Will this be the year the Gophers make it to the College World Series? Currently ranked #11 in the country, they will start regionals next week. Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Omaha for the first time to attend the College World Series. I know I’m getting close to college baseball’s epicenter when I tune in AM 1620 The Zone and hear the broadcasters talking about how the strike zone is a little tighter during the tournament than it is in the regular season. I am here at the beginning of this nearly two week June event and get to see three games featuring Louisiana State, Florida (the eventual national champion), Texas Christian, Texas A&M, Oregon State and Louisville.
There is a 26 page preview section in the Omaha World Herald including a full page advertisement for TCU that declares “Horned Frogs know how to swing for the fences.” (I will learn TCU’s signature move after they score is fans and players alike who raise both hands and cup their fingers into a curved motion, a gesture somewhat similar to the University of Texas’s “Hook ‘Em Horns.” Must be a Texas thing.)
The College World Series is currently played at TD Ameritrade Park and, with a capacity of approximately 24,000, it is a sizable stadium located in downtown Omaha across the street from their convention center. The convention center housed a Baseball Hall of Fame traveling exhibit which I didn’t visit because, having been to Cooperstown, I wanted to put a higher priority on watching games. This new ballpark opened in 2011 and I heard from locals who waxed nostalgic about beloved Rosenblatt Stadium as opposed to the new facility’s larger, corporate feel.
As it is a very humid summer day in Nebraska, I appreciate that the new ballpark features drink rails, allowing me to eat my turkey burger out of the sun. (Not surprisingly during the afternoon game, the seats in the sun are only sparsely populated but the seats in the shade are nearly full.) After seeing me diligently filling out my scorecard, a man in a LSU t-shirt asks me what team I’m here for. Just a baseball fan from Minnesota enjoying the atmosphere, I answer. “Oh, you’re from Minnesota,” he replies in a lush, southern drawl. “So let me ask you this – whatever happened to Joe Mauer? Seemed like he was on a path to become a Hall of Fame catcher for awhile, right?” Wherever I have traveled to watch baseball, I am always amazed at how easy it is to talk about the game with perfect strangers.
You can either pay more and get a reserved seat (which guarantees you admission) or buy a $15 general admission ticket (which can be used for any game but does not guarantee admission). The game I bought a general admission ticket for I didn’t have any trouble getting in but was told that for the more popular games the line stretches down 10th Street and some wait for hours in the hot sun.
Fans wander leisurely through the ballpark if their team isn’t playing, which can be a problem for those concentrating on the game. When someone got up as the ball was being put into play I heard a guy behind me grumble, “Well, that was a hell of a play – I could almost see it.” A lot of school spirit resonates through the innings, from chants of “Let’s Go Aggies” to playing the school fight song after each team scores. But mostly it’s just an enjoyable place to be for those who love the game – the crowd groans as a baserunner is thrown out at third after trying to tag up from second on a short fly ball to right field. (I remember that play because the out was recorded 9-6-5. Yes, the runner got such a bad jump that the shortstop had time to cut the ball off and spin and throw to the third baseman to get the runner easily. There was an interesting conversation in the dugout after that miscue.)
I stopped at the visitor center by the Old Market and they told me where I could park for free – I had to get there early but that left time for a leisurely stroll along the riverfront. When I’m walking to the ballpark, I see Blue Jays everywhere and have to remind myself that it means Creighton, not Toronto. Boys Town, which is located west of downtown, featured an exhibit on the history of baseball at the orphanage, including visits by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Across the street from TD Ameritrade Park is the Omaha Baseball Village, essentially a large parking lot scattered with big tents for private parties and a plethora of vendors selling more t-shirts than I have ever seen in my life. (Well, there are eight teams, I reasoned…and as teams got eliminated their merchandise was marked down 50%.) I stop to take a picture of the sign with all of the cities listed and their distances from Omaha and am momentarily startled when I turn around to see a giant beaver sticking off the next table. (Clearly an Oregon State supporter.) The banner hanging near the main entrance sports the current tagline of the College World Series (“The greatest show on dirt”) and I remember the one from when I was younger (“Where the stars of tomorrow play today”).
The results of the games I attended are lost in my memory but I do remember seeing some top draft picks including Brendan McKay and Dalton Guthrie (son of former Twin Mark Guthrie). To take a break from TD Ameritrade Park, I made the one-hour drive to Lincoln to see a Saltdogs game, although unfortunately they were not playing the St. Paul Saints that night. On my way out of town, I stopped at Hy Vee to get a salad for lunch and noticed a middle aged woman shopping in a LSU cheerleading outfit, complete with LSU hairbows and an LSU ankle bracelet. What a fun atmosphere for baseball.