Ever since the ripe young age of 10, I have wanted to go to the College World Series. At a time in my life when a typical day centered on snap bracelets, jolt cola, and zubaz pants; college baseball took over.
I remember seeing Rosenblatt Stadium for the first time on my television. It was around the first of June, in 1992. I was just about to finish the fifth grade, the unkempt look of grunge fashion was starting to grow, and Vanessa Williams was saving the best for last.
Many things in life are too old, too insignificant, or just too damn pointless to recall; but for some reason I remember the '92 CWS like it was yesterday.
My first glimpse of the collegiate baseball Mecca that is Omaha was one that I will never forget. I guess peering through my parent's 27-inch Zenith at that majestic stadium on the top of a hill in the fading Nebraska sun, with eye-black clad ballplayers on the field and face-painted co-eds in the stands spoke to me.
I sure as hell don't recall what exactly it was saying, but it spoke to me.
I remember Pepperdine winning the title that year over Cal-State Fullerton; and for some odd reason I also recall that Phil Nevin (who played on the CSF team) won the Most Outstanding Player award in the tournament. Ever since then, I have told myself that I would make it out to Omaha; but year after year, June after June, an excuse not to go always came up.
Naturally, regret and jealousy would rear it's ugly head when I would see the games on television, hear the "ting" of the metal bat, and listen to Greg Gumbel or Mike Patrick tell the tale of Johhny Rosenblatt, the ex-pro ballplayer and mayor of Omaha from 1954-1961 for whom the stadium is named after.
Finally, after 16 years of ill-fated plans and unfulfilled promises, I decided that it was time for my first trip to the College World Series. This is my story.
In the late fall of 2008, I was at a wedding reception for my friends, Mike and Sara (It was at a Maggiano's here in Chicago…and it was absolutely fantastic). As the evening progressed, the normal wedding reception glide path of activity began to take shape.
Bottles of Miller Lite turned into Ketel & Soda's, which in-turn morphed into Crown Royal on the rocks. The "How We Met" slide show generated an overabundance of "Ooohs" and "Awwwws" from the crowd, twenty dollar bills came flying out from people's wallets in an effort to cajole the bartender into pouring shots, and I'm pretty sure I tried to bribe one of the waiters into letting me smoke cigarettes in the coat room.
It was while all of this ballyhoo was occurring that I got to meet a gentleman I had never met before; a relative of the bride by the name of Patrick. We galloped our way through the normal "how do you know the bride/groom" and "what do you do for work" small talk, and then we began discussing our respective hometowns.
Now, don't quote me on this, but I'm pretty sure that he didn't even have the word "Omaha" out of his mouth before I drunkenly garbled some derivation of the phrase "Holy shit, I've always wanted to go to the College World Series!! Omaha is amazing!! Do you remember back in '87 when that dickbag scorekeeper ruled Robin Ventura's last at-bat as an error, and single-handedly put a stop to his 58-game hitting streak!!" (This, by the way, was and still is complete balderdash. There is no way this should have been ruled an error. He hit an absolute bullet.)
Despite my inebriation, Patrick found the freakish vitality I had for the CWS quite entertaining, and mentioned that he would try and get me tickets for the 2009 event. This was followed by an exchange of business cards, a heartfelt handshake, and a prayer from me asking god to help my new best friend come through.
Fast forward to two months ago; I was sitting in my office crunching some numbers for Fantasy Congress (watch out for Dutch Ruppersberger in the next Fantasy Congress session….I'm telling you, the guy is gonna be a monster. I am expecting big things out of him in the "cosponsored legislation" and "voting attendance" categories), I got an email from a friend with a link to rivals.com.
