- Elizabeth Merrill
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OMAHA, Neb. -- The city of Indianapolis has steel skyscrapers, slick presenters and the constant clatter of hardhats building the amateur sports capital of the world. Today, it juggles USA Track and Field and a dream to host the Super Bowl. Tomorrow, officials will contemplate something else, maybe the College World Series, because a bustling sports city never really sleeps.
Omaha has Jim Costello and 120 New York strip steaks.
Costello is with the Kiwanis Club, and for two weeks each summer, it's his job to make one of the eight teams at the CWS feel special. He grills up halibut, chicken and mounds of steaks for Oregon State, and lets the boys tool around on pontoons at Chris Lake. One time, his job took him to a Laundromat at 2 a.m., washing jockstraps and dirty socks, because "it had to be done."
"I almost try to treat them like they're a guest in my house," Costello says. "They're our team. We're Oregon State Beavers fans now."
Indianapolis, it seems, doesn't have a chance.
Within a few months, the decision-makers at the NCAA will mull another long-term contract for a championship that pumps nearly $40 million annually into Omaha's economy. There is minimal -- if any -- anxiety that the College World Series will go anyplace else. It's been in Omaha for 57 consecutive years. In the competitive world of event bidding and stadium building, it's an anomaly.
Dynasties reign and fizzle, catch phrases come and go, Final Fours shuffle from New Orleans to Atlanta. In Omaha, they're still offering free sodas with a $10 parking spot.
The closest thing to the town's stranglehold on the CWS is Florence, Ala. That's where the Division II football championship has been held for the past 21 years. But Florence isn't getting 10 days of national media exposure, a mega financial boost or a Division I event big enough to give a midsized city a sports identity.
And it hasn't caught the eye of a big-sports city.
"Omaha has adopted this event as their own. It is part of their culture," says Dennis Poppe, the NCAA's managing director for football and baseball. "The people put a face on the event. It's not just the facility or the games. It's what happens in and around.
"I guess when you have a commitment and a good relationship, it's kind of like a good marriage. Why would you look for another one?"
The topic of conversation this week, in between Miller Lites and steak sandwiches and oh, a little baseball, is the old yard on 13th Street.
Rosenblatt Stadium is a graceful, blue 59-year-old lady with major reconstructive surgery, a ballpark on a hill that has undergone about $35 million in renovations over the past two decades to accommodate the CWS. Omaha has kept the series in part, Poppe says, because it has always been proactive. With a new contract looming, the city went to the NCAA late last year with a plan of $26 million more in renovations. Of those funds, $16 millon would be generated from the private sector; the city would pick up the rest of the tab.
Then the NCAA floated another idea -- if Omaha was going to drop that much on an old ballpark, how about building a new one downtown? The thought, at first, apparently surprised some city officials. They've always associated the CWS with the tree-lined, slice-of-America neighborhood with the park right next to the zoo. They've seen Barry Bonds and George H.W. Bush and Roger Clemens play there in the middle of middle America. Most Omahans seem split over the possible lunge toward progress. Yes, it could keep the CWS in Omaha through 2020. But where will they put all the ghosts?
It is 11:30 on Tuesday night, more than an hour after upstart UC Irvine eliminated Arizona State in 10 innings, and Jamie Foret and Billy Parr are finishing up their beverages and collective yuks in a parking lot north of Rosenblatt. They met 10 years ago when they pulled up alongside each other in another lot, two men who lived three miles apart in northeast Texas and needed another 780 miles to meet. They've come to Omaha every year since, but keep getting pushed back farther as the event has gotten bigger.
They gripe about how they can't tailgate in a lot next to the stadium anymore because the corporate tents have taken over.
They cringe at the people who leave in the eighth inning to grab a beer across the street. They're not baseball fans. Foret wonders how bad it will get if the thing moves downtown.
"They should put the money in this one right here," he says as he stares at the stadium. "It's a historic deal. If they move it downtown, they'll make it nice and purdy and fancy-schmancy. But I guarantee you us rednecks would not come."
Out-of-towners represent 42 percent of the CWS season-ticket holders, a list that has become a lost cause. They stopped taking requests in 2003, when the number of unfulfilled reached 1,200. Parr recently got a letter saying he'd moved up to No. 398 on the waiting list. He gets his single-game seats with a little luck and Texas charm.
It is pitch dark and nearly midnight, and the buddies keep talking next to their pickups with Texas tags. They point to some trees on the hill. They say they were waist high the first time they came to Omaha.
Hal Daub is considering a run for the U.S. Senate in Nebraska, and his cell phone is cutting out during a grip-and-grin tour of the outer reaches of the state.
