The College World Series is back. And it never sounded so good
OMAHA, Nebraska — The most impactful sounds are the ones you not only hear but also feel.
The heartwarming clamor of a downtown Omaha bar coming to life with laughter and clinking bottles. The succulent sizzle of meat on the grill during a tailgate in the shadows of TD Ameritrade Park. The thud of a baseball hitting the back of an Omaha Baseball Village booth made for kids to take a few cracks off the tee. The collective roar — and simultaneous groan, depending what colors you’re wearing — of 24,000 human beings watching a walk-off late during a muggy Nebraska night.
That’s one you feel in your chest as much as your eardrums.
If there’s one good thing to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a sheer sense of gratitude for things we used to take for granted. Count the College World Series somewhere near the top of that list.
A year ago this weekend, the home of college baseball’s national championship sat silent. Empty. The season and its crowning event were canceled months before the calendar turned to summer.
There are still reminders here of the year we just endured. Inoperable drinking fountains inside the ballpark. The shuttered doors of the Dugout, a popular merchandise vendor across the street from the stadium. Paperless tickets.
(No word on the last topic from the famed LSU Scalper, a mainstay at this event for decades known for flipping tickets and handing out purple and gold beads).
But they were drowned out Saturday by the familiar ambiences that have made this an annual trip for folks from all around SEC country — regardless of whether your team is in it or not.
Dads, sons and grandsons in Tennessee gear celebrating Father’s Day a day early. Vanderbilt fans reuniting for what feels like a family reunion. The Mississippi State faithful, in particular, have started to pack this place year in and year out. They were greeted by several electronic billboards throughout the Omaha metro commemorating the “Omadawgs'” third consecutive CWS appearance.
The locals were even willing to put up with the famed Vandy Whistlers — also known as fan Preacher Franklin and Jeff Pack — for 12 innings Saturday night.
A sardonic 724 days since the last College World Series, Vanderbilt got the party started with a 12-inning nail-biter capped by Jayson Gonzalez’s bases-loaded single. Ace pitcher Kumar Rocker struggled, but credit the Commodores for making up for lost time; at 4 hours and 51 minutes, this was the fourth-longest game in CWS history.
Tennessee and Mississippi State enter the proceedings Sunday. Trace a map from Nashville, Knoxville and Starkville to Omaha and you’ll have covered a total of 2,467 miles.
But it’s the sounds of summer, baseball and fellowship that have kept ’em coming back from all over the South year after year, decade after decade. This season marks the 70th consecutive CWS in the River City.
One t-shirt for sale this weekend reads “They torn down my stadium. You think a pandemic was gong to keep me away?”
It’s been more than a decade since South Carolina closed out Rosenblatt Stadium with the first of back-to-back national championships. But the old yard’s successor, TD Ameritrade Park, feels more and more like home every year.
The exuberant air as thousands braved the heat to flock toward it Saturday served as evidence.
There are folks around here who are worried the event will someday move elsewhere. It’s nothing more than rumor mongering at this point. Across the street at the CHI Health Center, Omaha’s fourth straight Olympic swim trials are in full swing amid talk they’ll transfer to Indianapolis in four years.
Omaha isn’t the biggest, brightest destination. But that’s exactly why it’s perfect for the College World Series. It’s a venue for people to get together, soak in the sun and either watch their team compete or jump on an attractive bandwagon.
You’ll never replicate what you could hear, see and feel here Saturday anywhere else. And after a year without it, the experience carries that much more gravity.
“This is how it’s supposed to feel around here,” Vandy coach Tim Corbin told ESPN before his team’s too-close-for-comfort win. “You can just stand here and soak up the energy in the air. You feel this place.
“That’s why it’s magic.”