The epidemic of college baseball fever that is sweeping across Gamecock Country began innocently enough. The first outward hint began with a conversation to bounce an idea off an experienced listening post.
Paul Dietzel, then the athletics director and football coach at South Carolina, had become weary of in-state rival Clemson's whipping the bejabbers out of the Gamecocks in baseball and outlined his plan to Tom Price.
"He came by my office and suggested we go for a ride," Price, then the school's sports information director and now the historian for Gamecocks athletics, remembered in looking back three decades. "He did that, saying he wanted to take a ride, if he wanted to talk to somebody.
"We started up Rosewood Drive and he asked, 'What would you think if I hired Bobby Richardson to coach baseball?' "
Price knew the background. Assistant football coaches usually handled the USC baseball program in those days, the late 1960s, and, only a few years earlier, an English professor coached the team. No doubt, Richardson, a perennial all-star second baseman with the New York Yankees who recently had retired, would guarantee instant recognition.
"I told him, 'Well, since he's from Sumter, Bobby is a folk hero around here, but he doesn't have any experience in coaching and recruiting,' " Price said.
"I'm sure Dietzel had already made up his mind, and he said, 'I think I'm going to hire him anyway. He's going to be our guy.' "
The exact date of the "Richardson Ride" has been forgotten, but the results speak volumes. With the new coach, Price says, "We got really good in a hurry."
WATCHING THE PROGRAM PROSPER
Price, a Carolina alumnus, served the USC department of athletics from 1962 until his retirement in 1993. Before, he kept up with the Gamecocks by covering their games for United Press International. Since, he has been the historian and an observer at many events, and he has maintained his first love - the official scorer for the baseball team.
He goes back to the days that the current Sarge Frye Field did not have a name and consisted of a diamond and a backstop. The press area consisted of a table and three folding chairs.
More than anyone, he enjoyed a front-row seat in the baseball program's rise to occupy a place at the college game's head table. He remembers the good moments and the bad ones, the great players and lesser ones, and he can spin a story on almost any of the countless athletes who have passed through the program.
A big factor in the success that began with Richardson is the stability in coaching. Richardson stayed seven years, June Raines guided the program for 20 and Ray Tanner is in his eighth season.
Price, 77, recalls facts that even some of the participants have forgotten. He talks about the Gamecocks' first trip to the College World Series, reciting scores and big hits and special plays.
"That left-handed pitcher from up at Prosperity came in and saved the first game in the 1975 College World Series. He did a great job," he says, pausing. "I have trouble with names now."
In the middle of his next yarn, he stops and says, "Cromer! That's it; that's the pitcher from the '75 Series. Mike Cromer."
He pauses again, "Now, he's not related to the other Cromers (brothers Burke, D.T. and Tripp, who played later.)"
Richardson's first team, in 1970, went 14-20. The Gamecocks posted an 18-12 record a year later, then the recruiting class that included Earl Bass and Hank Small arrived, and their fortunes soared. Both Richardson's name and his connections with pro scouts played key roles in the recruiting success.
"Dietzel was (USC's) first A.D. to emphasize (the so-called minor sports), and he gave Bobby a blank check," Price says. "The NCAA didn't have scholarship limitations for baseball in those days, and Bobby brought in a lot of players. We could take 22 to the World Series that first time (1975), and they all had full (scholarships)."
Schools are limited to 11.7 baseball scholarships today.
" (Dietzel) told him to spend what is needed to (in order) to win and don't break any rules," Price says. "Bobby did just that."
SEVEN TRIPS TO OMAHA
Starting with Richardson's first NCAA team, in 1974, the Gamecocks have qualified for the national tournament 20 times in 31 seasons. USC will be going to the College World Series for the eighth time starting Saturday.
Three times the Gamecocks have finished second in the World Series.
Price is looking forward to adding to his collection of magic moments. A College World Series title would work nicely. But he has a "problem."
"My scorebook," he says. "The thing has pages for 80 games and we have played 65. I kept the other (three) regional games (and the Super Regional) in that book, and I tore outa couple of pages early in the year for a team that didn't have its book."
He ponders the problem and does some mental math.
"We could play as many as eight out there (in Omaha)," he says. "I could run out (of pages). I'll have to get an old book and paste some pages in the back to be sure."
Sixty-five games? The possibility of eight more? That's a far cry from that day Price went for a ride with the boss and came back with a nugget of information that started the Gamecocks on the route that often leads to Omaha.