Randy Martz stood resolute on the mound in the first meeting between the South Carolina and Clemson baseball teams during the 1977 season.
With the Gamecocks clinging to a slim lead in the bottom of the ninth inning and the Tigers threatening to rally, wet weather was creating an issue on the mound. Clemson coach Bill Wilhelm took a trip to inspect the conditions and told the USC right-hander that it wasn’t too slippery to pitch.
“He was trying to psych me out,” Martz said. “June (Raines) came out and said, ‘Hey, are you all right?’ I said, ‘You ain’t taking me out of this game.’ I finished it, and that’s what I did a lot that year.”
Martz finished the game — one of 10 complete games he would throw that season — for an improbable 2-1 victory in late March of that year. The long history of the USC-Clemson series has produced plenty of high drama, but as the teams prepare to meet in their annual series this weekend, that game stands out.
The Gamecocks made the trip to Clemson with a 13-6-1 mark after coming off a tough road trip to Florida, where they lost once to Florida Southern and twice to Eckerd. The Tigers, meanwhile, sported a 26-0 record and held the No. 1 national ranking.
But things changed dramatically for the Gamecocks with that win, which began a 30-6 stretch run that didn’t end until a 2-1 loss to Arizona State in the College World Series national championship game in Omaha.
“That was the day we grew up as a ballclub,” Raines said of the victory against Clemson. “Randy went out there with a determination that he wasn’t going to lose the game.”
USC center fielder Mookie Wilson remembers the impact the win had on the Gamecocks.
“It’s a game that means an awful lot to this club. Beating them really gave us the confidence we needed to move on,” Wilson said. “There are certain games that define your team, and I think that game defined who we were. We opened a lot of people’s eyes, including Clemson’s eyes, as to how good this team was. We were much better than our record indicated at the time.”
Wilson, Martz and Raines reunited this past Saturday at Carolina Stadium, where the 1977 team was honored with CWS rings, which they did not receive at the time because it wasn’t standard practice. They enjoyed reminiscing about that unlikely season, which featured Raines as a new head coach.
The 1977 Gamecocks beat Clemson twice more in Columbia, and although both teams advanced to the CWS, they did not meet in Omaha. That 30-6 run vaulted the 6-foot-4 Martz, a converted football player, and the electrifying Wilson, a junior-college transfer from Spartanburg Methodist, into national prominence.
Martz left football after he couldn’t run coach Jim Carlen’s option offense like Jeff Grantz and Ron Bass, which prompted Carlen to move him from quarterback to tight end. So he showed up on the diamond, went 14-0 in his only season and was named the national player of the year. He became a first-round draft choice of the Chicago Cubs and pitched four years in the major leagues.
“I was trying to test my waters out. I knew that I could throw a little bit,” Martz said. “But when you beat one of those kind of teams like Clemson, then your confidence builds and you go from there. I was one of those cocky guys who said, ‘I don’t care who I face, I’m going to challenge you.’ That was my style.”
Wilson, who hit .357 with eight homers, 33 RBIs and 33 stolen bases that season, was named second-team All-American, drafted in the second round by the New York Mets, and played 12 seasons with the Mets and Blue Jays, hitting .274 with 327 stolen bases. He’s most famous for hitting the ground ball that rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs and catapulted the Mets to the World Series title against the Boston Red Sox.
Wilson’s credits his one season in Columbia as the jump-start for his long career. He still smiles when discussing the antics on the bus rides to Rosenblatt Stadium during the CWS.
“It was the time of my life. It was great,” he said. “Your teammates help you progress and evolve into the player that you wish to become. Playing here at Carolina really gave me the boost I needed to move on.”
What USC accomplished remains unique. They were playing with a new coach, two football players in Martz and pitcher Scott Thomas, a basketball player in Ed Lynch, two key junior college transfers in Wilson and catcher Johnny Long, and a freshman at shortstop in Greg Jonson.
And they had key veterans in second baseman Mark Van Bever, first baseman Johnny Hinkel, and outfielders Chuck McLean and Don Repsher. Wilson, Martz, Lynch and pitcher Jim Lewis, who lost the title game, would all go on to play in the big leagues.
“It was like a storybook,” Martz said. “There was a crazy combination of players and how we got there and June’s trust in us to do the things we did. It’s just too bad the story didn’t end with us winning it all.”