Commentary

Fresno State has landed in a field of favorites

Originally Published: June 13, 2008
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- Two elbows to the head, plus a white-knuckle charter over middle America, and it is all strangely serene for Fresno State pitcher Brandon Burke. He is sitting at a long white table, next to some scribbles that say, "DUDE." He is signing baseballs in between razzing an assistant coach who apparently was mildly nervous about flying the other night during a tornado warning.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Burke
AP Photo/Eric FrancisBrandon Burke and his teammates have spent the last four weeks on the road.

"It was pretty bad," Burke said. "But I wasn't really [scared]. I leave that up to the freshmen."

He is laughing and loose because that is what got Fresno State to this balmy Friday in the first place. An hour earlier, in a room roughly 30 feet away, the legends of college baseball gathered for a pre-College World Series news conference. Rice coach Wayne Graham was there, looking grandfatherly and battle-tested and as if he's been sitting up at those mikes since the Bulldogs were in diapers, because, well, he almost has.

The usual suspects -- North Carolina, Miami and even Stanford -- all waxed on about old times at Rosenblatt Stadium. The Bulldogs had nothing to share. They haven't been to the CWS since 1991, becoming the first No. 4 seed to make it to Omaha.

Just after Burke slid into his chair in the concourse, a fan yelled, "Hey, Arizona State!"

Burke laughed.

A month ago, the Bulldogs were considered underachievers at 29-25. Then came upsets over Long Beach State and San Diego, setting up a stunning super regional win over Arizona State. The Sun Devils were seeded third and considered a lock for the CWS. The Bulldogs had been on the road for four straight weeks. In 108-degree heat, they bounced back from a 12-4 loss to take the final two games on Arizona State's home field.

Burke, who was on the mound at the end, said it all sank in after he took several shots to the face in a giant dog pile.

The team boarded a flight for Omaha on Wednesday, only to run into ominous weather that killed four Boy Scouts in nearby Little Sioux, Iowa. The Bulldogs didn't know about the tornadoes when their plane took a dramatic drop because of turbulence. Burke says they plunged about 100 feet in less than two seconds. A school official estimated that it was closer to about 40 feet.

The whole experience is amazing. Getting to see the field for the first time … I just feel awestruck. I didn't know how large it was and didn't realize how many people were going to be out here supporting us. You just kind of have to take a step back and realize the dimensions are still the same, and it's still the same game.

--Brandon Burke

Fresno State's flight was rerouted to Lincoln, which is about 45 minutes away. The team waited a couple of hours for a bus to Omaha and didn't check into the hotel until nearly 1 a.m. It wasn't until Friday that many of the Bulldogs got to see Rosenblatt Stadium for the first time.

They saw hundreds of fans lined up late Friday for autographs, and Burke estimates that the gathering was "10 times" as big as any autograph event in Fresno. By 2 p.m. -- about 24 hours before the first game of the CWS -- the streets and sidewalks leading to the stadium on the hill were clogged with cars, beer guzzlers and seamheads.

"The whole experience is amazing," Burke said. "Getting to see the field for the first time … I just feel awestruck. I didn't know how large it was and didn't realize how many people were going to be out here supporting us. You just kind of have to take a step back and realize the dimensions are still the same, and it's still the same game."

Graham, whose Rice team will play Fresno State on Sunday (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET), undoubtedly has told a generation of players the same thing. The 72-year-old coach, who has taken Rice to seven CWS appearances, was at the center of a group lovefest Friday. The Bulldogs gushed on about how they consider Rice at the top of the baseball strata. LSU coach Paul Mainieri remembered how he once walked over to the coach, during the 2002 CWS, and asked, "Mr. Graham, can I have my picture taken with you?"

"I still have that on my office wall," Mainieri said.

The Bulldogs are just starting their scrapbook. They spent part of Thursday meeting the locals downtown, trying to curry favor from a fan base that generally roots for the underdog. The way they see it, the toughest part was over when they landed.

"I'm sure there were plenty of T-shirt companies that were pretty upset that we got in and Arizona State didn't," Burke said. "Hopefully we can upset some more people when they go to make the T-shirts for the national championship."

Elizabeth Merrill writes for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.