'So incredible': Ex-stars Abbott, Larkin, Sabo, others riveted by Michigan baseball surge

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

The Michigan baseball team is close, but as everyone knows, close is never quite enough. Just ask the many standout players before them, some of the best to ever play at Michigan and who went on to outstanding Major League careers. It is always an honor to get there, and so many former Wolverines came close to College World Series championships but just were not able to make that final push to a title.

Jim Abbott

These current Wolverines, unbeaten in the CWS, have two opportunities to win one game, beginning with Friday’s matchup against Texas Tech, to clinch a spot to play for a national championship and enter rarefied air – a chance to win it all, joining the Michigan teams that won national championships in 1953 and 1962. This is the Wolverines’ first appearance in Omaha since 1984, when guys like Barry Larkin, an MLB Hall of Famer, and Hal Morris and Scott Kamieniecki were on the team.

A year before that, when the Wolverines reached the CWS, they boasted an infield that included Larkin and Chris Sabo, who both won the 1990 World Series along with Morris while with the Reds. Larkin would make a return visit with the team on that 1984 team, the last Michigan team to reach the CWS.

Northern schools aren’t supposed to compete for college baseball’s top prize with teams from the south and west that enjoy near-perfect weather year-around. After all, it has been 35 years since the Wolverines reached the CWS, and UM is just the second Big Ten team to make the CWS since 1984, joining Indiana in 2013.

Michigan is making its eighth CWS appearance in the program’s long history. The Wolverines played in Omaha in 1953 and 1962, winning those titles, and then had a string of success reaching the Series in 1978, 1980, 1981, 1983 and 1984.

 Former players, some of the best to ever play for Michigan, have been captured by this team’s run. Teams from different eras have group cell phone texts, some of which include 50 or more who played for the Wolverines, reconnecting old friends. They are hanging on every pitch, some making the trip to Omaha to watch in person, others finding time in their busy schedules to keep an eye on the TV and online coverage.

“We’ve been riveted. We’ve been watching every inning,” former Michigan standout pitcher Jim Abbott told The Detroit News in a phone interview this week.

Abbott, who helped lead the Wolverines to Big Ten titles in 1985 and 1988 and won the Sullivan Award winner as the nation’s best amateur athlete in 1987, never got to play in a CWS.

“The process has just gotten so difficult,” Abbott said. “It used to be, you won a regional and you got to go. It’s three different layers now and you add the Big Ten tournament on top of that. It’s a long, difficult process and there’s good teams in every regional. It just seemed like such a difficult path and this team took it to extremes and got there. It’s just been so incredible to watch.”

When Abbott arrived at Michigan, he knew the lore and the baseball history there.

"I remember coming to Michigan in the fall of ’85 just after they had made a couple World Series appearances and I saw the pictures on the wall and I played with some upperclassmen who played (in Omaha), and the stories were Paul Bunyanesque,” Abbott said, laughing at the memory that sounded like something out of the movie “Bull Durham.” “They were, like, mythical. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, Omaha? What’s that?’

“It’s like this mystical land, and it’s remained that way in my mind to this day. To see them there now, it’s almost beyond belief. It’s like, ‘They’re back,’ and that carryover is going to happen for the young kids coming in. It’s going to hold that same place in their imagination.”

'It's been way too long' 

Chris Sabo, the standout third baseman from Detroit who played at Catholic Central, is now the head coach at Akron. He has two Michigan alums on his staff, Jordan Banfield and Dan McKinney, a pitcher whose Michigan career was cut short because of injury. Sabo, a first-team All-American, was able to enjoy one of those Paul Bunyanesque moments and played on the 1983 team that finished third at the CSW.

Chris Sabo

“We’re all excited,” Sabo told The News this week. “It’s been way too long. Obviously, during my era, Michigan was a perennial top-10 program and went to the World Series seemingly every year. Times have changed and kids don’t necessarily stay in Michigan. I’m from Detroit, and Michigan was the only school I wanted to go. I was recruited by the Miami of Florida and the Arizona States of the world, but there was no way in heck I would have gone to any of those schools. A lot of kids thought the same way I did, and that’s why we had good programs.

“I’m thrilled for (Erik) Bakich. He’s a hell of a coach. I’m glad he decided to stay there and hopefully he continues to want to stay there. Obviously, I’m biased, I love Michigan. I just think it’s the best place ever and I still do. My former teammates think the same way. They really love that place, and we’re so thrilled. It’s been a long time since Michigan’s won a national championship. We never came close, we came in third, but that would be awesome if they could do it. They’re in great position.”

Larkin grew up in Cincinnati and was an Ohio State fan. The Buckeyes recruited his brother, but they never looked at Barry Larkin to play football or baseball. Bo Schembechler recruited Larkin to Michigan to play football and was redshirted his first season.

“And Bo made the decision to let me just play baseball,” Larkin said in a phone interview this week. “I used to tell him all the time that was the best football decision he ever made in his life. He didn’t take too kindly to that.”

Barry Larkin

As he watches this Michigan baseball team, Larkin can’t help but admire the grind-it-out approach reminiscent of Schembechler’s teams back in the day. He believes Michigan has all the right ingredients to win a national championship.

“Pitching is everything – if you don’t have pitching, you won’t win,” Larkin said. “If you do, you have a chance no matter what kind of offense you have.

“We talk about how the game has changed, and guys are more concerned with the launch angle, and the exit velocity, and you look at that Michigan team, they grind you down. It’s three plays and a cloud of dust. It really is. I love it. I love how Bakich has gone about it. During the season it’s nice to hit all the homers, but the most important games of the season, good pitching and small ball is what wins. It’s what wins tournaments. It’s what wins World Series.”