After reading the article that was sent to me, I proceeded to browse the site for the next 90 minutes; a majority of which was spent on college baseball research. At this time, I decided to shoot Patrick an email about the tickets; in hopes that he would immediately respond and say he's got 'em locked down for me.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. A month went by, and still I heard no response; so I decided to send him another email on Monday, May 11 at 10:30am CT:
"I just wanted to check in again regarding tickets for the CWS. I was still hoping to come out there with a couple of friends for the first weekend's games (maybe Thur-Sun). Please let me know if you still might be able to get me a couple of tickets, as it would be great to come out there. No big deal if you can't; as I understand you probably have many people getting in touch with you for tickets right now. Thanks Pat, and I hope all is well!!"
A couple weeks went by, and still I heard nothing. Regional playoffs began in 16 different areas of the country...then came the Super-Regionals, and my mind began to think that 2009 was going to be another replay of the "maybe I'll go next year" theme.
I watched in awe as Texas beat Boston College in the longest NCAA baseball game in history, and cringed at every box score that detailed the progression through post-season play.
Then, out of no where, it happened.
An email that resulted in a suited-up crip walk through my office, and multiple Derek Jeter fist-pumps of celebratory jovialness. No joke, plain and simple, here is the email that I received: "Champions tickets-welcome to the O-advise"
An immediate phone call was placed to my friend Bill, and shortly thereafter another email was sent to me by Patrick to let me know that the Champions tickets he got were for the 6 pm game on Friday, June 19.
After receiving this email, I hastily got on the horn with United and booked a 6 am ticket out for Friday morning. Finally, my time had come. No more excuses and no more regrets—I was going to Omaha.
Bill got in a cab and came by my place around 3:45 am on Friday morning the 19th, and we were both still struggling from a long night of unforeseen cocktailing the night before. Well, I was the one that was struggling; Bill was still lit up like a Christmas tree.
The funny part about this is that when still drunk, Bill has a tendency to walk like...well, walk like he is still drunk. The wayward path he was weaving through the airport terminal had me absolutely cracking up.
Infants, old women, handicapped people, nothing made a difference—if they were in his path—he was ready to plow them over like a diesel-powered John Deere. Luckily, there were no injuries and we made it onto the plane without incident.
After touching down in Omaha, and me almost throwing up on a stewardess during the flight, we picked up our luggage, hopped in a Cab, and headed down Dodge Street over to the Marriot on the west side of town.
Coincidentally, this was the same hotel that the Arizona State Sun Devils were staying at. Unfortunately, I don't think any of the players girlfriends were allowed to stay there; because I didn't see one woman there all weekend that even compared to the gaggle of ASU co-eds I saw at Rosenblatt on Friday night.
After settling into the room, we made the obvious decision to head on down to the hotel bar to start our CWS experience off right with a beer and a burger.
There had definitely been some rain in Omaha that day, and throughout the morning and early afternoon hours that followed, moisture was still in the air; thus pushing the afternoon game (LSU-Arkansas) back a couple of hours, and further extending our drinking time at the bar before the game.
But, before we knew it (and after mass quantities of Miller Lite and Omaha cheeseburgers were consumed), we were in a cab on our way to the stadium. We had a homegrown Omaha guy as our cab driver, and after slithering his way through a couple of back roads between I-80 and I-480, he dropped us off at the bottom of the hill on Bert Murphy Avenue, and we began our walk up to the Stadium.
Walking up the street and through the crowds, and seeing the mass of people all dressed in their school colors was like nothing I have ever witnessed before. I have been to a number of major college stadiums throughout the country for football games and seen this, but college baseball?
I don't think the term "You've got to see it to believe it" has ever rung so true. This was college baseball!! There aren't supposed to be tens of thousands of people who care so much about college baseball!!
It seemed that each time I turned my head there were either a couple of drunk Texans throwing their Hook 'Em Horns up in the air, or a couple of incredibly delectable Arizona State females wearing maroon and gold belly shirts that would make even a Eunich blush.
Continuing my ramble through the throngs of fans, past the speed pitch booths of the fan fest, and around the "Road to Omaha" sculpture, it really started to hit me. This was it. I was finally here.
There was no time for me to imagine what Rosenblatt looked like in person, because my eyes were staring at the entrance to the stadium. Every year, 288 baseball teams around the country begin their season with dreams and aspirations of getting to the 'Blatt.
