BIG JOHN'S BOMBS
On a magical day 25 years ago,
Byington’s legacy cemented forever with a pair of historic homers
by Rusty Burson
12th Man Magazine
One half of a step. And probably just one-tenth of a second. Maybe less.
That’s how close the Texas Longhorns were to turning the double play and sending the second game at Olsen Field on April 16, 1989 into extra innings. If that had happened, who knows how differently the outcome might have been?
The Horns appeared to have momentum—or at least renewed confidence—on their side after scoring three runs in the top of the ninth to tie the game at 5-5. When the Aggies put runners on first and second with one out in the bottom of the ninth, UT head coach Cliff Gustafson summoned Chris Gaskill out of the bullpen to face A&M shortstop Chuck Knoblauch.
Gustafson, Gaskill and the rest of the gang in burnt orange were looking to turn two and move onto the 10th inning, where Texas would look to win the game and the series against the No. 1-ranked Aggies, two games to one. And it initially looked like Gaskill had thrown the perfect pitch, as Knoblauch rolled a ground ball toward Steve Bethea.
Fortunately for Texas A&M, it was hit just slowly enough to allow Texas A&M’s Terry Taylor, who’d walked earlier in the inning and was running at first, to slide hard into second base, causing the throw to first by UT second baseman David Lowery to fade ever so slightly. If Lowery had been able to put a little more on the throw, he would have doubled-up Knoblauch and sent the game to extra innings.
Instead, Taylor’s slide allowed Knoblauch to beat the throw…by a half a step and a tenth of a second, if not less.
That’s baseball. As former legendary MLB executive Branch Rickey so aptly stated many decades ago, “It’s a game of inches.”
On April 16, 1989—arguably the greatest single day in A&M baseball history—the inches worked out in the Aggies’ favor. Knoblauch barely beat the throw, allowing John Byington to stroll to the plate with two on and two out in the bottom of the ninth.
Former Olsen Field public address announcer Derrick “D.D.” Grubbs had not even begun to announce Byington’s name when 4,967 fans inside the stadium and another 1,800 fans beyond the outfield fence began to applaud in anticipation. Everybody knew who was up next.
- Mark Johnson, Head Coach
One night earlier, Byington had homered in the ninth against Texas ace Kirk Dressendorfer. But it had not been enough. A&M entered the April 15 game against the Longhorns with a 40-1 record overall and a 9-0 mark in Southwest Conference play. A&M didn’t just beat teams in ’89; they bludgeoned them with perhaps the greatest lineup in school history.
But there was an air of uneasiness as the Longhorns came to town. From 1982-88, the Aggies were a combined 2-23 against Texas. And behind Dressendorfer on Saturday night, the Longhorns silenced the Aggies’ bats, along with the 5,409 fans inside Olsen Field, en route to a 6-2 win, just the second loss of the year for A&M.
“We lost the first game, and (former A&M head coach Mark) Johnson, who is typically very reserved, challenged us emotionally the next morning,” recalled Byington, now in his sixth season as the head coach and his 16th year on the baseball staff at McMurry University in Abilene. “I remember that well because Coach Johnson didn’t usually do that. But he wanted to get our attention.”
The message was apparently well received, as the Aggies scored seven runs in the first inning of the Sunday afternoon game that was televised regionally by HSE, a predecessor of FOX Sports’ regional networks. But Texas came back to score two in the third and eight in the fourth to take the lead and again take the air out of the crowd. The Longhorns kept pounding away, and UT led 14-9 heading into the bottom of the ninth.
Mark Johnson had used the term “Olsen Magic” prior to the bottom of the ninth inning of the Sunday afternoon game, but it took on new meaning afterward.
“I had used the term previously when I didn’t want to take a shot at the opponent,” Johnson recalled. “They would make an error or two, walk somebody and give us a couple runs late in the game, and I’d say, ‘Well, there was some Olsen Magic.’ That sounded better than, ‘Well, we won the game because they dropped the ball.’ But I really think we started winning some games with our own efforts, and the Olsen Magic started with that group in ’87 and ’88. People forget that those teams in ’87 and ’88 were pretty good, too. Those guys who were juniors in ’89 were good offensively as freshmen and sophomores, and we started winning some games, 9-8 or 11-10, and the confidence just kept building into 1989.
“We just believed that something magical could happen if we still had outs remaining.”
Perhaps the most dramatic rally in A&M baseball history began innocently, as Byington hit a hard grounder to Bethea, the UT shortstop.
“I don’t even remember if they ruled it a hit or an error, but I got on,” said Byington, one of three first-team All-Americans on the ’89 team. “Then I remember (Eric) Albright hit a routine double-play ball, and they booted it. Taylor delivered a big hit up the middle, and the next thing you know we had batted around.”
The game was tied at 14-14 and the bases were loaded with one out when Byington, the 10th hitter of the inning, returned to the plate. Gustafson went to the bullpen for Dressendorfer, the hero of the Friday night UT victory.
Byington suspected Dressendorfer would come after him aggressively, and Byington was zeroed in on the first pitch. He was hoping for a sacrifice fly. Instead, he lifted the high fastball over the wall in left field for a game-winning grand slam.
“I was thinking, ‘He’s a good, fastball pitcher, and I don’t want to get to the point where I am battling him with two strikes,’” Byington said. “I got a fastball up in the zone, and I honestly didn’t get all of it, but I got some help from the wind. I definitely wasn’t trying to hit it out, but it cleared the fence.”
A&M fans went wild, players stormed the field to greet Byington at home plate, and the Aggies celebrated into the locker room. But it was a short-lived party. Within hours of scoring nine runs in the ninth and storming to an 18-14 win, the Aggies took the field for the nightcap against the Longhorns in a game that was telecast on ESPN. A&M methodically built a 5-2 lead before Texas tied it up with a dramatic three-run homer by Scott Bryant in the top of the ninth.
In the bottom of the ninth, the Aggies put two men on and Gustafson countered by bringing in Gaskill, who’d pitched three innings and given up five runs in the first game on Sunday. But when he was at his best, Gaskill’s slider could be devastating. Knoblauch grounded to shortstop against Gaskill, but the inning was kept alive by Taylor’s slide into second and Knoblauch beating the return throw.
“The Aggies are on their feet,” former ESPN play-by-play announcer Tim Brando said on the national broadcast. “Byington’s at the plate; Gaskill has the slider; Byington’s had the home runs already in this series, two against Dressendorfer, the No. 1 pitcher for Texas. This is their No. 1 reliever. We’ll see what happens.”
- John Byington
As soon as those words left Brando’s lips, Gaskill hung a slider. Byington—guessing slider all the way—waited for it and swung, lifting the ball high and deep toward left field. The crowd roared as the ball sailed.
“Left-centerfield,” Brando said, his voice rising with excitement. “It could be. It is! A home run!”
By that time, Byington was trotting around first base, pumping his right arm triumphantly into the air as the capacity crowd inside Olsen Field howled, hollered and hugged one another in a moment of sports mayhem and sheer ecstasy.
“I made the comment at the time, ‘You don’t even dream up a scenario like that when you are young in the backyard,’” Johnson recalled. “You may dream about hitting a home run in the World Series against the Giants or something, but who dreams up doing that twice in the same day? I’m not sure what the mathematical chances of walking off with home runs in back-to-back games are, but it would probably be some pretty long odds. It was one of the most remarkable things I’d ever seen.”
Twenty-five years later, Byington, who still wears the No. 5 jersey when coaching, says people regularly remind him of that day.
“Yeah, it comes up every once in a while,” said Byington, who has three children, including an 18-year-old daughter who will be a freshman at Texas A&M in the fall of 2014. “It’s something that has been ingrained into the history of Aggies sports, which is something I am proud of. I was one of those kids who loved sports growing up and did dream up scenarios when I would throw the ball up into the air and hit it when I was by myself. I used to even hit rocks with an old wooden bat and dream of special situations.”
He never dreamed, though, that his imaginative scenarios would be topped be reality or that his heroics on a magical day would still be revered a quarter of a century later.
Baseball. It’s a game of inches…and of memories that last a lifetime.