Omaha, Nebraska is probably not where you’d want to spend a week at this time of the year, unless hot and humid, mixed with severe thunderstorms, is your idea of an ideal climate.
But Omaha is where I was last week (for the eighth time in the last ten years, every year at the same time). I was there to watch part of the College World Series, which Omaha has hosted forever (actually since 1950).
Until last year, the games were played at Rosenblatt Stadium, which may have been a fine ballpark in its day. But of late Rosenblatt, what with its narrow concourses, dirty, smelly bathrooms, and limited concession stands, had clearly outlived its usefulness.
In its place, the city built a brand new, up-to-date ballpark and then immediately sold the naming rights to a big corporation. Thus, the new park is called by the ridiculous name of TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, which somehow doesn’t have the ring you’d like for the home of the biggest amateur baseball tournament the country has to offer.
But apart from that horrible name (and all that it implies), the CWS is still a great event, and the people of Omaha take to it every year in large numbers with most games sold out to capacity (around 25,000).
The tournament begins with eight teams, the survivors from the original field of 64 teams that compete in regional and super-regional rounds for the right to play for the national (NCAA-Division I) championship. (The seeding of the teams follows much the same pattern as that used for the NCAA basketball tournament which culminates in the Final Four in early March.)
This year among the eight teams to advance was the reigning champion for two years running: the University of South Carolina. It was trying to close on the record of another USC school, the University of Southern California, which won five straight titles in the 1970s (under legendary coach Rod Dedeaux).
Also advancing were two Cinderellas (so labeled because neither had ever advanced to the CWS before). Of the two, Stony Brook, from eastern Long Island, seemed the more improbable contender. But it had defeated a perennial CWS powerhouse, LSU, to get to Omaha, and had had seven players selected by major league teams in the recent amateur draft.
The other unlikely participant was the team from Kent State (Ohio), which heretofore had been nationally recognized as the school where four students were killed by National Guard troops at an anti-war (Vietnam) protest in 1970. Forty-two years later, the school was on the map again with a chance to win a national championship.
The other five teams (Arizona, UCLA, Florida, Florida State and Arkansas) have all been to the CWS before. In fact, Arizona had won three times in the past and its coach, Andy Lopez, had won the tournament 20 years ago with a team from Pepperdine University.
The format currently in use (it has been changed several times over the years) has the eight teams divided into two brackets. Each team must lose two games to be eliminated, with the surviving team in each bracket then advancing to the finals, which consist of a best-of-three playoff. Thus, if you do the math, the entire series can consist of a maximum of 17 games (trust me), which means the entire tournament can run for the better part of two weeks. (This year’s tournament started on Friday, June 15 and ended on Monday, June 25.)
Obviously, unless you live in or around Omaha (or have nothing else to do and no concern about expenses), attending all 17 games is a dicey proposition. I usually try to catch six, as I did this year, either by attending the first three days of the tournament (when double-headers are the rule) or coming for the mid-week games (when two are played on some days and one on others).
For those who don’t have the resources to get to Omaha (or would just prefer to avoid the intense weather conditions), the games are all broadcast on ESPN. The weather this year was typical for the event (from my experience, at least). The first day I attended, the temperature hit 103, with just a trace of a breeze occasionally providing minimal relief. The second day was not as hot (only about 95). The third day was rained out with torrential thunderstorms lasting well into the night. And the fourth day was lovely, with temperatures in the mid-80s and a cloudless sky.
What you see at these games is not major-league quality baseball. The kids are all very good athletes, and some of them have absolute major-league potential. But for most of them, this is as far as they will go and their play is as good as it will ever be. And, since just getting to the Omaha tournament is a highlight of an athletic career, the games themselves are tense affairs, often close battles, some as exciting as baseball can get.
Of the six games I saw, two were real nail-biters, with the outcome in doubt until the very last pitch. Only one was an absolute blowout, essentially decided after the losing team gave up six runs (with three errors) in the first inning.
Of the eight teams, only Arizona went undefeated to emerge from its bracket into the finals. Stony Brook was quickly eliminated, losing consecutive games to UCLA and Florida State. Kent State, in the other bracket, fared a little better, beating Florida after losing to Arkansas, before bowing to South Carolina.
And South Carolina ultimately joined Arizona in the final playoff by beating Arkansas twice. Arizona then won the tournament by beating SC twice in a row, negating the need for the third playoff game.
The last game ended with Arizona holding off a South Carolina bases loaded threat to win the game, 4 to 1 (another game that came down to the last pitch).
Seeing the Arizona players mobbing each other on the field after the last out may have looked familiar, but for those kids, it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment. Enough to bring a tear to your eye.