Memorable Baseball Games in the Superdome: Louisiana vs. Florida in first Busch Challenge
The primary impetus for building the Louisiana Superdome in the early 1970s was a new home for the New Orleans Saints. The “father” of the Superdome Dave Dixon also envisioned the facility would be home for NBA and MLB franchises. He had the foresight to ensure the design for the stadium included configurations to accommodate baseball and basketball games in addition to football. After numerous attempts to entice a major league team to New Orleans, city and state officials struck out in attracting a big-league team. That’s not to say the Superdome didn’t host baseball games. During 1976-2003, major-league exhibition games, a minor league team’s regular-season games, and college games were played in the domed facility. Over the next few weeks, we’ll highlight some of these memorable baseball games.
February 20, 1987: LSU, Tulane and UNO vs. Miami, Florida State and Florida
The Louisiana Superdome was scheduled to host the NCAA’s biggest basketball event, the Final Four tournament, at the end of March in 1987. But before that event took center stage, the Superdome hosted the Busch Challenge tournament, a novel concept by Superdome officials to pit the top three baseball programs from Louisiana against the top three teams from Florida in a round-robin format. The first Busch Challenge took place on February 20-22 and became one of the premier annual college baseball events in the country, lasting 14 years.
Busch and Winn-Dixie were the two major sponsors among eight corporate benefactors that provided financial support for the local colleges hosting the tournament. The Times-Picayune reported the total cost for the three-day event was $120,000. The commitment of funding from the sponsorship was a significant factor in attracting the major college programs from Florida, since their costs for travel, housing, and meals were guaranteed.
LSU coach Skip Bertman told the Times-Picayune that Busch Challenge I was the only tournament of its kind. He said, “Next to the College World Series, you won’t find a better college tournament.” And Bertman would know, since his Tigers squad had advanced to the CWS in 1986.
The tournament field represented an impressive collection of major college baseball programs. In addition to LSU, Miami and Florida State competed in the CWS the previous year. Florida State finished as the runner-up to Arizona for the championship. Tulane lost to LSU in a regional. UNO and Florida were in re-building mode in 1986, with both having been in a recent CWS. Florida State coach Mike Martin told the Times-Picayune, “The six teams are traditionally as strong as any in the South. I’m excited (to play in this tournament.) I’d pay to see the games.”
Major-league scouts were licking their chops over the talent that would be appearing in the tournament. Local major-league scout Lenny Yochim of the Pittsburgh Pirates told the Times-Picayune before the event, “Lots of kids who are playing in that tournament are going to be drafted.” He estimated there would be as many as 30 scouts in attendance. Joey Belle, Barry Manuel, Mark Guthrie, and Stan Loewer were among the top 1987 MLB draft prospects from LSU. UNO’s Rob Mason and Tulane‘s David Smith, Tookie Spann, and Sam Amarena were expected to draw attention from the scouts for the upcoming June draft.
Day 1 of the tournament consisted of the following tripleheader games: Tulane vs. Florida; UNO vs. No. 3 ranked Florida State; and No. 2 ranked LSU vs. Miami.
The Green Wave posted a dramatic come-from-behind win over Florida, 11-10, in the opening game on Friday.
Tulane’s Rob Elkins, who had entered the game in the fifth inning as a pinch-hitter, smashed a two-out grand slam into the right field seats to overcome the Gators. “It was up and in,” Elkins told the Times-Picayune. “I was looking inside and he got the curveball in.”
Green Wave second baseman Ronnie Brown also hit a grand slam, in the fifth, which closed the score, 10-7. All of this action came after Florida had jumped out to a 10-1 lead. Tulane pitcher Ricky Purcell was brilliant in six innings of relief, allowing one hit while striking out eight. He got credit for the win.
In the second game, UNO junior right-hander Brian Muller was effective in containing Florida State. He gave up seven hits and four walks in the Privateers’ 3-1 win.
The Privateers scored all three of its runs in the second inning. The Seminoles threatened in the ninth inning, when Muller walked two batters and gave up a single that loaded the bases with two outs. But he managed to induce a ground out that secured UNO’s victory.
UNO coach Tom Schwaner was pleased with Muller’s performance. He said, “We had two pitchers warming up. But Brian kept battling back. I was glad he went the distance. Against a club like Florida State, it will give him confidence the rest of the season.”
The Florida contingent of teams avoided a sweep when Miami defeated LSU, 7-2, before 7,639 fans.
Miami’s starting pitcher Kevin Sheary held the Tigers in check for the first six innings on six hits, before being relieved. The game wasn’t a pretty one for the Tigers, as Miami took advantage of LSU’s sloppy play in the field. LSU went through five pitchers, including starter Dan Kite who lasted only one inning and took the loss.
UNO, LSU, and Florida State took wins in the Saturday trio of games, while Florida State, Tulane, and Florida claimed wins on Sunday. Louisiana’s five wins gave them bragging rights as the winner of the inaugural Busch Challenge.
The three-day attendance total was 26,973, including Saturday’s 10,879 and Sunday’s 8,455.
Highly-regarded Miami coach Ron Frasier praised the tournament’s success. He told the Times-Picayune, “This tournament was one of the best ideas anybody ever came up with to promote college baseball. It gives people a chance to see how far we’ve progressed in the last 15-20 years. You saw some great baseball out there.”
Future major leaguers on the tournament’s rosters included: UNO—Joe Slusarski, Ted Wood, and Brian Traxler; LSU—Ben McDonald, Russ Springer, Barry Manuel, Jack Voigt, and Joey (Albert) Belle; Tulane—Gerald Alexander; Florida State—Richie Lewis, Jerry Nielsen, Rafael Bournigal, and Deion Sanders; Miami—Joe Grahe, Wade Taylor, and Mike Piazza; Florida—Jamie McAndrew and Rod Brewer.
Louisiana’s opposition in future tournaments included colleges from California, Oklahoma, North Caroline, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama.
In 1993, Winn-Dixie became the primary sponsor and the event changed its name to Winn-Dixie Showdown. The last year of the tournament was 2000.
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New Orleans baseball historian
Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.