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Three of college baseball's premier brands owe credit to the same guy

MCT via Getty Images

When Mississippi State travels to LSU this weekend, it will mark a huge showdown between a pair of teams that find themselves among the group of schools hoping for one of the NCAA's eight national seeds this summer. Both are seeking to emerge as the greatest challenger to Texas A&M in the ultra-loaded SEC West, and perhaps -- should they get on a May hot streak -- make a dash for the No. 1 slot in the top 25.

The team that currently sits atop the polls is Miami, which will be involved in a huge series of its own this weekend, hosting Virginia in an ACC showdown.

These three programs -- Mississippi State, LSU and Miami -- rank among the best and biggest college baseball brands of the last several decades. Their longtime success -- especially this season's three-fronted resurgence -- is just another chapter in the legacy of the godfather of the sport's modern era. Most knew him as the "Wizard of College Baseball." His name was Ron Fraser.

"The West Coast guys don't like to admit this, but Ron Fraser is the guy who woke this sport up," Ron Polk, a former Fraser assistant, once explained to me. "He's the one who turned the sport and the College World Series into what they are now. The 1982 series alone put college baseball on the map."

We'll get to the summer of '82 in a minute. But to tell Fraser's story, we have to start in the summer of '62. That's when Henry King Stanford, the president of the University of Miami, was watching TV, specifically the game show "What's My Line?" The contestant that night had the panel of celebrity experts stumped and laughing aloud. Finally, it was revealed that he was not just a baseball coach, but the coach of the Dutch national team, the just-crowned European champions. His name was Ron Fraser.

Stanford decided then he had just found Miami's new baseball coach. He tracked Fraser down and offered him a part-time job making $2,200 a year, with a second job as director of the Coral Gables Youth Center.

Fraser, a Nutley, New Jersey, native, took the gig despite the fact that the school had no uniforms, no equipment, no scholarship money and a rock pile for a field. Miami hadn't been a winning team, like, ever.

"I remember parking my beat-up old Volkswagen outside the fence and walking from the outfield all the way to home plate," Fraser told me back in 2007. "I don't think I stepped on a blade of grass once. I turned around, looked back over that terrible field and thought, 'Man, we've got some work to do.'"

The next spring, the Hurricanes took the field in secondhand uniforms Fraser got from some old Army buddies. You could still the "A" and the "Y" on either side of "Miami." He soaked old baseballs in milk. They turned a spectacular white, but they also developed a spectacular stench. Fraser coached up his Canes, but they were still bad. So much so that he was told the program was on the chopping block.

So Fraser got on the phone. He called every major leaguer who called Florida home ... and that was a long list. Joe Garagiola, Stan Musial and Ted Williams all showed up to boost Miami's visibility in the community. He called Miami alums and neighbors and asked for money. Cane supporter George Light wrote a check to name the field, now actually sprouting grass, and pay for ballpark renovations. They named it for George's son, Mark. Fraser even assembled a second team to help lure male students to games, a squad of ambassador batgirls, the Sugar Canes.

By 1974, he'd even squeezed a little scholarship money out of the university. That year the Canes improbably crashed the College World Series party in Omaha, an event long dominated by teams from Arizona and California.

"When we got to Rosenblatt Stadium in '74 it was like a drug, like an instant love affair," Fraser remembered. His team and its new funky green uniforms won three games and even pushed USC, the undisputed kings of college baseball, to the brink of elimination. "Once we got a taste of that atmosphere, how good it could be, once the university got a taste of it, that's what drove us all, just to get back."

Suddenly, Fraser was given money to spend, and suddenly, being a fan of Fraser's team was one of the coolest things to do in an increasingly cool city. The Wizard captivated those fans by becoming the master of in-game promotions. He held Tax Night, with accountants stationed around Light Field on April 15. He held Trip To Somewhere Night, when fans would arrive, bags packed, for a drawing to a TBD vacation destination, set to depart directly from the game. He gave away coupons for free heart surgeries (they were only valid for one year).

The Miami Maniac? He invented it.

In 1981, with a big regular-season series versus USC on the horizon, Fraser traveled to Bristol, Connecticut, moved into a hotel across the street from a toddler cable network called ESPN and refused to leave town until they agreed to televise the upcoming Canes-Trojans games. So they did. Miami swept the series, closing it out with a 10-9 win in 13 innings. That June, the Worldwide Leader in Sports brought its cameras to Omaha for the only the second time, and they've been there ever since.

Which brings us back to 1982.

"Looking back, it was one of those perfect-storm situations," Fraser recalled of a College World Series field that included superpowers Texas, Cal State Fullerton, Oklahoma State, Wichita State, Stanford, South Carolina, underdog Maine and -- in their uber-'80s Houston Astros knockoff uniforms -- Miami. "This was the first year that ESPN televised all 14 games. And nearly every game was great, especially ours."

Especially their second game, played against Wichita State. Stressed over the Shockers' legendarily aggressive baserunning tactics, Fraser huddled with his assistant coaches -- Skip Bertman and Dave Scott -- and Scott told them about a hidden-ball trick he'd seen a junior college pull off in a local Miami tournament.

