By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - As vividly as those who were there remember the epic home run that ensued, it's the previous pitch - the one on which nearly everyone in Tallahassee thought David Ross struck out - that served to heighten the drama.
Twenty years ago today. May 24, 1997.
Trailing NCAA East Regional host Florida State 7-1 at the seventh-inning stretch, Auburn, the home team, rallied for single runs in the seventh and eighth, but still trailed 7-3 in the bottom of the ninth.
Rob Macrory led off with a single and scored on Jamie Kersh's two run home run that made it 7-5.
Tim Hudson walked. After a strikeout, Derek Reif's infield single put the tying runs on base.
A fly out to right field brought Ross, Auburn's backup catcher, to the plate with two away.
On a 1-2 count, Ross foul tipped a pitch off the glove of FSU catcher Jeremy Salazar.
"Their kid made a very good pitch and he swung," Coach Baird remembers. "And for everyone in the stadium--including myself--I thought he had swung and missed to end the game. I've seen photographs of their players coming out of the dugout, celebrating, and people in the stands celebrating. And in the very back of the photograph, you can see the umpire giving the signal of foul tip, and I remember thinking, 'You know what, this really may be something,' because it looked like the game was over."
Leading off second base, Hudson, too, momentarily thought the game had ended.
"I'll be honest with you, I probably took a few steps off second base thinking that he caught it, too," Hudson said. "And then I saw that he missed it, and got back on second base.
"I just remember David battling. The one thing I remember, I remember sitting on second base at one point thinking, golly man, how awesome would it be if he would just get ahold of one and hit a homer. What an unbelievable ending to a game, not really thinking, what's the chances of it happening?
Macrory, back in the dugout after scoring on Kersh's homer, sat next to his coach as Ross took a ball to even the count at 2-2.
"And I looked at Coach Baird, and he looked at me, and he just smiled and winked at me right there, right before the pitch," Macrory said. "As soon as he winked at me, I just had this strange feeling came over me and I stood up and walked to the front step."
What followed was arguably the most momentous swing in Auburn baseball history.
"He threw a slider that hung in the zone, and everything kind of went to slow motion from that point forward," Macrory said. "I mean the pitch kind of went in slow motion, and David, he obviously picked up the pitch out of his hand or he was looking slider, and the pitcher hung the slider and he just crushed it."
"David just drops the head on a baseball and hits a home run," Hudson recalls. "Just one of those things where I didn't really believe what I was seeing at that time."
In the dugout, Baird instantly assessed the magnitude of Ross' blast.
"There was no drama once he hit the baseball. When he hit it, it was clearly going to be gone," Baird said.
Representing the tying run at first, Reif wasn't so sure.
"I remember him crushing one but I didn't think it was going to be a home run at first," Reif said. "When I was on first, I was running absolutely as hard as I could to try and score until I could see Coach Renfroe, who was our third base coach, celebrating like it was a home run, and then I slowed down to enjoy the moment."
Something else caught Baird's eye - his baserunner at second soaring high above the infield at Dick Howser Stadium.
"Tim Hudson was on second base as I recall, and I remember sort of looking out there and his feet were at least - he had a vertical of about 45 inches after that thing was hit," Baird said.
Hudson scored, then waited for Reif and Ross, whose three-run homer capped a five-run ninth, giving Auburn an 8-7 win.
"It was really overwhelming, realizing what had just happened," Hudson said. "I just remember coming around third base, and everybody was going crazy and everybody was mauling everybody at home plate."
That's when things got wild, especially for Auburn's coach.
"The funniest thing about the whole thing is, when I crossed home plate, I remember seeing Coach Baird, and Coach Baird had just gotten pummeled by everybody, got his glasses knocked off," Hudson said. "I remember stopping what I was doing and reaching down and grabbing Coach Baird's Oakleys and handing them to him."
Macrory, who had been seated next to Baird in the dugout a minute earlier, now found himself near his coach again.
"The emotion kind of took over and we were running and celebrating," Macrory said. "We were waiting for David to get to home plate. The guys from the bullpen had come down and met David right as he was crossing home plate. So the wave of people just ran everybody over. I got run over and I was on the ground and I looked and Coach Baird was on the ground right next to me, just looking at each other on the ground. That was kind of a cool moment."
Amid a gathering mob of celebratory teammates, Reif scored the tying run.
"I remember touching home plate and then just getting lost in the shuffle because there was just such mayhem waiting for Ross as he made his way toward home plate," Reif said. "Poor Coach Baird gets absolutely clobbered by somebody. It is kind of comical. Coach Baird gets knocked down and he loses his glasses, and you can see him stand back up, put his glasses back on, just in time for Ross to touch home plate."
The Seminoles were down, but not out. Auburn's win came in the winner's bracket of a six-team regional, forcing FSU to immediately play again, a 6-5 win over South Florida, then come back the following day, needing to beat Auburn twice to advance to Omaha.
"It was mayhem," Reif said. "It was kind of fun because playing at Florida State can be a real challenge. Their crowd is fantastic, and that place just going absolutely silent, with the exception of us cheering and getting happy.
