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Baseball Kansas City T-Bones vs. Sioux City Explorers

Sioux City Explorers' Patrick Johnson pitches against Kansas City T-Bones during Monday's game at Lewis & Clark Park.

SIOUX CITY -- There are at least three different legends floating around on why North Carolina became known as the “Tar Heel state.’’

Which, in turn, leads to the sports teams at the University of North Carolina campaigning as the Tar Heels.

You would more likely stumble upon this sort of trivia if you were researching that sixth NCAA basketball title UNC corralled three weeks ago yesterday.

If I were to be heading in this direction, I’d have to tell you this makes the guys from Chapel Hill third all alone in NCAA hoops crowns, no longer tied at five with arch-rival Duke or those Hoosiers from Indiana. Ah, yes, yet another Google goose chase.

Only two schools have won the “Big Dance” more than six times and I’m sure many of you can name them.

There’s UCLA, which won 10 of its 11 championships in a 12-year span from 1964 through 1975. Since John Wooden orchestrated all 10 of those and Jim Harrick (1995) snagged the only other one in 42 subsequent seasons, that leaves Steve Alford tied for third with everyone else who has ever piloted the Bruins.

Second with eight winners is Kentucky, which collected the first four of those under Adolph Rupp. And, I’m betting a couple of you didn’t realize Rupp, learning the sport from a book, was just 25 when he led Marshalltown High to Iowa’s state wrestling title in 1926 -- just four years prior to the start of the 43-year coaching stint for which he is considerably better remembered.

No, it wasn’t Carolina’s rich basketball tradition that led me to the controversial etymology of “Tar Heels,’’ which I’ll let you look up. Nor was it one of six other sports programs in which UNC has achieved the rest of its whopping 43 NCAA team titles (21 of them in women’s soccer).

Rather, I wandered off the track, a nasty habit, because the University of North Carolina also has a very impressive history of success in baseball with 10 trips to the College World Series.

Six of those Omaha visits have come since the Heels’ first of back-to-back national runner-up finishes in 2006. And, more to the point, this recent prosperity has been of value to our very own Sioux City Explorers.

North Carolina baseball has sent at least 66 players to the major leagues, a list that includes such current stars as third baseman Kyle Seager (Mariners) along with pitchers Andrew Miller (Indians) and Matt Harvey (Mets).

The second UNC product to reach the majors was none other than Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who Burt Lancaster brought to life in the fabulous film “Field of Dreams.’’ Graham was the guy called up at age 27 by the New York Giants, coming off the bench June 29, 1905 to play right field. As luck would have it, he never made it to the plate in his one and only game before a long career as a physician in Chisholm, Minnesota, a stone’s throw from Canada.

More recently, though, the exclusive club of 18,956 to reach baseball’s biggest stage has added former Tar Heel ace Alex White, a starter for 30 of his 33 MLB pitching appearances with the Indians and Rockies.

A nifty 21-7 on back-to-back College World Series teams in 2008 and ’09, White is working his way back from Tommy John surgery. Matter of fact, the 2015 procedure that sidelined him last season, was needed to clean up the unsuccessful repairs that shut him down for all of 2013.

This leaves White seeking to revive his career at Lewis and Clark Park, where Manager Steve Montgomery’s X’s have become quite familiar with this story line.

One of just four UNC pitchers to log 300 career strikeouts, White is about to suit up for a team that helped one of the other three, Patrick Johnson, make it back to the affiliated ranks. Moreover, White will be joining a pitching staff that includes another former Tar Heel in lefty Hobbs Johnson, a holdover from last year’s roster.

White and Patrick Johnson, no relation to Hobbs, are also two of just four North Carolina pitchers to collect 13 or more wins in a season. Behind the 14 wins by Greg Norris, a school record since 1978, these two are tied at 13 with Miller, the fabulous Cleveland closer who was the sixth pick in baseball’s June draft of 2006.

Patrick Johnson, a sensational 15-1 with a 2.08 ERA for the record-breaking 2015 Explorers, had a very solid 2016 with the Marlins’ second-tier (AA) farm club in Jacksonville, Florida. Flourishing as a starter after bullpen duty didn’t suit him, “P.J.” wound up 8-7 with a 3.37 ERA while striking out 113 batters in 128.1 innings. He’ll miss much of this season, however, after a recent procedure on his right elbow.

Hobbs Johnson, I should note, was 20-16 with a 3.39 ERA in three-plus seasons with the Brewers’ organization, also making it to the Double-A Southern League. The southpaw, who was 12-2 over his last two seasons at UNC, wound up in Sioux City late last July, hoping to clear up a mechanical flaw that had thrown him out of whack. After spending part of his winter in Chapel Hill, addressing that issue, he believes he’s ironed things out.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that Greg Holt, another pitcher from two of North Carolina’s recent CWS contenders (2009, 2011), was in the initial X’s rotation in 2014, Montgomery’s first season at the helm. An eighth-round draft pick who’d gone 9-0 out of the bullpen for Washington’s Advanced Class A affiliate in 2013, he sustained a freak injury after 12 starts here, suffering what became a career-ending shoulder fracture.

Coming off the first back-to-back playoff teams in franchise history, Sioux City’s 25th anniversary season of independent professional baseball is truly just around the corner. Montgomery’s team will report to camp a week from Friday to start their 12-day prep for an opener on Thursday, May 18, hosting the Sioux Falls Canaries.


Sports editor

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