You forget some of the details after 45 years, but Francis Combs remembers at least a few.
One was that it was hot for one of those North Carolina State baseball games at the 1968 College World Series. It had to be close to 100 degrees, he recalls, as the Wolfpack took on Texas and first-year coach Cliff Gustafson.
The white wool uniforms with the red pinstripe didn't help. Nor did the fact that Combs was catching that mid-June afternoon at Rosenblatt Stadium.
“I went into the dugout and just put an ice towel over my head,” Combs said. “I thought I was gonna die.”
It wasn't half-bad Sunday at TD Ameritrade Park as North Carolina State took on rival North Carolina. It will be memorable just the same, however, not only for the current Wolfpack, but for Combs and about a dozen others from that '68 team who have reunited in Omaha to witness N.C. State's return.
Combs is unusual in that he's watched from almost a front-row seat as North Carolina State has chased that dream of getting back to Omaha.
Combs had two sons play for the Wolfpack over the years. He perpetually is “hanging around the program,” sometimes throwing batting practice. Although retired, he still umpires college and high school games in the Raleigh area, and he was behind the plate last Thursday calling balls and strikes during North Carolina State's first practice in Omaha.
Combs never forced his CWS stories on current Wolfpack players, but they always knew he had been somewhere they wanted to go.
“I'm out here all the time and we talk,” he said. “They don't ask me a whole lot. But I told them what a great thrill it would be to get there.
“They emphasize that every year and every year, and this year every kid's locker had '1968' written over it. They knew they had the team that could get here. Things just had to fall into place, and they did.”
Combs still recalls driving up and seeing Rosenblatt Stadium on the hill for the first time. North Carolina State was an underdog for that '68 CWS, coming to Omaha with just one set of uniforms and having gone just 11-11 the year before.
“It was a thrill for us because we kind of surprised everybody that year,” he said. “We just ended up getting on a hot streak at the end of the year.”
Combs grew up in Hertford, N.C., where he was the high school catcher for Catfish Hunter. The 1968 team included his twin brother, Freddie, and Francis Combs handled a pitching staff that included Mike Caldwell, a left-hander who went on to win 137 major league games.
The Wolfpack went 2-2 in Omaha — with close losses to St. John's (3-2 in 13 innings) and eventual champion Southern California (2-0) — and finished the 1968 season 23-7. “We came close to winning that thing,” Combs said.
Now he's just glad to see his alma mater getting another shot.
“It's great,” he said. “Everybody's been pulling for them. It's been a long time.”
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