- Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR
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Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Ryan McGee's new book "The Road To Omaha: Hits, Hopes and History at the College World Series." Reprinted with permission from the author. Copyright © 2009 Ryan McGee.
At 3:00 p.m. on Friday, June 13, 2008, the eight head coaches of the NCAA Division I Men's College World Series strolled one-by-one into the Hall of Fame Room of Omaha's Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium. On the field their teams were being rotated through a continuous gauntlet of batting practice, team photos, media interviews, and mandatory all-hands-on-deck autograph sessions. Tomorrow the games would begin. Today was about acclimation, atmosphere, and smiles.
The eight men greeted one another, smiled, shook hands, and took their seats. No one ever actually enjoyed these press conferences, but on a day like today it didn't feel like the hassle that it usually was. Scattered throughout the United States were 278 other coaches who were sitting at home dreaming of being so inconvenienced.
Since June 14, 1950, every first day of the College World Series looked and felt just like this one.
God bless America.
Every coach knew what was at stake and what had to be done. Their teams had been divided into two four-team double-elimination brackets. Lose twice and you were out. The winners of those two brackets would get a clean slate, erasing any losses from their record and face off in a best-of-three series for the national championship.
Now they were just anxious to get on with it.
Six hours earlier, Florida State was the first team to hit the field, the much-hyped Seminole sluggers taking their turn in the day's heavily-regimented NCAA schedule. Then every hour on the hour until 5:00 p.m. the remaining seven schools made their rounds -- Stanford, Miami, Georgia, Rice, Fresno State, North Carolina, and LSU. Team photo, ten minutes of stretching, fifty minutes of hitting and fielding, twenty-minute presentation on the dangers of sports wagering, one half-hour of autographs, barbecue dinner at 7:00, opening ceremonies at 9:00, fireworks at 9:40, don't be late.
What happened if they were?
"We've never really had to worry about that," said NCAA official Damani Leech, surprised that someone even dared to ask the question.
"Nobody ever is."
As one team hit away, the next in line entered the ballpark through one of the bullpen tunnels down each foul line. It was the exact same stroll through the exact same tunnel that had been walked by Don Zimmer, Dave Winfield, and Mike Mussina. At the top of that tunnel waited the same Omaha sunshine that once washed over the not-yet-inflated shoulders of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, and Jason Giambi. Long before their names became symbols of everything wrong with the game, they were innocent kids experiencing the same initial reaction to their new surroundings as these, the innocents of 2008.
Unfailingly, as each first-time CWS participant spilled onto the field, he would simultaneously drop his equipment bag and jaw, awed by the sight of the ballpark known lovingly as The Blatt, the home of college baseball's best since the Truman Administration. A typical 20-year-old collegian's entire baseball life had been played out in front of crowds of dozens, hundreds if he was lucky. Even a baseball-addicted school such as the University of Miami was lucky to draw a sellout crowd of 5,000.
Rosenblatt seats 24,000.
"Dude," one Stanford player said to a teammate. "It looks so much bigger than it does on TV."
Above those slack-jawed players, scattered throughout the red, yellow, and blue seats were already several thousand of those fans, each section of the stadium providing its own Norman Rockwell painting. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, school groups, youth baseball teams and at least a dozen folks who looked as though they had slept beneath the bleachers since the final out of the '07 Series, waiting fifty weeks for their next CWS fix.
Some were attending the College World Series for the first time. Others were arriving for their 10th, 25th, or 50th. And holding with CWS tradition they had all entered the park to watch the day's opening ceremonies for the very reasonable price of free.
Just beyond the left field wall a pillar of smoke rose from the trees lining Bob Gibson Boulevard, a thick white cloud produced by a small city's worth of purple-and-gold clad LSU fans. They waved and threw strands of Mardi Gras beads to the conga line of cars that crawled by, slowly snaking its way along the two-lane road, gawking at the tent-sized "GEAUX TIGERS" flags and rounding the block around The Blatt searching for a parking spot. The stop-and-go traffic, mostly stop at this point, crept left onto 13th Street, the main conduit from downtown Omaha to the nearly 60-year-old ballpark. Overhead stood a massive fiberglass gorilla, adorned with a banner reading "WELCOME CWS FANS, FROM KING KONG BURGERS, PHILLIES, STEAKS, AND GYROS".
