There had been reports that the baseball program at Cal State Fullerton was--well, in ball-yard jargon--down by a ton of runs in the ninth inning with no ducks on the pond.
Word was that the Titans had one oar in the water, were pitching hay without a fork, pounding nails without a hammer.
The program was feeling the heat, taking some serious music on the chin. Compared to past glories, the Titans were now just hitting bleeders, killing gophers. There were no more long taters or frozen ropes you could hang the laundry on.
Then again, maybe it was just a case of a good team having a few off-seasons. But at Fullerton, that's serious stuff.
After winning their second NCAA national championship in 1984, the Titans missed the playoffs in 1985 for the first time in 11 years. It was a news bulletin. Then they missed the playoffs again in 1986. It was a catastrophe.
This season showed so much promise that the conference coaches got together and picked Fullerton to finish third in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn.
That's an insult most years, but it wasn't in 1987.
The league readied itself for a season of Titan-bashing, a time to get back at the team that had dominated West Coast collegiate baseball for a decade.
As Titan outfielder Ken Garcia put it, "Everyone wanted a piece of us."
It didn't matter that not one player remained from the 1984 title team or that these Titans barely filled out the sleeves of their uniforms.
A Titan is a Titan. A reputation is a reputation. And tradition, especially when suffering, is subject to the abuse that comes with mediocrity.
The Titans, it seemed, were ready to be stalked and taken.
It's part of baseball's law of natural selection. Opponents this season would pounce on the Titans as a lion on wounded prey. For Fullerton, the road would be rougher, the crowds louder, the pitches closer to the cranium.
The Titans had some choices to make. They could decide to accept their weakened physical condition, succumb to the pressure and set their sights on a nice, cozy third-place finish.
Or, they could fight back. This choice would entail winning one-run games with pinch-hit singles and scoring runners from third base with less than two out. It would mean hitting cut-off men instead of three-run homers.
It would mean doing more with less talent and turning singles into doubles and doubles into triples.
The Titans have chosen to fight back, and for it they have been crowned champions of the PCAA.
This Titan team is not to be confused with the title teams of 1979 and 1984. There are no Tim Wallachs or Sam Favatas or John Christensens or Jeff Fishels or Bob Caffreys in this bunch.
"I was looking at the stats of the '79 team," Coach Augie Garrido said Friday. "We had 83 homers, 202 stolen bases, and so on. With that team, you could see where it was coming from."
Things aren't quite as clear in 1987. No Titan has more than 10 home runs or 50 RBIs. The team has only one legitimate major league prospect in pitcher Mike Harkey.
Yet the Titans have gotten by just fine with a bunch of names that would strike fear in the hearts of no one. Such names as Paul Cameron and Mark Baca and Mike Ham and Longo Garcia and Greg Mannion and Andy Mota and Tony Trevino and Mike Ross and Mark Razook. Names that, standing alone, don't mean much but together mean everything.
It's a team with only one true star in Harkey, yet one whose pitching staff has managed 25 complete games in 52 tries.
It's a staff that's best characterized by a 160-pound (when wet) left-hander named Larry Casian, who clinched a tie for the PCAA title Friday night with a complete-game 6-2 victory over San Jose State, a game in which Casian threw everything but a fastball at the Spartans. Casian is 9-1.
This, in fact, might be Garrido's favorite team, the one that must kick and scrape for every run.
"This is my most intense team," Garrido said. "That's what gives me the most pride. They've had to fight off a lot of things."
And fight is the right word. The Titans have been in more bench-clearing brawls than any team in recent memory.
"We'd rather play baseball," Garrido said. "We're a much better baseball team than a hockey team."
But that doesn't mean the Titans won't play hockey.
There was a fight with Stanford in February and another with NAIA power Grand Canyon College.
Then came conference play in March, and a fight between the Titans and the defending PCAA champion, UC Santa Barbara. This one started when Gaucho Coach Al Ferrer accused Garrido of ordering Harkey to throw at a Santa Barbara player. Garrido and Ferrer had to be restrained by a UCSB assistant.
In April, in a game at Nevada Las Vegas, the Titans, in a 24-10 victory, hit three straight homers off Scott Lewis. The Titans, admittedly, were not bashful in celebration.
Lewis, determined there would not be a fourth home run, bounced the next pitch off Andy (son of Manny) Mota's head, cracking his helmet. The benches cleared.
"I was expecting it," Mota said of getting hit. "I knew there was a possibility."