SOME THINGS IN baseball cannot be explained.
The New York Mets, a team steep in pitching for most of its first 50 years of existence, had never thrown a no-hitter until left-hander Johan Santana did so in 2012. The Chicago Cubs, winners of 16 National League pennants, have not won a World Series since going back-to-back in 1907 and 1908.
With Virginia losing in the championship series to Vanderbilt this past week, the ACC has not won a College World Series since 1955. That was so long ago, it was the same year the first McDonald’s restaurant opened.
“It’s tough to explain,” is the best Clemson coach Jack Leggett can offer about the ACC’s championship drought, which has left his program – and the other powerhouse clubs in the league – thirsty ever since Wake Forest won the NCAA crown back when teams wore wool uniforms and used wood bats.
This hex – or jinx or whatever you want to call it – would be easy to explain if we were talking about the Mountain West Conference or the Big East, where programs do not place as much emphasis on baseball as the SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 or ACC.
Even the Big Ten, which rarely sends a representative to College World Series these days, piled up five national championships since the ACC last won one. Minnesota captured titles in 1956, ’60 and ’64, Michigan did so in ’62 and Ohio State in ’66.
We are talking a dry spell of epic proportions by the ACC, widely considered one of the top baseball leagues in the country. The SEC and Pac-12 annually produce the best baseball and have done so for decades, but the ACC is in the mix with the next level that also includes the Big 12.
This is not about arguing if the ACC is as strong a conference in baseball as the SEC or Pac-12. This is about trying to explain why its member institutions always come up short in the College World Series.
The ACC has fielded powerhouse programs for a long, long time. Clemson has reached the College World Series 12 times from its first appearance in 1958 to its last in 2010. Florida State has been to Omaha a futility-record 21 times without winning, including the past 10 appearances as ACC members.
At various times, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina and now Virginia also have been considered among the nation’s top teams and programs. Ten times in the past 16 years, the ACC has had at least two teams represented in the College World Series.
“I don’t look at it as the ACC hasn’t won it because we’re not good enough or we’ve been dominated,” Leggett says. “I don’t think that’s the case at all. It just happens it worked out that way.”
Perhaps most telling about this weird streak was how the 2006 College World Series played out. Clemson, Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina comprised half the field in Omaha that year.
North Carolina advanced to the championship series against Oregon State. The Tar Heels were beginning a stretch in which they reached the College World Series six times in eight years.
UNC and Oregon State split the first two games, then the Beavers pushed across a run in the bottom of the eighth inning for a 3-2 victory and the national championship. A year later, Oregon State swept UNC in the championship series.
Chad Holbrook was an assistant coach in the UNC dugout both of those years. So, Holbrook, now the head coach at USC, has seen the ACC’s streak and the SEC’s recent success – four national titles in the past six years – from both dugouts.
Holbrook says the SEC’s success stems from every member in the league placing an emphasis on baseball once LSU went on its run of five national titles from 1991 to 2000. Now, he says, SEC teams benefit in the postseason from having played difficult weekend series throughout the regular season and from playing in top-level stadiums throughout the league.
In many ways, the other leagues are catching up to the SEC. The ACC has improved its facilities across the board, and Virginia might be the best example of how pumping money into a program can help it attain elite status.
This year, the Cavaliers were the nation’s top-ranked team through some of the regular season and played their way to Omaha, looking every bit like a national championship team. Then it came down to one game for the title, and, once again the ACC came up short. Virginia lost the decisive game by one run to Vanderbilt.
Even those, such as Holbrook, on the SEC side of things are at a loss to figure why the ACC has gone nearly 60 years without a national championship.
“It’s tough to explain because there have been some awfully good teams in the ACC,” Holbrook says. “Obviously, Florida State and Miami and North Carolina. ... It’s just tough to explain because it’s certainly not because teams are not talented enough to win. They are, and then some.”
So, maybe the ACC will break the hex, end the streak and win a national championship next season. And maybe the Chicago Cubs will win the World Series.