By PAUL SUELLENTROP
Tribune News Service
WICHITA -- Fans showed up in their 1989 College World Series hats and shirts. Almost all of the Shockers showed up, older and grayer. No matter where life took them over the past 25 years, winning a national baseball title held them together.
"I always go back to that day in June 1989, always," said Pat Meares, an infielder on that Wichita State team. "It was such a cool moment. Being around the guys, it's like 25 years never passed."
Coach Gene Stephenson hosted a reunion for the 1989 team over the weekend, culminating with a public reception, sponsored by the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame, at the Wichita Boathouse. Fans, friends and family came to watch a replay of the championship game and listen to KFH radio voice Shane Dennis interview the participants while the CBS broadcast with Brent Musburger and Joe Morgan played on a big screen.
The crowd cheered when Shocker pitcher Greg Brummett picked a Texas runner off first base in the first inning, a signature move widely regarded as a turning point in the 5-3 victory over Texas at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha.
"Time flies by, but the memories are so vivid," said catcher Eric Wedge, who managed 10 seasons in the major leagues with Cleveland and Seattle.
All but two members of the team -- Joey Wilson and Jay Haffley --returned for the reunion. On Friday and Saturday, the team gathered at Stephenson's house for food and drink and stories. On Saturday morning, many of the players went to Eck Stadium to watch the current Shockers scrimmage and tour the baseball facilities, all of which are much different than in 1989. On Sunday, the players and Stephenson gathered for a picture. Fans and players took pictures with the championship trophy.
"I got a chance to play professional baseball for several years, and my best memories from baseball are from the 1989 team," said Brummett, the College World Series Most Outstanding Player. "I feel so fortunate to be a part of this group."
Stephenson, who took WSU to seven College World Series in his 36 seasons as coach, remembers the 1989 team for its ability to handle lineup-draining misfortune. The Shockers lost shortstop Mike Lansing and right fielder Jeff Bonacquista to injury before the CWS. First baseman Bryant Winslow played despite a stress fracture in his right leg.
"These guys faced adversity beyond belief," Stephenson said. "Seven times facing elimination, either in the regional or in the College World Series, and each time came back to win."
The 1989 Shockers slumped at the end of the season and lost the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament on their home field. The NCAA denied their bid to host a regional, sending them to Fresno State. WSU fell into the losers bracket and had to defeat the home team before advancing to Omaha. They needed to defeat Florida State twice before playing Texas in the title game.
"Each one of us knew how to win and expected to win," Brummett said.
By beating Texas, the 1989 team finished off a goal painfully missed the previous season in Omaha. The 1988 Shockers fell one win short of playing in the title game and that memory drove the returning players. Three seniors from the 1988 team -- Mark Standiford, Shane Durham and David Haas -- joined the reunion.
"It all started the year before," closer Jim Newlin said. "Guys remembered such heartbreak in the 1988 season and getting so close. We worked really hard just to get back in that situation again."
The appearance of the 1988 seniors made perfect sense to outfielder Mike McDonald, who credited Stephenson for training his upperclassmen as leaders to sustain success.
"I always told my dad that Gene ... really didn't have to coach that much because he's done such a good job building a program that the players coach the players," McDonald said. "You better play your butt off, or I'm going to get in the middle of it. I learned that from the upperclassmen."
Sunday's reception also reflected the messiness of Stephenson's departure from WSU after the 2013 season, when the school fired him. None of the activities took place at WSU. WSU did participate in Sunday's reception as a presenting sponsor and the athletic department presented coaches, players and others associated with the team a commemorative matted team photo taken in 1989.
Pitching coach Brent Kemnitz said he was not invited to the weekend's activities, a result of the tension between he and Stephenson. Kemnitz, who worked alongside Stephenson for 35 seasons, kept his job after Stephenson was fired and they have not talked since that time. Many players sought out Kemnitz on their own over the weekend.
Loren Hibbs, also an assistant coach on the 1989 team, did not attend because of his duties as coach at UNC Charlotte.