfpack didn't have under former coach Vic Sorrell, who had been at the helm for 21 seasons before Esposito took over.
There wasn't a lot of power on the team, even though the Wolfpack averaged nearly seven runs a game. Most of them were manufactured, with steals, hit-and-runs and squeeze plays, the kind of go-go game that Esposito played with the White Sox.
The Wolfpack, which hit only 12 home runs all season, stole more than three times as many bases (59-19) as its opponents and averaged more than nine hits a game. It was a team that was well-schooled in fundamentals of hitting.
http://graphics.fansonly.com/photos/schools/ncst/sports/m-basebl/auto_action/328715.jpeg Freddie and Francis Combs were part of the Wolfpack's surprising run to the 1968 World Series
http://graphics.fansonly.com/schools/ncst/graphics/spacer.gif"Esposito made us work hard at the fundamentals," said Francis Combs, the starting catcher in 33 of the 34 games that season. "We did a lot of hit-and-run, a lot of bunting. He played the game the way it should be played.
"He didn't let us overlook the little things, like hitting the ball to right side with a man on second to get him to third base. We did a lot of double-steals and squeeze plays. We did a lot of fundamental stuff in practice, like pitchers covering first base, the kind of stuff you hate to do. But we did it all the time, stuff I don't remember us working on before."
In Omaha, the Wolfpack opened with a 7-6 victory over Southern Illinois, then lost to St. John's in its second game, as Caldwell suffered only his second loss of the season Cheek pitched State to a 6-5 win over second-ranked Texas, despite a five-run third inning by the Longhorns.
But he settled down after that, holding Texas scoreless until the ninth, when Caldwell came in to get the final two outs.
The next game was against powerful Southern California, which had already won four of its NCAA record 11 national titles under legendary coach Rod Dedeaux. But, playing in the fourth game of the Series, the Wolfpack had to turn to little-used sophomore pitcher Tom Smith of Asheboro, who had logged only two previous starts on the year.
Smith pitched admirably against the nation's top-ranked team, allowing eight hits in eight innings. But, for the first time all season, the Wolfpack offense failed to produce a run, and the season ended with a 2-0 loss.
The offense had three opportunities late in the game, but each was squelched by a big defensive play. In the sixth, Francis Combs led off with a single. After a fielder's choice by Smith, Clem Huffman hit a shot to the gap between centerfield and leftfield that was snagged by the Trojan centerfielder.
The Wolfpack loaded the bases with three singles in the seventh, but that threat ended on a double play. Martin, the outfielder from Lawsonville who was the Wolfpack team captain in 1969, opened the ninth inning with a double, but no one was able to get him in against USC starter Bob Vaughan, one of the few times during the 25-9 season that the Wolfpack failed to get a clutch hit.
Now, some 37 year later, most of the members of that team will gather again in Raleigh. According to Martin, who organized the reunion, all but two members of the team will be on hand for the reunion, which will include recognition Saturday at the Homecoming football game against Southern Mississippi.
It will certainly be the end of a terrific week for the 73-year-old Esposito, who celebrated on Wednesday as his hometown White Sox won their first World Series title since 1917.
With just a little more offense in Omaha, he also might have been celebrating the 37th anniversary of NC State's only College World Series title.

You may contact Tim Peeler at tim_peeler@ncsu.edu.