Daub was Omaha's mayor from 1995 to 2001, and says one of his most stressful political tussles came when the NCAA's contract with Omaha was about to expire.
"How would you like to be the mayor of a city that had a College World Series and then lost it to a competing city?" Daub says. "Politically, it would've been pretty embarrassing and difficult. We consider the College World Series one of the crown jewels of the skyline of Omaha, Nebraska."
How close was Omaha to losing the CWS in the late 1990s? Depends on whom you ask. Daub says New Orleans and Indianapolis made serious runs. Poppe says other cities have been interested over the years, but that "no one is beating down my doors." He also doesn't want to make it sound as if bidding for the event, in any city outside of the largest city in Nebraska, is a hopeless cause.
But it would be hard to find another place with the right fit for the event. Major league teams have the state-of-the-art digs but would be naturally skittish to ship their club somewhere else for two straight weeks. Minor league sites can't meet Rosenblatt's capacity of 24,000 or rival its massive press box. And then there's the concept of selling college baseball in a different community, two games a day, over the span of a week.
Last year's College World Series drew more than 300,000 fans and totaled about 500,000 in foot traffic in and around the stadium.
"I watch the Big 12 and the regionals and super regionals," says Jack Diesing Jr., president of College World Series of Omaha Inc. "From what I've seen, if you don't have a home team in the stands, these stadiums are less than half full, even in the final.
"I don't think there is anywhere else in America where you could find a community that supports college baseball like Omaha does and put 21,000 in the stands every game."
But the Indiana Sports Corporation does. They can tell you about a time when Indianapolis had a Colts preseason game, a gymnastics championship and the Indiana State Fair going on all at once. The Colts and gymnastics sold out, and the State Fair had record attendance.
"This community has an insatiable appetite for sports," says Susan Williams, president of the Indiana Sports Corporation. "[The CWS] seems perfect. It's a major championship, it's baseball, and we have an extraordinary venue right downtown."
Then Williams couches her excitement by saying that Indianapolis, which also happens to be the home of the NCAA offices, will make a push only if it feels as if it has a chance to even be in the mix.
"Well, we're not lurking with our claws out," Williams says. "But If we saw an opportunity, we'd be all over it."
Bigger cities made bolder offers when the CWS was smaller. In the 1970s, a major league city on the West Coast called up Lou Spry, a former tournament administrator, and offered up big bucks and a three-year guarantee.
"I said no, and there was a long pause on the phone," Spry says. "I said, 'This is the way it's going to play out. We're going to come to your place, and I'm going to walk out of town with money coming out of all four pockets. You won't draw flies, and next year I'll be back and you'll draw a few more flies and I'll walk out with money in all four pockets and a briefcase.
"And then you're going to say you don't want to do this anymore [because] you're losing your tail."
The question, from Lot 4 at Rosenblatt to the Arizona State dugout, seemed crazy.
Could Omaha, the town stamped on aluminum bats and the destination scrawled on grease boards in January, lose the College World Series?
"I just don't see it happening," says Sun Devils coach Pat Murphy. "This can't be matched. The atmosphere they have here, the love the town has for this event, the commitment this town has for the event. It took a long time to get to this. And I think that will keep it here more than anything else, that comfort level."
But this cozy little spot on 13th Street has become a little more crowded. Just ask officer Kevin Cunningham, who's working on the late-night bomb squad with his dog Landa. Cunningham grew up just a couple of Barry Bonds swings to the north, in a quiet, working-class neighborhood that is the fabric of the CWS.
He spent his summer days on the hill as a boy, with his uncle Leonard and a grocery sack of homemade popcorn. Back then, when 3,000 was considered a crowd, it was peaceful enough to talk baseball, and to bond. Cunningham's dad was an alcoholic. His uncle was a quiet Italian man, but when the cow hide smacked against the leather, they spoke like father and son.
Cunningham stands in Lot 4 now, listening for the ping of the bat, wondering what the score is while mosquitoes chomp at him. He refuses to listen to the game on the radio. It depresses him too much, reminds him that he's not at the game.
He says Omaha is cowtown in a good way, a growing city that sneaks up on people. It isn't the sports capital of the nation. It isn't even the capital of Nebraska, and that's OK. He sits back down on his folding chair, where the parking lot is dark and quiet and safe. It's Omaha.
"I don't think they'd treat this as special in Indianapolis," he says. "What's the College World Series to them? They've got the Super Bowl champions. We have this and Nebraska football. That's it.
"This makes us feel special."
Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Omaha has created one of the most unusual atmospheres in college sports. Could another city compete for the CWS? We might find out.