Sixty-four teams have the privilege to represent their school in the NCAA College Baseball tournament, and eight have the ultimate fortune of packing their bags for Omaha.
At last, I was part of the tradition. At last, it was time to see for myself what it was like to watch college baseball in Omaha.
Walking to our seats, the inside of Rosenblatt kind of reminded me of Wrigley Field; just without the annoying Cubs fans walking around tweeting on their blackberry's about how hysterically ironic it is that they have traded in their Amstel's and Heineken's for 16 ounce drafts of traditionally insipid Old Style.
A little old and a little rickety, with a stale aroma that simply reminded you how many years the stadium has been in use. As we walked to our seats (sixth row on the third base line behind the camera pit and right by the dugout…..they were incredible….I could have easily ricocheted a jalapeño off Kyle Peterson's dinosaur-shaped noggin) I got panoramic view of the field; and it did not disappoint.
Fans as far as the eye could see, fresh chalk on the basepaths, both starting pitchers warming up in the bullpen, fading sunlight reflecting off the visible silver apex of the Desert Dome at the Omaha Zoo, players jogging from the dugout to the warning track, and live music coming from the Organ.
Great side note about the organist, Lambert Bartak: Not only does he perform at one of the few stadiums that still features live music, but he holds the dubious distinction of being one of only two organists in the history of baseball to ever have been ejected from a game.
Great side note about our seats: These "champions tickets" meant not only that you were close to the field, but that you had a ridiculous amount of leg room in front of you.
Instead of the normal baseball standard of having no room and fighting to keep your knees out of your chest, it was like I had Economy Plus baseball seats. The legroom never seemed to end. I half expected a stewardess to come up to me at some point and ask if I needed a pillow.
Finally, the game began; and it was without a doubt one of the greatest live sporting events I have ever been too in my life. Here are the highlights from not just the game, but from the entire experience:
1) College baseball fans LOVE beach balls. Every time I glanced to right or left field during the game, there was at least one beach ball circulating on the fingertips of the crowd.
Three hilarious events occurred as a result of the beach balls. First, there are people employed by Rosenblatt who are stationed in both right and left field that are designated "beach ball getters," for whenever a ball falls out of the bleachers and into the field of play, these people are responsible for getting it.
There was one guy in particular in right field who always was running out there, and he was a consummate fan favorite…this guy sprinted to the ball every time one came down. And by sprinted, I mean this guy threw his head back and absolutely hauled ass like Forrest Gump when a ball came out of the stands.
I am pretty sure there were some fans out there who would throw a beach ball into the outfield grass just so they could watch this magnificent bastard run it down.
Which leads to the second hilarious event.
A fan in the first row of the right field bleachers had the foresight to bring some sort of long string to the ballgame. After seeing Forrest Gump Jr's aggressive ball-retrieving skills, he tied the string to a beach ball and dangled it over the edge of the fence, reminiscent of an angler trolling for large mouth bass.
Hilarity ensued not once, but twice when Gump ran out there to retrieve the intruding sphere and the fan yanked the beach ball back up into the stands; resulting in every single fan in the right field bleachers vigorously mocking poor Mr. Gump.
Ridiculous event No. 3 occurred when FG ran out there to retrieve a ball (that was not tied to a string) and as he was running back, the Arizona State right fielder took the ball out of his hands and tossed it back into the bleachers; thus resulting in many a cheer for the ASU outfielder, and the further booing of poor Forrest.
2) I forgot how much college fans in general love chanting. In unison, the left field stands would scream out "RIGHT FIELD SUCKS!" Obviously reciprocated by the fans in right screaming out "LEFT FIELD SUCKS," and the left field stands retorting with a unified "WE CAN'T HEAR YOU!!" (….CLAP….CLAP…CLAP, CLAP, CLAP)
3) I also forgot how much college fans celebrate whenever somebody gets ejected from the game. And no, I am not talking about a player—I am talking about one of their fellow fans.
