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Sports Editor

Sports editor for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

As members of the 1969 Illinois State baseball team headed toward right field Saturday for a photo at Duffy Bass Field, one swung by the bullpen of the current Redbirds.

"Hey guys," he shouted. "This is what you're going to look like in 50 years."

Several of the 2019 Redbirds nodded and smiled. It was a light moment prior to a tense game, as ISU was prepping to take on Evansville with a Missouri Valley Conference title on the line.

It also was a deal those in uniform would be crazy to pass up.

The 1969 Redbirds are looking quite well and very much like champions 50 years after winning the NCAA College Division (now Division II) national championship. It remains the only team national title in Redbird athletics history.

The squad was honored in a pregame ceremony on the field that bears their coach's name.

"It was a bunch of guys who played together. And everybody had an equal part," said Buzz Capra, a star pitcher who went on to lead the National League in earned run average in 1974 with the Atlanta Braves.

"It wasn't like anybody got slighted because they played less than another guy. There were no grudges. When it got time to play ball, anything else that was going on was dropped. We were out there to win a ballgame. Losing wasn't an option."

Capra and the Redbirds went 33-5, sweeping their way to the title with six straight wins. The final three came in the four-team College World Series in Springfield, Mo., capped by a 12-0 win over Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State).

Junior right-hander Paul Sperry went the distance on the heels of complete games from Capra and Bob Graczyk. 

"Back in those days, pitchers pitched nine innings," said Sperry, still ISU's career leader in ERA (1.41). "They don't do that so much anymore. We didn't have any pitch counts, so I have no idea what that was.

"We had great coaching with Duffy Bass. We had great skill level all the way around and the camaraderie was terrific. You put all of those together and we ended up overachieving."

Playing a lead role was first baseman Tom Klein, who was named Most Outstanding Player of the national tournament after going 7 for 13 with six RBIs in the three games.

Saturday morning, he was still swinging ... this time at nearby Weibring Golf Club. Asked if he hit them long and straight, Klein said, "Long."

"Some of them are still out there," he said.

In baseball, they call it foul territory. In golf, it's out of bounds or, worse, out of plain view.

In June 1969, Klein's swing was locked in.

"Everybody contributed. I just got hot at the right time," he said. "It was probably a lot to do with adrenaline. I felt a little more jacked up."

Klein went on to play a year in the Baltimore Orioles organization. He would have kept playing, but ...

"I got drafted by the big team with a two-year no-cut clause called the U.S. Army," he said, laughing.

Klein's big national tourney came shortly after Guy Homoly, ISU's All-American center fielder, broke his leg in the final game of the regular season.

On a muddy field, Homoly slid into second base for his 19th stolen base of the year, eclipsing his own school record, but his season was over.

"I thought, 'Oh man, here we have the best team in the world and I have a broken leg,'" Homoly said. "They (teammates) were around me and thinking, 'There goes our chances.' But the team was so good. They went on to win the thing. I was like, 'Yeah, you guys really needed me a lot.'"

A football All-American as well, Homoly went on to play professionally in both sports. His career ended when, after making the first string with the NFL's Cleveland Browns, he suffered a knee injury in a preseason game.

Among Homoly's Redbird teammates was Don Witherow, who went on to be a longtime school administrator and sports official in Bloomington-Normal. Witherow hit the team's first home run of the season on the spring trip and the final one in the national title game.

His hometown newspaper in Roxana published a blurb about its native son hitting the home run at nationals, leading some in Roxana to believe ISU won 1-0, not 12-0. Witherow and his teammates laughed about it Friday night while swapping stories.

"We brought some different things up and we talked about how we were really more than a team. We were a family," Witherow said. "We did so much together ... so much."

Witherow platooned at third base with Jim Brownlee, who later was the Redbirds' head coach. Also on the team was sophomore right-hander Rich Gordon, later a teacher and coach at Bloomington High School.

Gordon entered a regional game in Cleveland, Miss., with ISU trailing 6-1 in the fourth. The Redbirds rallied to win.

"We were trying to save our pitching staff so it was, 'Bring in Gordon,'" he said. "We had six wins to make it (to the title) and I got one of them. I've never been honored so much for doing so little."

Gordon and his former teammates have endured remarkably well. All are alive except for Bass, Graczyk and pitcher Harold "Butch" Law.

"It's sad when we think about them not being here," Capra said. "But one day, we're all going to be together for the second 50 (year reunion). I hope so anyway. I hope I make the cut."

He smiled. It's a good look.

Saturday, it was everywhere.

Contact Randy Kindred at (309) 820-3402. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_kindred

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