'Everything clicked' 

Dave Campbell played on the 1962 national championship team and then spent eight seasons in Major League baseball. He had a long television career as a baseball analyst. He has followed this team closely, in part because of his ’62 teammate and close friend John Kerr, whose grandson, Jimmy, is the Wolverines’ starting first baseman. To this day, Campbell gets choked up discussing Kerr’s amazing back-to-back pitching performance in the NCAA regional in 1962 on 20 minutes rest. He pitched 10 innings in the first game, 9 in the next and threw 313 pitches to win both games, and Campbell calls it “the greatest one-day performance ever” in the history of Michigan baseball. He is still waiting for Kerr to be inducted into the Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor.

But because of Kerr and because he’s a Michigan alum, Campbell has taken a keen interest in this team.

Karl Kauffmann

“I watched them a few times on the Big Ten Network this year and I kept thinking, ‘Well, this is a nice team, but I don’t see them in the upper echelon,’” Campbell said, laughing. “But all of a sudden, everything clicked. The one Achilles heel they’ve had this year, their bullpen has not been exposed so far, so as long as the starting pitching holds, they’ve got a heck of a chance.

“I would dearly love to see them win. It would be a tremendous story. I do not think they’re the best team in that tournament, but they probably weren’t the best team in the regional and they weren’t the best team in the Super Regional. If the starting pitching can keep them in the game, the have a heck of a chance.”

Tommy Henry pitched a complete game shutout in Game 2 to give the Wolverines a 2-0 record in the CWS.  They face Texas Tech, which they beat in the first game, on Friday for a shot at making the championship series. Karl Kauffmann was the starter in the first game, and pitching has been an enormous lift for this team in the postseason.

“Henry was superb, and Kauffmann is just as good,” Abbott said. “Those guys are moving up the list. Tommy was so polished. I never remember being even close to polished in college, with three different pitches he was throwing with command.”

Led by their pitching

For Lary Sorensen, who pitched three years at Michigan and was drafted by the Brewers in the eighth round in 1976, he describes not playing in the CWS as a “great disappointment” even now. He remembers his time at Michigan fondly and calls many of his former teammates “friends for life.” He loves what he’s seeing from this team and how this run had reconnected so many of the former players. Like Abbott, he has been partial to the pitching.

“What (Henry) did and what Karl Kauffmann did in the Supers, I said to (UM pitching coach) Chris (Fetter), he just pitched,” Sorensen said of Kauffmann. “He didn’t try to strike everybody out, he didn’t try to show off for the scouts. He said, ‘I just need to get an out here, how best do I do it?’ It was pure baseball, and Henry did the same thing. That’s good coaching and it’s knowing yourself.”

Moby Benedict, 84, played for Michigan from 1953-56 and was on the first national title team, and he was an assistant coach in 1962 when the Wolverines won again. He would coach Michigan for 17 years and led the program to three Big Ten titles and the 1978 World Series, where the Wolverines finished fifth.

“It brings back really pleasant memories,” Benedict said this week. “It’s so nice when a Midwest school gets to the World Series because our weather is so unpredictable. It’s very important to recruit good players. We did that and went there and won the World Series.”

Erik Bakich

Those who have been there, even before the added regional tier, know how difficult this road can be. George Foussianes was All-Big Ten in 1979 and 1980, won the Big Ten Medal of Honor in 1980 and was on the 1978 and 1981 teams that won Big Ten titles. He played in the ’78 World Series when Benedict coached. Foussianes, now managing director of Foros, played six years professionally, but his time at Michigan is what he most cherishes.

“I don’t think I’m different than anyone else – when you think about what they’re doing, it’s a phenomenal run against all odds,” Foussianes said. “It’s very difficult. You look at these great teams, they all have 20 losses. It’s not like they’re invincible. You have to be darn good and fortunate in a variety of different ways. It is a great tradition of Michigan athletics, in general, and Michigan baseball, in particular.

“I told the coaching staff this, I’m more impressed with how they handle themselves as a team. My hope is they can win a national championship, but I’m far prouder of the way the program is conducting itself, what it stands for, the adversity they’ve come through. They have unflinching support of one another.

“I told the coaches, these are life lessons, these aren’t baseball lessons. I’m old fashioned in that way but that’s what college athletics is for. Some of these kids are going to be fortunate enough to play professionally, but even that is going to be fleeting, right? These lessons will stay with them forever with whatever they do. That’s what I think really matters.”

Another national title? 

Sabo won’t be able to make it to Omaha for the remaining games because of his work at Akron, but he expects a “ton of dudes” who played at Michigan will make the trip.

“They’re all proud of these guys,” Sabo said. “There’s no jealousy. You want them to win. It would be great for the school, it would be great for Michigan baseball.”

While these former Michigan players went on to great success after college, they never earned the ultimate prize of a College World Series title.

“Any time my alma mater does well in any sport, it’s a great thing,” Larkin said. “It’s special for any alum to be able to support the Block M. I bleed the maize and blue and it’s something that stays with me and I’m very proud of it.”

They’re all hopeful this team can bring the first national title to Michigan since 1962.

 “It’s fun to see Michigan baseball take their place on the national stage, but also within the athletic department,” Abbott said. “We’ve got some good teams and Michigan baseball is putting themselves right there. Tell them we’re rooting for them, all points north and south, east and west.

“We have a lot of pride. It’s great to see that jersey on that field in Omaha.”

Michigan vs. Texas Tech

When: Friday, 2 p.m.

Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.


At stake: If Michigan wins it will advance to the College World Series championship finals. If Texas Tech wins it will play Michigan again on Saturday at 2 p.m., with that winner advancing to the CWS championship finals.