Athletics at JMU have a long history of success strewn with stories and campus legends that have lived on throughout the years. The university’s athletic program is characterized by the mid-major grind and an underdog mindset that has helped propel it to national conversation on many occasions. One such occasion came in 1983, when the JMU Baseball team, the Diamond Dukes, capped off a fantastic four-year stretch of baseball with a College World Series trip that led to the entire team’s induction to the JMU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2016.
The season started with an exhibition against the St. Louis Cardinals — yes, those St. Louis Cardinals — who were coming off of a 1982 World Series win and included Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Bruce Sutter. JMU athletic director, Dean Ehlers, was good friends with Cardinals’ manager Whitey Herzog, and they agreed to test their teams’ strengths in a preseason matchup.
As recounted by Dukes pitcher Kip Yancey, the game, which took place in St. Petersburg, Florida, was played by the Cardinals’ best players, including Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee and pitcher Jim Kaat — a 25-year veteran.
“We helped retire [Kaat]. We were tied five all in later innings, and they went ahead and beat us by one or two runs,” Yancey said.
He also noted that the publicity and recognition from that game in particular led to the raising of some of the players’ draft stocks.
The Dukes’ roster was stacked compared to the rest of its conference opponents. Yancey, the No. 1 starting pitcher for the team, had played on the United States All-Star team sponsored by the University of Miami with Tom Bocock and Lorenzo Bundy, two JMU alumni who had already graduated. Bocock graduated in 1982 and Bundy in ‘81.
The team played against Holland, Venezuela and a west coast team sponsored by the UCLA Bruins. Their track record included a win in an international tournament. The 1983 Diamond Dukes also had four members who would go on to be drafted to major league organizations.
With a roster full of gritty, determined players, the Dukes finished the regular season with a 32-9 record, unable to continue their two-year streak of 40-win seasons due to a large number of weather-related cancellations. The Dukes also weren’t able to win the Eastern College Athletic Conference, which included many of the teams that now make up the Colonial Athletic Association.
Even without the streak or conference championship under its belt, the team gained a controversial at-large selection to the East Regional NCAA Tournament. It quickly silenced critics with wins over South Carolina, ECAC South champion William & Mary, The Citadel and Delaware to go 4-0 and become the regional champion.
In Omaha, the Dukes faced the No. 1 team in the nation and eventual College World Series champions, Texas, which was the home of future seven-time Cy Young Award winner and Hall of Famer, Roger Clemens, at the time. Clemens wasn’t worked until later in the tournament, but the pitcher who started against the Dukes, Calvin Schiraldi, went on to win the Most Outstanding Player award for the tournament and pitch in the major leagues for eight seasons.
JMU looked like it would hold steady against the Longhorns in the first game of the tournament, but an 8th inning offensive masterclass led to eight runs scored by Texas and the Dukes eventually fell 12-0 in the first round. In the second round of the double-elimination tournament, the Dukes fell to No. 3 Stanford by a score of 3-1, only two runs away from advancing to play the Barry Larkin-led Michigan Wolverines.
When asked about his favorite memories of the 1983 season, Yancey said it came down to the people he played beside and the trips they took, saying, “I couldn’t have chosen a better school to transfer to.”
Yancey also gave special praise to former JMU President Dr. Ron Carrier for his role in furthering JMU athletics and the university as a whole.
“He would come down into the dugout and I remember him coming down to talk to me during a game against Richmond and he just said ‘don’t worry’,” Yancey said. “He was a very hands-on president…. If it wasn’t for Dr. Carrier, JMU wouldn’t be on the map the way it is today.”
Until UVA’s first appearance in 2009, JMU was the only Virginia team to make it to the College World Series.
"We'll always be the first team from Virginia to make it,” Babcock said in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Contact Will Watson at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more baseball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.