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Matt Rotolante is a third-generation Miami Hurricane fan. His parents were Canes. His grandmother was a Cane. So there was no better place for him to be Monday afternoon than Coconut Grove's Sandbar Sports Grill, watching the University of Miami baseball team battle to avoid elimination from the College World Series.
Oh sure, there was his job as a commercial real estate broker. But Rotolante just had to see whether his alma mater could get past archrival Florida State. What kind of Cane would he be if he weren't there for The U in its most desperate hour?
"I think they're gonna make history," Rotolante said confidently early in the game, glancing up at a row of flat-screen TV sets stationed above all the fishing memorabilia and beer kegs. "I think they can do it."
The Canes had to make history to have any hope of claiming their fifth national championship. In the team's tournament opener two nights earlier, closer Carlos Gutierrez had made a two-run throwing error that allowed the University of Georgia to rally and win 7-4. The defeat plunged Miami into the loser's bracket, which is essentially the College World Series' departure lounge, a place to spend some time before your inevitable ouster.
Since the tournament began in 1947, only 10 teams have taken the title after losing their first game. Southern Cal and Oregon State are the only ones to have done it since 1980. The reason is simple: Opening-game losers must win four in a row just to reach the championship series. Few teams have that kind of stamina.
Do the Canes? They certainly had high hopes going in. Part of that was owed to history. Coach Jim Morris likes to tell the story of how, while touring the team's facilities during his job interview in 1993, he spotted an NCAA runnerup trophy being used to prop open a bathroom door in the locker room. Since then, he has delivered. You want championships? Morris has doubled the Hurricanes' total, winning titles in 1999 and 2001. You want major-league prospects? He has coached Phillies slugger Pat Burrell and Red Sox shortstop Alex Cora, among others.
Before the first game, the Hurricanes sported a 52-9 record, were the number one team in the USA Today/ESPN poll, and were the top seed. His players expressed the confidence you'd expect from them. "We feel like we can go out there and win it," second baseman Jemile Weeks said during a break in practice at Mark Light Field on June 11. "We're just going to go out there and play our game, and we should be able to beat a lot of teams with the way we play."
For many teams, talk of sky-high expectations is taboo. Most players don't want to risk a backlash if they don't win it all. But not these guys. "It's an incentive," Weeks said. "You've got the fans and the city on your back saying, 'We know this team has to be great, it's supposed to be great, it needs to make it.' So we put it upon ourselves to go out there and prove we can do that."
So after they arrived in Omaha and lost to Georgia, the Canes were down. But the longtime FSU rivalry inspired them. Miami had beaten the Seminoles twice during the regular season. And players on both teams knew each other from high school. FSU pitcher Elih Villanueva, a Miami native who started the game, made some Hurricanes blood run hot when he told the Sun-Sentinel on game day that "it would be huge to send them home."
Miami's 2008 title hopes flickered briefly when Dennis Guinn slapped a run-scoring double in the first inning to give Florida State a 1-0 lead. The tiny crowd at the Sandbar fell silent. College baseball is not a huge draw, and daytime college baseball is an even harder sell. "We get more of a football crowd," waitress Aryel Del Cueto said. "You should see this place in the fall."
Things perked up, at least at Rotolante's table, when Weeks hit a two-run homer in the third inning. High-fives were exchanged as Miami took its first lead of the game. Junior right fielder Dennis Raben followed with a two-out double to score two more runs, and everyone agreed there would be something special about beating Florida State. It's a great baseball rivalry, but as Rotolante's friend Alex Nimz added, "It's a really great football rivalry."
In the seventh inning, Jason Hagerty singled with two outs to drive in two more runs. Blake Tekotte followed with a solo home run in the eighth, and suddenly the Canes had a seemingly safe 7-2 lead. "I love it," Rotolante exulted. "I love Hurricanes baseball!"
That love was tested in the top of the ninth. Morris pulled set-up man Kyle Bellamy in favor of his closer, Gutierrez. The right-handed reliever had done well during the regular season, and the Minnesota Twins' took him in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft. But until this outing, he'd had a difficult postseason. His ninth-inning woes against Georgia had not been forgotten. Rotolante ordered another beer.
Sure enough, FSU's first two batters hit singles. Said Rotolante: "Thank God we're up by five runs."
Not for long. Two ground outs brought home a run, and after giving up two more singles, Gutierrez took no chances with national player of the year Buster Posey. He walked the .463 hitter. Miami's lead was down to 7-5, and the bases were loaded with two outs. Thundering over the TV speakers was an ominous chant from the fans at Rosenblatt Stadium: "Let's go Noles! Let's go Noles!"
Sandbar was pretty much empty except for a small knot of increasingly nervous patrons seated at a table near the bar. Posey led off first base, representing the go-ahead run. But just as the Seminoles seemed poised to take the lead, Jack Rye tapped a grounder to Weeks at second for the final out of the game. Florida State's season was over. Miami moved on. The Canes will play Stanford on Wednesday.
Rotolante raised his arms triumphantly and then turned and headed for the patio. The back of his bright orange UM T-shirt read, "We've never lost a party."
The Hurricanes, alas, have a long way to go before they can celebrate. They must defeat Stanford and then win two more games just to remain in contention. After everyone else has been eliminated, the two finalists meet in a best-two-out-of-three championship series for the NCAA title. Essentially the Canes have become long shots after entering the tournament as favorites.
But hope has not been abandoned. Said Rotolante: "There's a difference with this team." As to the nature of that difference, the 1997 UM graduate didn't say. History will be the judge of that.