"We had everybody in on it," Fraser explained. "From the coaches to the bench to the Sugar Canes, everybody."

With the score tied 6-6 in the sixth inning and speedster Phil Stephenson on first, Miami pitcher Mike Kasprzak threw over to first baseman Steve Lusby to send Stephenson diving back into the bag. But Lusby dove over the runner, cursed, and took off running for the right-field bullpen. The relievers in that bullpen jumped up. The second baseman and right fielder took off running.

Stephenson watched it all, realized that the pitcher had thrown the ball away, and took off for second. Imagine the Shockers', well, shock, when Kasprzak, who'd never thrown the ball, lobbed it over to the shortstop covering second base for the out. Miami won the game, and the College World Series won the summer, as the play was shown over and over on every sportscast from Omaha to New York, including on a very giddy ESPN.

The legend of that moment lives on today. That wacky play, known forever as the Grand Illusion, finally won the sport's wackiest coach his elusive College World Series title, coming in Miami's sixth trip to Omaha. It was the first such title for an East Coast school since 1966. He added a second just three years later. The CWS has been flooded with Southeastern schools ever since.

Fraser retired in 1992, driven around Mark Light Field following his final home game in a Rolls Royce while his No. 1 jersey was retired. It was quite the contrast to his Volkswagen arrival 30 years earlier. A few weeks after that ceremony, he coached his final College World Series game -- his 47th -- and received another standing ovation, this time at Rosenblatt Stadium. He'd won 1,271 games, second only to USC's Rod Dedeaux.

By that time, Polk had left Miami to become head coach at Mississippi State, turning the Bulldogs into a national power and eventually coaching three different programs to Omaha. Bertman took over at LSU in 1984 and went on to win five CWS titles. Fraser's disciples and then their disciples resurrected college baseball in the Southeast.

"Anyone who coached with Ron Fraser took what we learned from him and applied it wherever we went," said Bertman, who became athletic director at LSU and hired current coach Paul Mainieri, a Miami high school kid and the son of Demie Mainieri, a legendary South Florida baseball coach and friend of Fraser's. "And anyone who has ever attended a game in Starkville or at The Box in Baton Rouge knows that Ron's fingerprints are all over those places."

Fraser died in January 2013, just before the start of a new college baseball season, ending a long, cruel bout with Alzheimer's disease. During his final years, former players and Sugar Canes traded bedside shifts, tending to their coach and reading aloud stories about his antics in Coral Gables.

"Everything we do here is a tribute to what Ron did here," said current Miami head coach Jim Morris, who Fraser called personally to come to Miami in 1994. "He was my friend for more than 40 years. We unveiled a statue of him in front of Mark Light Field last spring. I catch myself talking to him. He's out there keeping eye on me and on this whole game of college baseball."

And this year, he might just watch his team -- or at least one of the many he influenced -- make yet another run to Omaha.

Vandy Boys = Boys of Summer: On Wednesday, former Vanderbilt righty Drew Hayes was called up to the Cincinnati Reds. That makes 10 Commodores in the big leagues currently, seven of whom are pitchers. Remember when Vandy wasn't good at baseball? Those days are growing smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.

Last weekend we all wish we'd been at ... Creighton. First, because they played five games in six days at TD Ameritrade Park, home of the College World Series. Second, because they won all five games. Third, four of those wins were by one run. Fourth, three of those wins were walk-offs. And fifth, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their amazing 1991 CWS run, the Bluejays went full old-school Rosenblatt Stadium with the scoreboard.

But on Tuesday night, we all wish we'd been at ... Kentucky at Louisville. A pair of top-25 teams that will both likely be in the NCAA field and both really don't like each other ... with this finish?! Yes, please.

But on Monday night, we all wish we'd been at ... Oregon State at Oregon. Speaking of teams that aren't exactly besties, the Beavers rebounded with a thriller win in Eugene after a bummer weekend during which they dropped two games to Washington State. Down 8-7, State scored three runs in the top of the ninth and held off the Ducks, who scored twice in the bottom of the inning but fell short 11-10. This Civil War Series matchup didn't count toward the Pac-12 race, but clearly neither team cared much about that. The Beavers are now 18-3 in nonconference games this season and lead the all-time series with Oregon 173-159. They play again in Eugene on April 27 and then hold a Pac-12 series in Corvallis May 13-15.

This weekend we all wish we were going to ... We already told you about Mississippi State at LSU, so that's a no-brainer. But Texas visiting Texas Tech is pretty nice little consolation prize. The Red Raiders are climbing the charts, ranked 13th after a two-week winning streak, and Texas is officially on "What's Augie Garrido doing next year?" watch as the Horns are fighting to get back over .500 for the season.

Uni Watch 2016: On Friday, April 15, there were tributes to Jackie Robinson on every level of baseball. But no one did it better than Fort Scott Community College in Kansas. The Greyhounds went full flannel with their No. 42s ... well, sort of. It was a faux flannel look on their standard material. Throw in the pockets and maroon stitching, and somewhere Robinson, the former UCLA standout, was surely smiling.