"So it was really a contrast of two emotions where you've got the home team, Florida State, and the stadium being dead silent, and us just being ecstatic, knowing we had to win one more game to move on to the World Series."
Florida State won the first game 9-7, but with Hudson striking out 12 in the championship game, Auburn won 5-2, earning its trip to the College World Series.
"It was a pivotal game," Macrory said. "I think you could sense that whoever won that game was going to end up going to Omaha. We had Tim Hudson coming back around. Florida State had to beat us twice, and with Tim being one of those starters, we just knew that their way to Omaha was going to be a tough road trying to beat Timmy."
Hudson was in the big leagues two years later, on his way to a 17-year career, 222 wins, and a World Series championship. Twelve years later, he and Ross would reunite as teammates on the Atlanta Braves.
"It takes you back to baseball when you were a kid, and it was just fun," Hudson said. "I wasn't the only one shedding tears after that game. I was really happy for our team. Obviously for David, too. Looking back on it now. He was the guy that, at the time, coming into the regional, wasn't our starting catcher.
"He was the backup catcher behind Casey Dunn, and because Casey had an injury, David was able to step in, and hit one of the, if not the biggest home runs for Auburn University. Not only that, to do it in his backyard, in his hometown. I think he went to high school I think a stone's throw from the baseball stadium. It was just overall a storybook tale and ending for us and for David."
Twenty years later, Auburn fans still revere the magic of May 1997. For the players and their esteemed coach, that special season is forever etched in their memories.
"It was really, as a singular moment, it would be hard for me to say anything could top it, from a drama standpoint and what it ultimately led to," said Baird, enjoying retirement in Auburn.
"The first thought that comes to my mind is what Billy Hitchcock said to me weeks later when we were reflecting back," Baird said. "Billy told me that in his 65 plus years of association with Auburn athletics, that he considered that moment to be one of the two most dramatic moments in Auburn's athletic history, and the other was the Punt Bama Punt game.
"For someone as esteemed as Billy, that really resonated with me and I think that sort of comes to mind now almost as quickly as any of the feelings I had or the reaction I had to it just because of Billy's stature and his knowledge of Auburn's athletic history."
Macrory, a senior in '97, stays close to the game, operating a baseball and softball training facility in Montgomery.
"What I remember fondly about the team is the group of guys who were there and how close we were," he said. "The thing that really separated us was our competitive nature amongst the group, and how we competed in practice. We practiced at a very high level of concentration and competition. When it came to game time, it slowed everything down for us. We were hungry to win and we wanted to make each other better as teammates."
Reif, a pharmacist in Kansas City, remembers a mix of talent and teamwork.
"Good teams obviously have to have a lot of talent," Reif said. "Plus, we had that camaraderie that every team tries to build. We just meshed. We liked each other. We had that chemistry. And I'm not sure you can ever manufacture that. It almost has to be just genuine."
"To build a world series team, you have to have a pitcher who can go out and beat anybody on any given day, and we had that with Huddy. You have to have a closer who's not scared to get into any type of situation and can get out. We had a guy, Patrick Dunham, who was just arrogant enough to think he could get anybody out in any situation. He was a character and fun to play with.
"You have to have middle of the order guys who can really hit and drive in runs, and we had that with Hudson and Josh Etheredge and Jamie Kersh. But then we had a bunch of role players, who were just happy to be playing and they wanted to win, and they didn't care if they went 0-for-4 as long as the team won. All of those things coming together as the perfect storm."
"We just had a group of guys who were winners," Hudson said. "We had a horrible year in '96, couldn't even make the SEC Tournament, but we were able to rebound in '97 and have a group of seniors and juniors who were really disappointed from the year before, who were determined not to repeat that kind of season. We also had a really good freshman class come in. We were able to not only have a good foundation from our upperclassmen, but our underclassmen as well.
"We just had a bunch of baseball players go out there and did the little things every day on the field and off the field to try to be the best team we could be. It showed. Throughout that season, once we started winning and playing good baseball, it started becoming contagious, and we just started believing that we were a good ball club. It went on into the postseason and into the College World Series. Looking back on it, it was some of the best, most memorable times that I've had on a baseball field."
Coach Baird ranks the '97 team among his best.
"That ball club, I consider one of the top three or four that I had at Auburn and was capable of winning a national championship with the depth of the pitching staff and all of the great players," he said. "I think we won fifty games, I believe, and that would have been one of only a couple Auburn teams that ever done that.
"But it was a very special group, with a lot of what people like to call chemistry now, they had it, they really liked each other and it was extremely talented, so they really checked all the boxes. They had great talent, great attitude, great people, and virtually every one of them has been highly successful in life, which tells you a lot about what kind of people they were even back then.
Ross, of course, went on to become "Grandpa Rossy," the emotional leader of the 2016 Chicago Cubs World Series champs, closing out his career with a home run in Game 7.
During his final MLB season, seated on the dugout at Wrigley Field, Ross wiped away tears while watching a video tribute from his 1997 Auburn teammates.
"I am who I am today because of you," Ross said. "You guys, big influence on me. All of you guys, Coach Baird, the whole Auburn family. Thank you for your support and War Eagle!
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer