Eight years ago, when my 13-year-old nephew Timmy played in a youth baseball tournament in Omaha during the College World Series, his mom came to my home to launder the team's uniforms.
For the first time since then, he is back in town to play baseball. And I have kiddingly told my sis that she is welcome to use my washing machine again for his current team — the Indiana University Hoosiers.
On Sunday, Tim O'Conner, now a grown-up 6-3 and 200 pounds, caught the final out in left field as the Hoosiers, for the first time in school history, qualified for the CWS. Tim sprinted in and jumped on the team dogpile.
“It was pretty unbelievable,” he told me. “We had never had any dogpiles before, and now we've had a couple.”
Eight teams are coming to Omaha hoping to jump onto the ultimate national championship dogpile. But even for the seven that don't win it all, the trip to Omaha is an experience of a lifetime.
“I remember being there as a kid, looking at the players like they were celebrities,” Tim recalled. “They were treated like royalty. It's an unbelievable setting for a college athlete.”
The games at TD Ameritrade Park start on Saturday, but free public events begin Friday. Teams will take batting practice and sign autographs during the day, with a musical concert at 6 p.m. and stirring opening ceremonies at 8:30 p.m.
To those of us who live here, Omaha is a place we're proud to call home. For college ballplayers, “Omaha” isn't so much a city as a word with almost mystical quality.
“Kids don't say, 'Go to the national championships,'” the NCAA's Dennis Poppe said Wednesday. “They say, 'Go to Omaha.' ”
In Baton Rouge, La., on Sunday, where LSU clinched a trip to the CWS, the crowd chanted “OMA-HA! OMA-HA! OMA-HA!”
The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament was so tough that it was referred to as “Omaha East.”
In Raleigh, N.C., where North Carolina State clinched its school's first trip to the CWS since 1968, the stadium's sound system blared the Counting Crows song “Omaha.”
As the lyrics say:
Somewhere in middle America
Get right to the heart of matters
It's the heart that matters more.
The teams arrive in the heartland on a business trip, trying to win an NCAA championship. But there's also time to enjoy it all.
It's fun, too, for Omahans, who have hosted this festival of fastballs, flyballs and full counts almost longer than we can count — except that we know this is the 64th consecutive year, far longer in one location than any other NCAA title tournament.
Other locales envy Omaha. The NCAA said last month that it was looking for more permanent homes for championships in other sports, and cities apparently are eager to latch on to one.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Jeff Jarnecke, NCAA associate director of championships, said last month in the American City Business Journal: “You hear everybody say they want to try to find their Omaha.”
College World Series visitors have found Omaha a welcoming place, and the city has nurtured this event. It's our Kentucky Derby, our Indy 500. Games are carried on national TV.
For decades, each visiting team has been assigned a local service club, which hosts a cookout or other party and helps with logistics or other problems. Ballclubs are welcomed at the airport. Police escorts accompany team buses to the stadium. Crowds of up to 25,000 watch games.
“Omaha,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said Sunday, “is an amazing place.”
We like to think so. But in showing athletes, coaches and their fans a memorable time, nothing is taken for granted.
Players who might never wear a uniform again after leaving college are treated like major-leaguers. The day before the start of the CWS includes not just preparation but also a little adulation. Kids and others swarm for signatures.
Josh Kimball, 24, of nearby Ashland, Neb., has his own tradition — a photograph album.
For nine years in a row, Josh has posed for pictures with at least one player or coach from each of the CWS teams. He'll be there again Friday with his former special education teacher, Carol Logan of Omaha, who has known him since first grade.
Josh, who washes dishes at a restaurant, has what she calls a severe articulation disorder, which makes it difficult for him to pronounce consonants.
“It's very rare,” she said. “He only speaks in vowels.”
They thought his string might be broken last year because of rain. But Josh and Carol eventually met up with players from Kent State and Stony Brook to complete his set.
Those two teams were first-timers at the CWS last year, and Omaha always gives a special welcome to newcomers. Indiana, a member of the Big Ten like Nebraska, might get that new-kids treatment this year.
About 1,300 IU alums live in the Omaha area, including a familiar name: Attorney Rich Rosenblatt is the grandson of Johnny Rosenblatt, namesake of Rosenblatt Stadium, the home of the CWS through 2010.
Omaha supports all the teams, understanding that while the festive nature of the series is fun, this is a high-stakes, high-pressure event. All the players were stars in high school, usually in multiple sports, but now the competition peaks.
My nephew Tim, son of Renie and Bill O'Conner of Cincinnati, went to Indiana on a football scholarship. In high school at Elder High (my alma mater, too), he set an Ohio big-school record with 15 pass receptions in a state championship game.
Now focusing on baseball, his role for the Hoosiers is as a late-innings pinch runner or defensive replacement.
To get to Omaha, the Big Ten champion Hoosiers had to beat Florida State twice on its home field in Tallahassee, where the Seminoles this year had posted a 35-3 record.
Saturday night, Tim stole a base, scored a run and made a catch near the wall in left field as Indiana won 10-9. The winning pitcher was Brian Korte, who also was Tim's teammate eight years ago in Omaha and in high school.
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