From the Bird’s Nest: The Cajuns/Jags rivalry: How it began
This season marks the 22nd since Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns joined the Sun Belt Conference. It was actually a merger between the Sun Belt and the American South Conferences, plus one addition (Arkansas-Little Rock.) Of the eleven members who were in the league for that first season in 1991-92, six of them (Jacksonville, UCF, Lamar, Louisiana Tech, Texas-Pan American and New Orleans) are gone.
Over the years, rivalries have emerged. Sun Belt Football just finished its’twelfth season and I don’t know that a rival has emerged. I don’t think there’s a question that it would have been Louisiana Tech had they hung around. The Cajuns have played Arkansas State the longest, but that doesn’t exactly spawn the emotions that come with a real rivalry. The Conference has pushed ULM as a rival, but Cajuns fans really haven’t embraced that. McNeese State still stirs emotions with older fans, but the teams have met only once in the last quarter century.
In basketball, it’s been UNO for a long time. But now the Privateers are transitioning to Divison II (that’s right, not Division III.) There’s a chance the schools will never play again. Cajuns fans love to hate Western Kentucky and the two schools have had some great battles over the years. But if you ask WKU fans who their rival is, they’ll tell you it’s Middle Tennessee. This one, however, could heat up again.
No, you can’t find a real rival in the Sun Belt in football and basketball. But baseball is a different story.
The South Alabama Jaguars are coming to M. L. “Tigue” Moore Field this weekend.
Strap it on.
It actually started a year before the two teams were conference brethren. In the 1991 NCAA regional in Baton Rouge, the Cajuns and Jaguars met in an elimination game. The Cajuns had lost their first game of the tournament to Texas A&M and then defeated Northwestern State to set up a game with the Jaguars.
The Cajuns had played a rugged schedule that season. They played three games at Texas. They played UNLV, Oklahoma State (twice) Mississippi State (twice),Clemson (twice), Oregon State, Tulane (twice) and Arkansas. They won the American South tournament in Lafayette, coming all the way through the losers’ bracket after falling to Louisiana Tech on day one. This Cajuns team would set a school record with 49 wins, one that would only be matched by the Cajuns’ Omaha team in 2000.
This was a brash bunch, to say the least. The words “Mike Boulanger” and “disciplinarian” weren’t used in the same sentence. Bo liked the arrogant player and he not only tolerated bench jockeying, he encouraged it. This 1991 team actually got called out by umpires during a game for harassment….on their own teammates.
And, if there was one player who epitomized that era of Cajuns baseball, it was Papo Ramos.
Ramos played for the Cajuns in 1991-92 and was one of the most popular players ever to wear a Cajuns uniform. He batted leadoff, but led the club in homers. He could hit, hit with power and he could run. And Ramos was cocky.
But what’s the old saying, “it ain’t cocky if you can back it up.”
Ramos could back it up.
Ramos had already been on a tear in the regional. In fact, he would be named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. And, even before the Jags and Cajuns met, Ramos’ reputation was well known to the boys from Mobile.
In a back and forth game that saw Jags’ coach Steve Kittrell ejected in the seventh inning, the Cajuns clung to a 4-3 lead in the eighth inning. Ramos came to bat with the bases loaded. Jon Lieber, who went on to have a solid major league career, had come into the game in the bottom of the seventh. Ramos already had three hits in the game.
Lieber hit him.
Now, conventional baseball wisdom would tell you it wasn’t intentional. It was a one run game in an elimination game in a regional. But there are some who would suggest, given the two personalities, that it might have been. Ramos and Lieber exchanged words. The Cajuns went on to add another run on an infield hit and won the game, 6-3. USL would go on to the tournament finals after beating Texas A&M but lost 8-5 to LSU.
The win over the Jaguars was a sweet one. Good thing.
Because the Cajuns would go on to lose the next seventeen meetings.
The following year, the two teams were in the same league. However, to save money on travel, the teams were split into two divisions and played games only within their division. But the Cajuns and Jags agreed to a three game series at Tigue Moore Field on the season’s final weekend. The games would not count in the conference standings.
In game one, on May 8, 1992, Lieber took the mound for USA. Lefty Scott Fishback started for the Cajuns. South Alabama took a 3-0 lead early, but Fishback settled down after that and was masterful. Lieber, meanwhile, allowed only two runs through seven innings.
Lieber had hit Ramos with a pitch early in the game. Batting in the eighth, Ramos was 0-2.
Lieber hit him again, and Ramos had enough. He charged the mound, and all hell broke loose. This wasn’t one of those major league dancing brawls. This was the real thing, with hay-makers being thrown left and right. A South Alabama assistant coach was mistaken for a player and he got worked over pretty good until the Cajuns realized he was one of the coaches. He was black and blue the next day. It didn’t last long, but it was intense. Amazingly, Ramos was the only person ejected.
And, a rivalry was born.
South Alabama won all three games by scores of 4-3, 3-2 and 2-1. The two teams met again the following week in Mobile in the second round. South Alabama won 5-4. The next day they met again. The Cajuns led late, but USA rallied to take an 11-8 win.
South Alabama won the tournament. Both teams played in an NCAA regional.
But the rivalry had been established, thanks to a memorable weekend at the Tigue.
Oh, by the way…..Ramos was named the SBC Tournament MVP.