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College World Serious

College baseball: For all of his prosperity at UCLA, Gary Adams is still tormented by Bruins' many near-misses along the road to Omaha.

May 22, 1997|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about the men he helped prepare for the major leagues--Eric Karros, Todd Zeile, Don Slaught, Jeff Conine, Bob Hamelin, Matt Young, Tim Leary and Shane Mack among them.

Yet his public profile is about as low as it gets in this neighborhood--near-subterranean for someone who has spent almost a quarter-century coaching a major sport at UCLA.

Gary Adams has a theory on this.

"I'm not sure I've ever done anything to warrant a story to be done about me," says Adams, days before his Bruins embark on their seventh trip to the NCAA regionals in the last dozen years. "That's probably the biggest reason.

"I'm serious. I just feel like [long pause] I could have done so much better. We've had good players here. Every year I feel like we can win the national championship."

And yet. . . .

"UCLA is probably most famous for being one of the best teams ever that has never gone to the College World Series," Adams says, supplying his own punch line.

"I think we've also been the team that's come as close to the World Series without getting there. We've lost five times in the final game [of the regionals].

"I don't know if I'm bragging or complaining here. Maybe both."

Adams launches into this sort of self-flagellation easily and unprompted. He is the winningest baseball coach in UCLA history, having broken Art Reichle's previous standard of 747 victories earlier this season, and has sent more players to the majors--28--than any active college coach, yet he is hounded by the O-fers.

O for 23.

O for 5.

Twenty-three years and five appearances in the regional finals with UCLA without once bursting, squeaking, stumbling or lucking his way into the College World Series.

"They all gnaw at you," Adams, 57, says of the near-misses. "You never forget that final game. Because you see the other team jumping up and down, celebrating, and you feel so bad for our players, who worked just as hard as the other team. And there's nothing you can say to cheer them up.

"Believe me, no one's had more experience at trying to than I have."

Today in Stillwater, Okla., Adams tries again. His Bruins, ranked fourth in the nation by Baseball America, are 40-18-1 and seeded first in the Midwest Regional, where they will open the playoffs against lightly regarded Harvard.

In other words, Adams is set up again--for either an angst-ending breakthrough, finally, or one more wrenching disappointment.

Ironically, Adams was hired by UCLA to replace Reichle in 1975 because of his reputation for being able to win the big one. In his last two seasons at UC Irvine, 1973 and 1974, Adams won NCAA Division II championships.

"I'll be honest," Adams says. "Winning the national championship has been more my goal in recent years than earlier because I won two national championships at Irvine and I knew, personally, that I could do it.

"My goals at UCLA have been to graduate my players--that's No. 1--and No. 2 was to teach them a way how they could become major league players. . . . Now, in more recent years, we've added a third goal--'Let's do those two things, but also try to win the national championship.'

"We have been trying to do all those three things each and every year. And we've done a great job getting our guys their degrees. And we've done a great job getting them big contracts. And we've done a lousy job at winning national championships."

Worse yet, smaller schools within fungo distance of UCLA have won them. Pepperdine won the College World Series in 1992. Cal State Fullerton won in 1979, 1984 and 1995. Long Beach State has made the trip to Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium, where college baseball's final eight congregate every June, several times.

Adams has been to Rosenblatt once, as a spectator, and says, "I wanted to get out of there as soon as I could. Stanford was in it, and I was eating my heart out. It was no fun.

"I vowed I would never go back unless I was in uniform. A UCLA uniform."

To date, Adams' closest brush with national celebrity--or notoriety--came nearly a year ago, when he made headlines for admitting he ordered one of his pitchers, Pete Zamora, to throw at an Arizona State batter and then penalized himself with a self-imposed four-game suspension.

The order came down after Arizona State pitcher Ryan Bradley hit UCLA's Troy Glaus and "nearly killed him," in Adams' words. The self-suspension was imposed after the Pacific 10 Conference suspended Zamora for four games, Adams claiming that he ought to be suspended the same number of games as his pitcher.

The Pac-10 concurred, and threw in an extra two-game suspension for good measure.

"It's too dangerous for guys to be throwing at people," Adams says. "That's why I did what I did last year. Some people didn't understand--I was fighting fire with fire."

Adams says his hope was to spur a change in the NCAA rules pertaining to intentionally hit batsmen. Current rules penalize only the pitcher. Adams believes the coach who ordered the pitch should be penalized as well.

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