A few blocks north the marquee at Chop's Bowling Alley flashed in giant red letters:
CLOSED TODAY. GONE TO SERIES.
The fortunate fans who'd found a place to stow their cars were already strolling the uphill climb of 13th Street to buy t-shirts and caps and consume cold beverages, from the throat-sharpening brews of Starsky's Beer Garden to free bottles of fan-labeled "Jesus Water" handed out by a Christian group known as the 9th Inning Ministry.
They stood in line at Zesto, a self-proclaimed "NATIONALLY KNOWN" ice cream stand, they shot baskets and three strikes in the NCAA's interactive Fan Fest, and they filed in and out of the neighboring Henry Doorly Zoo to see the tigers and owls before going inside the ballpark to see the Tigers and the Owls.
"It's like going to the state fair," said one red-faced girl as she attempted to slurp down some Zesto strawberry soft serve before the sun got to it first. "But it's even better because there's baseball."
Inside The Blatt, the grownups felt more than a little like the young slurper. And why not? The sky was cloudless, the temperature perfect, and top 40 hits blared through the concourse, occasionally punctuated by the sounds of what was that? Organ music? Did they still play that at ballparks?
The batting cage was sprawled out over home plate like a dark green opera clamshell. From deep within it came the repetitive, unmistakably metallic sound that has become the instant audible signature of June in Omaha.
Four hundred feet away, the bleacher creatures leaned over the outfield wall, screaming each and every time a ball came sailing their way off the barrel of those aluminum bats, which happened much more often than not. Those same fans bellowed even louder when a smash fell short and the unfortunate fielding player was faced with Rosenblatt's eternal on-field decision -- Do I throw this ball back in for more B.P. or do I be a hero and toss it into the stands?
In the concourse, the 25-man Miami Hurricane roster was seated at a ridiculously long line of tables and each player was handed a Sharpie marker. As fans began to work their way down the line to collect autographs, the Canes began to bang out a hip-hop beat on the tabletop. Before long the fans joined in with handclaps and foot stomps. Even the concessionaires got into the act, rat-a-tat-tatting with their tongs on the side of the hot dog cookers.
On the top step of the third base dugout, LeRoy Swedlund's 61-year-old grin managed to out-gleam his mirrored sunglasses, spectacles that reflected the spectacle around him. Swedlund had earned the right to stand here as a representative of the Omaha Rotary Club. Standing alongside was fellow Rotarian Jim Stewart, who first attended the College World Series as a preteen bat boy in the 1950's.
As long as anyone in Omaha could remember, the eight participating College World Series teams had been assigned hosts from local civic organizations and service clubs, from the Lions Club to Kiwanis to Offutt Air Force Base. Prior to the event, they sold books of general admission tickets to raise money for their favorite charities. Once the Series began, anything a team desired -- Gatorade, donuts, dinner reservations, Band-Aids, whatever -- they only had to ask their designated hosts and it would materialize. There is no greater symbol of the relationship between the event and the town than the one between the teams and their host.
During the mayhem that followed Cal State Fullerton's title-clinching victory in 2004, catcher Kurt Suzuki became so mobbed by fans that he couldn't make his way through the parking lot to attend the team celebration across the street. So Optimist Club ambassador Fred Uhe threw the 200-pounder on his back and gave him a piggyback ride through the masses.
Six years earlier, Long Beach State starting pitcher Mike Gallo stood frozen in the clubhouse, refusing to take the mound until he'd scarfed down his ritualistic pregame snack of precisely one orange and one apple. A heady 49er coach placed a call to Concord Club member and financial advisor Terry Devlin, who sprinted out of his office, raced through a local grocery store, and produced the produce in the nick of time.
Good luck finding any of the above at the Final Four or the BCS title game.
From the final eight teams to the bleacher creatures at Rosenblatt Stadium to everything Omaha, there's nothing like the College World Series.