One has his name on a stadium and the other a bronze bust just inside the gate.
We are up to our helmet earholes in gray eminence during the college baseball season, and a good thing, too. With both Washington State and Gonzaga back in the NCAA tourney for the first time in decades, who can bridge the anecdotal gap between then and now better than Bobo Brayton and Steve Hertz?
Only 1,858 victories between them, and at least that many stories.
They coached these programs for a collective 57 years and to NCAA trips when half as many teams made the field. Brayton even got his Cougars to the College World Series twice, though in true coachly form he rues the other years they couldn’t get past USC and coach Rod Dedeaux, whose Trojans won 10 national titles.
One of those years was 1966.
“The regional was supposed to be at Long Beach – it had lights and Rod’s stadium didn’t,” Brayton recalled. “But he got it maneuvered around to his place, which he had a way of doing – and I loved the guy. So we play Fresno first and darkness stops it at 11 innings. We pick it up the next morning and win in 13. We play them again and we’re stopped by darkness again after 10. That one we win in 15. Dan Frisella pitched all 11 the first day and the last five.
“Now we’re playing Rod. We’re tied and their center fielder (Shelly Andrens) – I saw him at the College World Series a year ago – bunts out in front of the plate and he’s running three feet inside the line. We hit him with the throw but the ump doesn’t call it, they score and we lose 4-3.”
The Cougs played 46 innings in three days.
“We were meeting ourselves coming back from the ballpark,” Brayton said.
Gonzaga’s nearest miss of the CWS came in 1980 when the Zags lost two slugfests with eventual national champ Arizona after twice beating Cal State Fullerton – their hosts this weekend. But going back to Fullerton triggered a different memory for Hertz.
“We’d bought an old Laidlaw school bus for 1,500 bucks,” he remembered. “We were so excited we had something to travel in besides our cars. We left here on spring break and played a three-game series at Fullerton, after they’d won a couple national titles. We roll in about noon and we’re waking guys up because we’ve been driving all night – and Chris Spring hits a double off the wall in left-center and beats them 4-3.”
It’s remarkable either of them can keep the names straight. Hertz coached two Dan Murphys, one joining the program as the other departed. Brayton coached two John Oleruds, father and son, both All-Americans. Sometimes you land a recruit knowing he’s going to break all kinds of records, as slugger Nate Gold did for Hertz. And sometimes you get lucky, as Brayton did with a pitcher named Eric Wilkins who “could really saw them off,” as Brayton said.
“He was a quarterback. My son was helping out the football team and said, ‘Dad, get this guy – he throws like hell and we aren’t going to play him.’ ”
Their legacies aren’t just victories and players, however, but also bricks and mortar. Brayton willed the construction of the stadium that now bears his name and Hertz retired from coaching expressly to fundraise for Gonzaga’s new palace. Those facilities haven’t evened the playing diamond, but they’ve helped.
Brayton bowed out at Bailey-Brayton Field in 1994. Naturally, there’s a story.
“We’re playing the Zags early in the year and we’ve got a hell of a hitter, Kevin Brunstad,” he said. “It’s a grounder to short and they get the guy at second and I look at first and nobody’s there. Kevin’s laying in the batter’s box – his knee went out. But the last game, I pinch hit him and he hits a home run and wins it.”
Hertz? He didn’t even see his last game at old Pecarovich Field in 2003 before turning the program over to Mark Machtolf.
“We’re playing the day before and the guy behind the plate is bad,” said Hertz. “Mac was chipping at him and he turns and points at Mac and goes, ‘Hey, you – you are nothing.’ Well, that just lit me up. I’m bumping him and, bam, I’m out of the game – and suspended for the next one.”
The goodbye game.
“So next day I’m driving around the ballpark with my wife – poor Vicki – and we’re getting killed and I’m using this awful language,” he said. “And she says, ‘You don’t talk that way in the dugout, do you?’ ”
As their teams sail into a new era today, neither man can hold back the pride. Brayton took time this week to call senior Jared Prince and thank him for restoring credibility to Cougar baseball. Hertz will try to keep a governor on his emotions in the broadcast booth, with little success – but with perspective.
“I have five grandchildren and a sixth on the way,” he said, “and this is exactly like having grandkids. You get to enjoy them and hand them back to Mom and Dad for the tough stuff. But it’s joyous, to say the least.”