The Road to Omaha

Thirty years ago, the LMU baseball team put the program’s best performance into the record book, setting a standard ever since. This past April 16, the veterans of that club able to be present were toasted in a pregame tailgate and honored on the field by fans attending a game with archrival Pepperdine.

The ’86 Lions won 50 games and lost 15, which represented an unprecedented improvement — 23 more wins — compared with the season before, and their West Coast Athletic Conference record was an outstanding 19–5. The team steamed through a 13-game winning streak and also won 20 of 21 in the midseason. That run earned them a No. 1 ranking by ESPN. LMU finished the season tied with Pepperdine for first place, which set up a one-game, winner-take-all meeting, “all” being short for the WCAC automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Taking the field at UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium, the Lions took all that day, with 14–9 victory.

In a double-elimination tournament, LMU lost its opener to UC Santa Barbara, played, again, at the Bruins’ site. But the team then got the winning streak it needed, beating UCLA, UC Santa Barbara in a rematch, and Hawaii. The team’s offense exploded, recording run totals of 12, 10, 14 and 12 in those games. That stretch advanced the Lions into the tournament’s next round, known as the College World Series, played in Omaha. Eight teams would vie for the national title: Arizona, Florida State, Indiana State, LMU, Louisiana State University, Maine, Miami (Fla.) and Oklahoma State. None had fewer than 41 wins; two teams were making their 13th CWS appearance. LMU Coach Dave Snow told one reporter: “Our biggest strength is intangibles. What we got going for us is team spirit and feeling.”

In the first two matches, LMU would face LSU and Oklahoma State. Now a baseball powerhouse, LSU, like the Lions, were playing their first CWS games ever. Oklahoma State, on the other hand, had won 28 games in previous CWS appearances. Opening against LSU, the Lions snatched a 4–3 win. But they lost a close one, 7–5, to Arizona, the eventual champion. With a loss to Oklahoma State in the next game, the Lions’ run was over. Theirs was a remarkable season, and no team performs at that level without all cylinders firing, so to speak. But Billy Bean ’86, now Major League Baseball’s Ambassador for Inclusion, paid special tribute to a teammate in an April 2016 interview with LMU Magazine: “We rode Tim Layana’s right arm all the way to the College World Series.”

[gallery id="2243"]