When Kentucky faces Louisville this weekend in an NCAA baseball tournament super regional, the Wildcats and the Cardinals could do more than determine which in-state school will send a team to Omaha, Neb., for the College World Series.
Depending on how the games play out, the 2017 Cats and Cards baseball teams could fundamentally alter the nature of our state’s defining sports rivalry.
Starting in 1994, the Governor’s Cup football series has yielded some electric moments: The 2000 “Lightning Game.” “Stevie Got Loose” in 2007. Last season’s epic UK upset of Louisville and soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
What the UK-Louisville rivalry has never really had is a game from a sport other than men’s hoops or football that has commanded the full attention of both fan bases.
On Thursday, I surveyed some veteran observers of the commonwealth’s sports scene — two sports media members in Lexington and two in Louisville — seeking to gauge just how big the pending UK-Louisville NCAA baseball showdown looms in Cats-Cards rivalry lore.
Question one: So, in the overall scope of the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, how big a deal is this baseball series?
Paul Rogers, the radio play-by-play announcer for U of L football and men’s basketball: “I think it’s the biggest (moment in the rivalry) since the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans. And the reason is, the stakes — a berth in the College World Series — are so high.”
Larry Glover, host of WVLK radio’s “Larry Glover Live:” “I don’t think it is on the level of the basketball or football games, just because some element of the fan bases don’t care about anything but basketball and football. For the fans that do care about baseball, this is huge.”
Jody Demling, publisher of CardinalAuthority.com: “I think it’s up there ... Kentucky is trying to break through to the College World Series for the first time; Louisville has been (three times) before, but has had heartbreak (losing in the super regionals) the last two years and is trying to put that behind them and get back to Omaha. I can’t say it’s on the level of the Dream Game or the Final Four game, but I can’t say it’s that far off, either.”
Dick Gabriel, host of WLAP radio’s “Big Blue Insider:” “I don’t know that I would compare it to the Dream Game or the Final Four, but it would be in the conversation just below that. I think the (UK-U of L) basketball games in the NCAA Tournament have to be at the top. But I think this series, the chance to win and go to Omaha, it’s a huge deal.”
Question two: Do you think both fan bases are fully mobilized for this baseball series in the way they are for Cats-Cards in men’s hoops and football?
Rogers: “No, I can’t say it’s full mobilization like for a men’s basketball NCAA Tournament game. But I do think there’s a higher degree of interest in both fan bases than there’s ever been for a sport that wasn’t football or basketball. And I think it’s kind of neat to add another sport to (the mainstream of) the rivalry.”
Glover: “No, I don’t think it’s the same as the Final Four game, say. I do think what we’ve seen with UK’s (baseball) success, especially, is that the percentage of the fan base that cares about baseball is larger than a lot of people thought.”
Demling: “When Dan (McDonnell) showed up and Louisville first went (to the College World Series) in 2007, I think there were a lot of U of L fans that had to look up what the college baseball tournament format even was.
“But I think (U of L’s baseball) success launched an awakening, and within years, Louisville fans that, at first, were making fun of talking about college baseball couldn’t stop talking about college baseball. And my sense is that is what’s happening this year with the Kentucky fan base.”
Gabriel: “I think some of this depends on what happens this weekend. Great rivalries live on great games, great moments. If the games this weekend are compelling, then the impact on the rivalry and the fan bases will be really high.”
Kentucky at Louisville
Friday: Noon (ESPN2)
Saturday: Noon (ESPN)
Sunday: Noon (if necessary, TBA)