MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - When I used to promote the West Virginia University baseball team back in the 1990s, getting someone from Baseball America to answer your phone call was about like getting a Supreme Court justice nominee confirmed - virtually an impossibility.
It is the first time since Baseball America began ranking college baseball teams in 1981 that West Virginia has ever cracked its rankings.
College baseball’s other longtime poll, Arizona-based Collegiate Baseball, had the Mountaineers ranked 16th at the conclusion of the 1982 season on the basis of their victories over Rutgers in the Eastern 8 Championship and their NCAA Tournament triumphs over Old Dominion and East Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina.
Back in the 1960s, West Virginia was once a regular occupant in Collegiate Baseball’s top 20 when coach Steve Harrick was producing Southern Conference championship teams in 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1967 during his final season coaching the Mountaineers.
But when Harrick reached the state’s mandatory retirement age that year, WVU was also in the process of developing the financing plan to construct the WVU Coliseum, which was to be built right on top of West Virginia’s baseball field.
So, not only did the baseball program lose its hall of fame coach, it also lost its playing facility and a good portion of its funding.
That’s what 26-year-old Dale Ramsburg had to contend with when he took over in 1968. He finally got his own field in 1971, located in what was basically a swamp below the Coliseum, but a lack of resources was always Ramsburg’s No. 1 issue during the 26 seasons he coached the Mountaineers.
In the 1970s, probably baseball’s biggest feat was establishing an NCAA record for team fielding percentage in 1971, a mark that lasted 40 years until San Francisco eclipsed it in 2011.
Then in the early 1980s, Ramsburg managed to soldier on and produce teams good enough to win Eastern 8/Atlantic 10 titles in 1982, 1985 and 1987.
Seven years later, in 1994, when Ramsburg was nearing the end of his brief battle with cancer, he led the Mountaineers to their final Atlantic 10 tournament title by outlasting St. Bonaventure at an American Legion baseball field in Boyertown, Pennsylvania.
Because the Atlantic 10 had lost its automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, Ramsburg had to suffer the indignity of playing St. Peter’s College in a play-in series in Morgantown before reaching the NCAA Atlantic I Regional in Miami, Florida.
A program first: West Virginia has finally cracked Baseball America's Top 25 poll.
I believe West Virginia was the No. 5 seed in that regional, and it defeated sixth-seeded Rider before getting eliminated from the tournament by Florida.
Two years later, second-year coach Greg Van Zant had West Virginia back in a regional when his upstart Mountaineers surprised Notre Dame, Rutgers and St. John’s in the Big East tournament behind the professional arms of Mike Riley and Chris Enochs.
Riley then beat Tennessee ace R.A. Dickey in West Virginia’s NCAA opener in Clemson, South Carolina, and Enochs followed a day later by knocking off Georgia Southern. But WVU ran out of arms and was bounced from the tournament by Clemson and Tennessee.
That two-week run remained West Virginia’s biggest moment in baseball until West Virginia was invited to join the Big 12 Conference in 2012.
The move forced West Virginia to re-evaluate its support for baseball.
What was it going to take to make the Mountaineers competitive in one of the best baseball conferences in the country?
How much was it going to cost?
Who was the right person to oversee the transition?
Where was West Virginia going to play?
Was it even worth it for the Mountaineers to continue their baseball program in the Big 12?
Those were some of the prevailing questions former director of athletics Oliver Luck wrestled with when West Virginia transitioned from the Big East to the Big 12 in 2012.
If you recall, the primary concern throughout the Big 12 was the damage the Mountaineers might do to the league’s overall RPI. Remember, the conference was in the process of absorbing the losses of Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri, and while TCU mitigated some of that, bringing in West Virginia was not generally considered a victory in the eyes of the Big 12’s baseball coaches.
But Luck was able to locate a proven coach with a baseball pedigree - TCU associate head coach Randy Mazey; he got county and state politicians on board to construct a new baseball stadium near Interstate 79, and soon, West Virginia’s baseball profile started to rise.
Last year, Mazey had a team good enough to snap West Virginia’s 20-year NCAA Tournament drought, but the Mountaineers were unable to close the door in the late innings against TCU in the Big 12 Championship game.
Yet the disappointment experienced last year in Oklahoma City has only served to fuel this year’s team.
West Virginia, facing perhaps the toughest schedule in school history, has won 21 of 34 games so far, including eight over nationally ranked opponents, and last weekend took two out of three from a Horned Frogs program voted No. 1 in the preseason and seeking its fourth straight trip to the College World Series.
More than 7,400 college baseball fans came out for West Virginia’s three-game series against TCU, including a Monongalia County Ballpark record 3,415 on Saturday afternoon.
Interest in and enthusiasm about WVU baseball have never been greater.
Now, one day after West Virginia came back in the bottom of the ninth to plate two runs against TCU, the Mountaineers have finally gotten the attention of the fine Baseball America folks down in Durham, North Carolina.
These days you don’t have to call them anymore, you can simply tag them in a tweet. Most of the tweets are ignored, but sometimes they get through.
It’s been a long time coming for Mountaineer baseball, that’s for sure.