The main impetus for building the Louisiana Superdome in the early 1970s was a new home for the New Orleans Saints. Superdome “father” Dave Dixon also envisioned the facility as home to the NBA and MLB franchises. He had the foresight to ensure that the stadium design included configurations to host baseball and basketball games in addition to football. After numerous attempts to lure a major league team to New Orleans, city and state officials attempted to lure a major league team. That’s not to say the Superdome hasn’t hosted baseball games. From 1976 to 2003, major league exhibition games, one minor league team’s regular season games, and college games were played in the domed facility. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting some of those memorable baseball games.
Feb. 20, 1987: LSU, Tulane, and UNO vs. Miami, Florida State, and Florida
The Louisiana Superdome was scheduled to host the biggest NCAA basketball event, the Final Four tournament, in late March 1987. But before that event took center stage, the Superdome hosted the Busch Challenge tournament, a new concept from Superdome officials to pit Louisiana’s top three baseball programs against Florida’s top three teams in a round-robin format. The first Busch Challenge was held February 20–22 and became one of the nation’s premier annual college baseball events, lasting 14 years.
Busch and Winn-Dixie were the two main sponsors among eight corporate benefactors who provided financial support to local colleges hosting the tournament. the Timetable-Picayune reported that the total cost for the three-day event was $120,000. The sponsorship funding commitment was an important factor in attracting major Florida college programs because their travel, room and board costs were guaranteed.
LSU coach Skip Bertman told the Timetable-Picayune this Busch Challenge I was the only such tournament. He said, “Next to the College World Series, you won’t find a better college tournament.” And Bertman would know, since his Tigers team had moved 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 participated in CWS the previous year. Florida State finished second to Arizona for the championship. Tulane lost to LSU in a regional. The UN and Florida were in rebuilding mode in 1986, both having been in a recent CWS. Florida State coach Mike Martin told the Timetable-Picayune“The six teams are traditionally as strong as any in the South. I’m excited (to play in this tournament.) I would pay to see the games.
Major league scouts were licking their chops over what talent would appear in the tournament. Local major league scout Lenny Yochim of the Pittsburgh Pirates told the Timetable-Picayune before the event, “A lot of kids playing in this tournament are going to be drafted.” He estimated that there would be up to 30 scouts present. Joey Belle, Barry Manuel, Mark Guthrie and Stan Loewer were among LSU’s top 1987 MLB draft prospects. UNO’s Rob Mason and Tulane’s David Smith, Tookie Spann and Sam Amarena were expected to get scouts’ attention for the upcoming June draft.
Day 1 of the tournament included the following triple matches: Tulane vs. Florida; UNO vs. No. 3 ranked Florida State; and LSU ranked No. 2 against Miami.
The Green Wave picked up a dramatic win over Florida, 11-10, in Friday’s opener.
Tulane’s Rob Elkins, who entered the game in the fifth inning as a pinch hitter, smashed a two-out grand slam in the right seats to defeat the Gators. “It was in place,” Elkins told the Timetable-Picayune. “I was looking inside and he brought in the curve ball.”
Green Wave second baseman Ronnie Brown also hit a grand slam, at fifth, which closed the score, 10-7. All of this action came after Florida took a 10-1 lead. Tulane pitcher Ricky Purcell was brilliant in six innings of relief, allowing one hit while striking out eight. He got the credit for the win.
In Game 2, UNO junior right-hander Brian Muller was effective in containing Florida State. He allowed seven hits and four walks in the Privateers’ 3-1 win.
The Privateers scored their three 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 succeeded in inducing a ground out that ensured the victory of the UN.
UNO coach Tom Schwaner was pleased with Muller’s performance. He said: “We had two pitchers warming up. But Brian continued to struggle. I was glad he went the distance. Against a club like Florida State, it will give him confidence for the rest of the season.
Florida’s contingent of teams avoided a sweep when Miami defeated LSU, 7-2, in front of 7,639 fans.
Miami starting pitcher Kevin Sheary held the Tigers for the first six innings on six hits before being relieved. The game didn’t look good for the Tigers, as Miami took advantage of LSU’s sloppy play on the field. LSU went through five pitchers, including starter Dan Kite who only lasted one inning and suffered the loss.
UNO, LSU and Florida State picked up wins in Saturday’s trio of games, while Florida State, Tulane and Florida picked up wins on Sunday. Louisiana’s five wins gave them bragging rights for winning the first Busch Challenge.
Total attendance over three days was 26,973, including 10,879 on Saturday and 8,455 on Sunday.
Highly regarded Miami coach Ron Frasier hailed the tournament’s success. He told the Timetable-Picayune“This tournament was one of the best ideas anyone has ever had to promote college baseball. It gives people a chance to see how far we’ve come over the past 15 to 20 years. You’ve seen some good baseball there.
Future major leaguers on the tournament rosters included: UN—Joe Slusarski, Ted Wood and Brian Traxler; USL—Ben McDonald, Russ Springer, Barry Manuel, Jack Voigt and Joey (Albert) Belle; Tulane—Gerald Alexander; state of florida—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 Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama.
In 1993, Winn-Dixie became title sponsor and the event changed its name to Winn-Dixie Showdown. The last year of the tournament was 2000.