At some point in the fourth inning, a giant roar came from left field, so I naturally looked over to see what was going on.
At least a thousand fans, from both Texas and Arizona State, were hooting and hollering at a couple of Rosenblatt security guards; who were leading one of their cavalier comrades out to the concourse.
I still am not sure what this person did, but I do know that his fellow fans did not want him to leave, as the "LET HIM STAY!!" chants rang on for at least a minute after his banishment.
4) If you have ever been to a Major League baseball game, you know that there is netting behind home plate that extends above the fans sitting in those seats, and all the way up to the press box. This prevents fans from getting injured by the foul balls that are sent towards the backstop.
As I'm sure you've seen, foul balls that make it onto this slanted netting trickle back down towards the field of play and fall on the dirt that lines the back wall. Usually a ball boy or ball girl will then come out of a team's dugout, retrieve the ball, and give it back to the umpire during a pause in the action.
Well my friends, it is different at the 'Blatt. There is a young girl who is continuously stationed in a sealed off area right behind home plate.
Whenever a ball gets fouled back onto the netting and starts trickling back towards the field, she sprints out of her holding area, finds the ball, and attempts to catch it before the ball hits the ground. I had never seen something like this before, and found it quite entertaining.
The best part about it was the fact that if she missed the catch, the entire stadium booed her. It was magical.
I was almost in tears when I first saw this, and it continued on each foul tip for the entire game; but I did not feel any bit of sorrow for this young lass, as she was cheered like a conquering hero any time she made the play.
I have no clue how, why, or when this glorious tradition got started, but it is without a doubt one of the most enjoyable sporting rituals I have ever seen in my life.
5) The game is tied at two going into the top of the ninth. A kid from ASU hit a two-out triple down the right field line to make it a 3-2 ballgame. ASU got the first out in the ninth, and then the Texas catcher, Cameron Rupp came up to the plate.
The guy dropped an absolute bomb.
It was a fastball, out and over the plate and Rupp got his arms extended, and absolutely murdered the ball over the wall in center, tying the game at 3.
After ASU got another out, the ninth hitter in the order came up to the plate and hit a two-out, walk-off homerun over the left field wall to send Texas to the finals of the College World Series.
It was absolute pandemonium in the stadium, and as I stood there watching the kid round the bases, I was grinning from ear to ear.
Sixteen years I had waited to come to these hallowed grounds and watch a game in the College World Series, and I just saw two of the most storied college baseball programs play an incredible ballgame, that ended with a come-from-behind walk off dinger.
You see, it's not just the baseball that made me want to make the pilgrimage so bad, it was all the other things—the little things that make an event like the CWS so special.
It's the stadium, the fans, the city, the passion, and the atmosphere. The combination of all these variables is what makes the event so great.
It's these things that take the CWS and transform it from a baseball tournament into a destination. Before this trip, when I would ask other people who had been to the College World Series what it was like, and they would say "You just have to be there;" I didn't understand. And now that I've been there, I realize why.
I have done my best to explain it, but there is only so much of a picture that words can paint. If you really want to know what the College World Series is like, it's plain and simple…you just have to go.
I can't finish this column without once again extending my gratitude to the gentleman who provided me tickets for this game. Patrick, words cannot express how thankful I am for the seats, and I owe you.
Also, I would like to thank Katie and Jenny; two wonderful women that we met while carousing downtown Omaha on Saturday. My buddy Bill and I had the distinct pleasure of meeting these two when we were imbibing in some spirits at local Omaha watering hole, O'Connors (where both Katie and Jenny happen to work).
They treated us great, took us out to another local bar when they got done with their shift at O'Connors, and were our drinking liaisons for the evening; telling us where to go and where to avoid.
Thank you both very much, I look forward to a beer and a shot of Jameson at the LB during the CWS next year. The 2010 College World Series starts June 19 of next year—only 348 days from now.
My calendar has already been marked.