• Editor’s note: The Transcript staff is writing columns this week about the first live sporting events that shaped them.
These were different times. Not that long ago, but long enough that flip-shade sunglasses were still cool.
The Chicago Bulls were really good. George W. Bush was in the White House. Kriss Kross’ single “Jump” was chasing Sir Mix-A-Lot and Boyz II Men atop the pop chart.
And Wichita State was experiencing glory days on the baseball diamond. Back then, in south-central Kansas the Shockers may as well have been the Yankees.
Wichita had just a few outlets for sports. WSU dropped football in 1986 and was in a basketball lull, not yet playing mad for Gregg Marshall.
The Global Basketball Association basketball was in town briefly with the Wichita Outlaws. A professional indoor soccer team, the Wichita Wings, drew some fans. A night spent watching the Wichita Thunder — a minor league hockey team in place well before NBA arrived in Oklahoma City — was not a bad treat.
But nothing beat WSU baseball. Nothing.
Gene Stephenson, an OU grad born in Guthrie, had the Shockers rolling. Many turnarounds have taken place in college sports, but his was truly one of the most unlikely. WSU practiced on empty lots in the 1960s; I only know because my dad played on those teams.
I figured they were All-American heroes — full-blown stars — based on what I knew about Stephenson’s Shockers. But that wasn’t necessarily the case. They were still just baseball players in college, not yet college baseball players.
By the time Stephenson was done, WSU was a national power with sources for funding, a glitzy venue and seven College World Series appearances, including the 1989 national title.
In random order, these were a few guys who wore the uniform well: Doug Mirabelli, Braden Looper, Toby Smith, Mike Drumright, Jamie Bluma, Casey Blake, Joey Jackson. (Jackson played second base and signed the back of a popcorn box once for me; back when starters shagged foul balls in the parking late in games.)
Our house imploded when the 1993 team lost 8-0 to LSU in the CWS final. But about half the city was there to greet the team on its turf infield when players returned from Omaha.
This was a college baseball team. It’s a wonderful sport. But it requires some serious star power and dedication to draw that kind of fan attraction. Those Shockers were the perfect combination of time, place and talent. Roughly 30 big-leaguers cut their teeth in Wichita under Stephenson.
The loudspeakers at Eck Stadium blared “Wild Thing” when Bluma took the mound in relief appearances. Joe Carter’s ghost loomed. When late spring shook off winter, the right-field hill at Eck Stadium was the place to be.
Then there was Darren Dreifort.
Dreifort was otherworldly in college. The 1993 NCAA player of the Year. If he wasn’t pitching he’d be the designated hitter (he slugged .708 as a junior). If he wasn’t doing that, sometimes he was in the outfield.
He had elbow problems and the big Major League career people envisioned for him didn’t work out. But he was a massive prospect; the Dodgers selected him No. 2 overall in 1993 and let him into a game without making a minor league appearance first.
Our family experienced this painful chapter in real time. If Dreifort went into an MLB game, it was appointment television in the Palmateer home. He went 0-5 his first season with a 6.21 earned-run average, and we saw where things were headed.
But Dreifort seemed like a great person. Years after his career ended a mutual friend of ours, an Oklahoma neighbor, arranged for him to visit to our house when he was in town. He shot hoops on the driveway. Our driveway.
Who knows what might have been different — in Norman and Wichita — had Stephenson wound up as the Sooners’ coach. He accepted the OU job in 2005 as Larry Cochell’s replacement, but quickly changed his mind. Sunny Golloway got the job and won a lot of games.
WSU controversially fired Stephenson in 2013 once the program began slipping and hasn’t returned to the postseason since. He was on the back half of his career, but had won 1,837 games there. Sometimes things don’t make sense.
Then, some things do.
Shocker baseball and the city of Wichita were a perfect marriage, even though they faced tall odds in the beginning. Eventually the wins came in bushels.
Back when the wheat was really tall.
Follow me @Tpalmateer83