Every time Arizona State head baseball coach Tim Esmay takes his seat in the dugouts of Rosenblatt Stadium, he can still see Jim Brock sitting there with him.
Brock was first Esmay's coach, then his boss, and even now, 16 years after his death, Esmay's ASU mentor.
Arizona State athletics CWS fans still get emotional about former Arizona State coach Jim Brock's final game.
This year marks Esmay's seventh trip to the College World Series, his first as a head coach. The first three trips came with Brock. Esmay was an infielder for the '87 Sun Devils and an assistant coach in '88 and '94. They were the first team sent home in '87, lost the championship to Stanford the following year, and came within one game of making the championship round again in '94.
But when the longtime fans of the College World Series hear the name Jim Brock and see the maroon and gold taking the field at Rosenblatt Stadium, they don't think about wins and losses, his two CWS titles in '77 and '81, or even his trademark "discussions" with umpires, which happened in nearly every game.
No, the image that sticks with the people of Omaha is of a frail, cancer-ravaged Jim Brock, feebly sitting in the Rosenblatt dugout, literally dying as he coached what would be his final game.
At the end of the '93 season, his 22nd as ASU head coach, the 56-year old had been admitted to the hospital for a surgical procedure to try to dig cancerous tumors from his colon. In the months that followed, the recovery did not go well. As the '94 season began, the cancer had fought back and moved into his liver. No one wanted to say it aloud, but the aggressive chemo treatments that he endured between games that spring weren't as much to save his life as they were to preserve it in the hopes of making a 13th and final pilgrimage to Omaha.
The Devils slugged their way through the Pac-10, ending the regular season with a fistfight and loss to Stanford, after which Brock got tossed from the game by chewing on the ears of the umpiring crew. It was a signature moment from the admittedly cantankerous coach. It was also the last game he would coach at ASU's Packard Stadium.
Prior to travelling to Knoxville, Tenn. for the NCAA regional, Brock confided to Phoenix sportswriter Paul Rubin: "I've got so much damned chemo in me right now, I can't possibly die. I've made it this far personally, and we've made it this far as a team. We may as well take the next step."
In other words, Rosenblatt Stadium. A few days later the Devils defeated Tennessee to make that happen.
On June 4, 1994, a muggy Saturday afternoon, Arizona State took the field at The 'Blatt for Game 1 of the College World Series. Brock gingerly made his way into the dugout, unfolded a lawn chair, and took his seat to watch his Devils take on the top-ranked Miami Hurricanes. In the days leading up to the start of the CWS, he had pleaded with the media and his peers for the game to be about the team and the players, not about him. It hadn't worked.
CBS televised the game with one camera dedicated solely to the dying coach and another to his family, particularly wife Pat, sitting above the dugout. National media outlets, even those who normally wouldn't give college baseball as much as a box score on the back page, sent writers and reporters to Omaha to capture the story of the 57-year old coach who was literally giving his life to the game.
In the second inning, already sensing a potential breakdown in his squad, Brock called his team in close, tighter than normal because he was unable to shout. That was hard for him. When he'd taken the job in 1972, he was roundly criticized for his "if they all hate me, they'll play harder" coaching approach. It was the total opposite philosophy of his legendary predecessor, three-time CWS champ Bobby Winkles, and it had made Brock's get-to-know-me period with the baseball-crazed ASU fans a hard one. Winkles was a quote machine. Brock was all business.
As the team gathered around him, Brock could speak barely above normal conversational volume. He told them that merely getting to the College World Series was nothing and not to assume that just because they were at Rosenblatt meant they were ready for Rosenblatt. He told them that they looked flat, and Miami did not. He took deep breaths between each sentence and finally growled "Move it up a notch."
They immediately went out and scored their first run of the day, then added three more to defeat the No. 1 team in the land, 4-0. The team, including assistant coach Tim Esmay, filed through the dugout and congratulated their coach.
Then Pat and the rest of the Brock family came down to help him stand, fold his chair, walk up the stairs and climb into a waiting golf cart. Those remaining from the crowd of 14,000 watched in silence and then began to applaud as Jim Brock left Rosenblatt for what would be the final time.
Two days later, the Devils played again, this time against Oklahoma. The plan was for Brock to be there, but he was unable to get out of his hotel bed. Fifteen minutes before the first pitch, his daughter came to the ASU dugout to say that her father wouldn't be coming, but she'd wanted to bring his lawn chair. The image of Brock's empty chair in the dugout caused fans in the old ballpark to weep.
The next day, Brock was airlifted home to Arizona, where he watched the remainder of the College World Series from his hospital bed. They advanced all the way to the semifinals, before losing a heartbreaker to the Sooners, who went on to win the championship. That game was played on June 8. Three days later, shortly after being told that Oklahoma had beaten Georgia Tech for the title, Jim Brock slipped into a coma and passed away.
"In six decades of baseball in this old ballpark, there are few memories that stir up the kind of emotions that Jim Brock did in 1994," says Lou Spry, the official scorer of the College World Series since 1981. "Even now, nearly 20 years later, those of us who have been around Rosenblatt Stadium for so long can hardly tell that story without breaking down. I don't know if there will ever be a greater symbol of what this event and this ballpark means to so many people."
For Jim Brock it was, quite literally, life or death.
Ryan McGee is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Road To Omaha: Hits, Hopes and History at the College World Series," which chronicles the excitement and passion of the CWS, is now available on paperback.