Illini Retrospective: The 1980s

Darrin Fletcher was arguably the best left-handed hitter in Illinois history, holding the career and single-season batting average records.
Darrin Fletcher was arguably the best left-handed hitter in Illinois history, holding the career and single-season batting average records.

April 29, 2010

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - In anticipation of the Celebration of 130 Years of Illinois Baseball during the Purdue series May 14-16, will be showcasing a series of weekly features that look back at the history of the oldest sport on the Illinois campus. Illinois baseball began in the fall of 1879 and is one of the most storied program on campus. The Fighting Illini have won 28 Big Ten titles and have the seventh-most Major League players all-time among college programs with 70, according to Baseball Almanac. Each week leading up to the celebration weekend, Illini fans will have a chance to learn more about each decade since the 1940s - the teams, the players and the coaches.

After a decade of pitching in the 1970s, the 1980s proved to be another prosperous era for the Fighting Illini. This decade produced four All-Americans, had the winningest season in Illinois history with 49 victories in 1982, two divisional titles, a Big Ten Championship in 1989, 15 players who continued their careers in the Majors and several players whose records remain atop Illini record lists.

Former Illini Tim Richardson still holds the single-season and career hits records.

Tim Richardson and Todd Schmitke's records and All-Big Ten honors highlight the early years of the 1980s. Richardson was an All-Big Ten selection in 1980, 1981, and 1982, was the team co-most valuable player in 1982, and the team's MVP in 1983. In 1981 and 1982, Richardson led the team in RBIs with 55 and 56, respectively. Richardson tops the Illinois record books in six different categories: career hits (297), season hits (104), career triples (22), season triples (11), games started in a season (72), and is tied with most games played in a season (72). Schmitke was an All-Big Ten selection in 1981 and 1982, and holds the Illinois record with 83 career stolen bases. He also held the single-season steals record for 26 years until Shawn Roof broke it in 2007.

Randy Conte also had a memorable career, winning 25 games in his four seasons from 1979-82 to rank fourth on the single-season wins record list. Conte also blossomed in his senior season, going 13-2, the second-most wins in a season in school history, with a 2.48 ERA that season, a mark that ranks ninth in Illinois history. Conte anchored the Illini pitching staff that helped the Illini to a school-record 49 wins in 1982 and won the Big Ten Medal of Honor that season.

Third baseman Dave Payton starred on the Illini teams of the mid-1980s, breaking the record for career RBIs with 209 and ranking second in career runs scored. He also ranks third in school history with a .374 career average and fourth with 266 career hits. He also holds the career doubles record with 78 and the single-season doubles record with 30.

"We had some very good offensive teams in those years," former Illini catcher Darrin Fletcher said of the 1980s. "The first name that comes to mind is Dave Payton. I could probably make an argument that I was the best left-handed hitter when you look at the stats, but I think Dave was the best right-handed hitter at ever at Illinois."

Pitcher Don Pall kept the ball rolling in 1985, posting an impressive 13-0 record - posting the most wins of any pitcher in school history with a perfect ledger - and a 2.18 ERA, which ranks fourth on the school record list. Pall was a first-team All-Big Ten selection that year.

The latter years of the 1980s were highlighted by Illinois' all-time strikeout leader, John Ericks, two-time All-American pitcher/first baseman Bubba Smith, and Fletcher, who became an All-American catcher. Ericks had a banner year in 1988, tallying a school-record 108 strikeouts and winning the Big Ten strikeout title with 50 in conference action. Ericks struck out 18 batters on March 26, 1988, when Illinois defeated Bradley, 10-8, a mark that still stands as the school record. Just three days earlier, Ericks had fanned 14 as the Illini defeated Indiana State, 7-3.

Former Illini Bubba Smith swept Big Ten Freshman of the Year and Player of the Year honors in 1989.

Along with Smith's All-America honors in 1989 and 1991, he was named to the All-Big Ten team those same years. Smith's best year was in 1989 as he was named the Big Ten Player of the Year and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, becoming the only player ever to sweep those two awards in the same season in Big Ten history. He also was the Big Ten RBI and home run champions in 1989, driving in 29 runs and knocking nine dingers in Big Ten games that year.

Fletcher collected many accolades during his three-year career at Illinois including the All-American honor in 1987, All-Big Ten selection from 1985-87, the Big Ten Player of the Year and Illinois' Athlete of the Year in 1987, the first time a baseball player had been named the UI's Athlete of the Year in 25 years. Fletcher broke the school records for batting average and home runs in 1987 with a .497 average and 15 homers. His 80 RBIs in 1986 also broke that school record and he still holds the school record for career batting average with a nearly unreachable .392 mark.

"We had a lot of great players that I played with and a lot of great friends," Fletcher said. "It was a wonderful experience. I was only there three years, but I loved the guys that I was with."

Fletcher continued his career when he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1987. Along with Fletcher, 14 other Illini were drafted in the 1980s. Brian Innis (Los Angeles Dodgers), Rick Filippo (Cleveland), Randy Conte (Detroit), and Dan Hamstra (Chicago White Sox) were drafted in 1982, while Richardson and Innis were drafted in 1983 by Kansas City and the New York Mets, respectively. Joe Olker went to San Francisco in 1984, while Terry Wells (Houston), Dick Canan (Chicago Cubs), Greg Iavarone (New York Yankees), Pall (White Sox) and Ken Warmbier (St. Louis) were selected in 1985. In 1987, Fletcher was picked by the Dodgers, while Tony Michalak (San Fransicso), Greg McCollum (Boston) and Brian Mershon (Cincinatti) also were taken that year. John Ericks made arguably the biggest splash of the decade in the 1988 draft when he was a first-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals.

"Illinois was a springboard to play professionally," Fletcher said. "I had to prove myself every day and every year as a professional, but at Illinois, we played against good teams and we had good coaching. Lou Skizas was our hitting coach and he taught me a lot about hitting. He taught a professional style of hitting to collegiate players that put us a step ahead at the next level. The instruction I received at Illinois put me ahead of the game when I went on to play professionally."

The last years of the 1980s produced many talented players and in 1989, the team won its first Big Ten Championship of the decade by sweeping through the Big Ten Tournament with a 3-0 record to move on to the NCAA Tournament. Both Sean Mulligan and Smith were named to the Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-America team after outstanding seasons. Pitcher Rich Capparelli was named the Big Ten Tournament's Most Outstanding Player, while teammates Bob Christensen, Don Cuchran, Mark Dalesandro, Sean Mulligan and Wil Parsons joined him on the All-Tournament team.

In the Northeast Regional, the Illini lost their first game to Penn, 7-1, before bouncing back to shut out LeMoyne, 7-0. But Illinois was eliminated from the tournament with a 9-2 loss to Arkansas. Mulligan was named an NCAA All-Regional Selection for his play in the tournament as Illinois returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1963.

Falling short of the College World Series in 1989 launched the Orange and Blue into the 1990s, where they continued to raise the bar for future squads and proved to be a power in the Midwest.