By Eric Olson/The Associated Press
OMAHA, Neb. — UCLA has won a record 108 national championships in team sports. Baseball, however, is not among those.
That will change this week if the Bruins beat Mississippi State in the best-of-three College World Series finals that start Monday night.
UCLA coach John Savage said Sunday there is no shame in his school’s dearth of baseball titles. Of the 66 national championships that have been won in baseball, eight schools account for 44.
The Pac-12 has won the most, with 16, and USC has 12 of those.
“It’s not like they hand them out. Let’s be clear on that,” Savage said. “You have to earn it.”
The Bruins are in the CWS for the fifth time and are 7-9 in Omaha. The closest they have come to a national title was in 2010, when they were swept by South Carolina in the finals.
“A national championship is always going to hang over any program that’s an elite program that hasn’t won one,” Savage said.
Mississippi State is looking for its first title in any team sport. The Bulldogs thought they might win one in baseball in 1985 with future All-Stars Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Jeff Brantley and Bobby Thigpen, but they went 2-2 in Omaha.
“To have the opportunity to do what we’re going to do starting Monday is something that’s special,” Bulldogs pitcher Kendall Graveman said. “It really resonates with Starkville and the people of Starkville.”
First baseman Wes Rae said one of his friends back home told him how closely Mississippians are following the Bulldogs’ run at the CWS. Rea’s friend and co-workers at a corn seed company listened to every pitch of the Bulldogs’ 4-1 win over Oregon State on the radio.
“He called me after we won the game the other day and said he looked across the corn field and everybody was jumping around, going crazy,” Rea said. “So that is the kind of thing people are doing back home. It’s just small-town type living, and they haven’t been able to say we have a national championship to claim.”
CULTURE CLASH: Mississippi State and UCLA players engaged in a fun give-and-take at Sunday’s news conference about the cultural differences between Mississippi and California.
“I don’t know how much deer hunting or bass fishing they do in Los Angeles, so off the field is probably going to be a little bit different,” Bulldogs first baseman Wes Rea said.
UCLA pitcher Adam Plutko responded with a smile.
“We do the bass fishing on the video games, and big-game hunting and all that kind of stuff, so it’s pretty similar there,” he said. “Where you’re from doesn’t matter. The major leagues prove that. Guys from the Dominican that have nothing or guys from here that have everything, it’s just baseball when it comes down to it.”
Shortstop Pat Valaika said the teams come from “totally different worlds.”
“LA is a big city,” he said. “You have the beach and a lot of things to do. Starkville is Starkville. I mean, I can’t say I’ve ever visited. But some bass fishing does sound pretty good, so maybe after the season ends I’ll hit up Starkville.”
COHEN THE PLAYER AND COACH: Mississippi State coach John Cohen was an outfielder on the 1990 Bulldogs’ team that made it to the CWS, and now he is back as the team’s head coach.
“I’ve told our players it was obvious that it was a thrill then, but everything about Omaha has become exponential — the stadium, the national media, every part of it has just gotten better and better,” Cohen said.
“As a player, nothing seems to be as big a deal because you don’t have anything to reflect upon your experiences. When you’re older, you don’t take as many things for granted.”
SHORT HOPS: Atlanta Braves pitcher Paul Maholm, a first-round draft pick out of Mississippi State in 2003, will attend Game 1 of the finals. The Braves are off on Monday and start a series Tuesday at Kansas City, 180 miles from Omaha. Mark Gillaspie, who lives in Omaha and was an All-America outfielder for the Bulldogs in 1981, also will be on hand. Gillaspie’s son, Conor, is the Chicago White Sox’s third baseman. … Oregon State is the only common opponent for Mississippi State and UCLA. The Bulldogs beat the Beavers twice at the CWS; the Bruins lost two of three to the Beavers in Los Angeles in April. … Unless there is an unexpected power surge, this year’s CWS will set a record for fewest home runs in the metal-bat era that started in 1974. So far there have been three homers in 12 games. The only other year there was a single-digit homer total was 2011, when there were nine in the first year the CWS was played at TD Ameritrade Park. There were 10 last year.