Five years ago, after Coastal Carolina’s improbable run to the College World Series championship podium, its coach tried to sum up his stay in Omaha.
Gary Gilmore’s club had spent two full weeks here.
They bonded with kids and staff at Nebraska Medicine. They played lawn jenga at a cookout. They visited the zoo. They chatted with kids in the stands before games and enjoyed the adoration from patrons while they made their title run. They walked the city streets and spotted the green-hued shirts and heard the “Go Chants!” shouts.
Omaha transformed them into rockstars.
So Gilmore couldn’t leave his postgame press conference without acknowledging all of the folks who made the trip so meaningful.
“The Midwest fan that we have here in Omaha is as fine a fan and the greatest supporting baseball fans I’ve ever been around,” Gilmore said. “Just the sincere love and enthusiasm and passion for the game that they have in this area and here in Omaha is incredible. Whether I ever get back here or not again, I just want to tell them, thank you.
“It’s the most incredible experience of my life.”
That’s Omaha. That’s the CWS.
It takes a legion of community members, volunteers and organizers to leave that kind of impression . Those involved with this baseball-centric ecosystem wouldn’t have it any other way.
Omaha’s the party host that doesn’t mind if her guests let loose because she will, too.
And since the pandemic spoiled the grand citywide collaboration in 2020, one can bet the return of the series will only strengthen Omaha’s commitment to ensuring the event stands out.
“(2020) just shows you that you should never take anything for granted,” said Jack Deising Jr., president of College World Series of Omaha, Inc. “I believe that we all learned a lot from the situation and are better for it. We’re looking forward to one of the best years we’ve ever had this year.”
Perhaps you’ll see that from the nonprofit groups who serve as team hosts and chaperones. And from the concession workers and stadium staffers who’ll embrace the big crowds. And from the first responders who’re devoting extra time to help. And from season ticket holders from the area who buy seats every year. And from the Creighton administrators and coaches who handle behind-the-scenes logistics. And from the NCAA employees who’ve moved in downtown for the next several weeks.
There are vendors who’re back setting up shop. Beer gardens have been built. Parking lots have been transformed into concert venues. Bar and restaurant owners have reconfigured to accommodate the many, many guests.
A study earlier this year by Creighton economics professor Ernie Goss and commissioned by CWS Inc., revealed that a fully operational CWS is worth about $88.3 million to Omaha. So there is financial incentive.
But Anthony Holman, the NCAA’s managing director of championships and alliances, operations and playing rules, says the community always goes above and beyond for this event. It’s why the CWS is under contract to remain in Omaha through 2035. The NCAA has no plans to move it, either, Holman said.
“This is a long-term partnership,” Holman said.
Which is why last year felt so odd.
The pandemic forced the cancellation of all the remaining college sports seasons in March 2020. That meant the CWS. For the first time since 1949, Omaha didn’t have its summer showcase.
No traffic jams. No beach balls. No dogpiles. No college baseball.
“I drove downtown (in June last year), and it was eerie,” said Ed Servais, Creighton’s 18-year baseball coach. “I’m thinking, there should be people everywhere. And I’m driving home and nobody was on the road. It was like, this can’t be happening.”
Remnants of the pandemic are still evident, even 12 months later.
TD Ameritrade Park can sell 100% of its game tickets. But outfield seats, normally first-come, first-served general admission, have to be purchased in advance. The stadium is going cashless and moving to digital-only tickets.
The national anthem will be performed virtually on the big screen. Friday’s normal kickoff events — the free team practices, autograph sessions, opening ceremonies — were all canceled.
But the spirit of the CWS should remain. That’s the hope, at least.
The same devoted people are involved — the ones whom Gilmore praised in 2016 and countless other CWS participants have recognized over the years. Ultimately, that’s what makes these two weeks special.
The last time Omaha hosted the CWS, in 2019, marked the 17th trip for Florida State’s Mike Martin. No one’s led a team here more times than that. He played in the CWS in 1965, too.
Martin already announced plans to retire after that final run in 2019, though he’d never won a national title. And his team lost midway through the series, so his pursuit of the elusive crown fell short.
Yet Martin said afterward that he could find reasons to smile. He’s always been able to in Omaha.
“I’ll never forget the times that I’ve had out here,” Martin said in his final press conference in 2019. “I ain’t going to say we never won one because, you know, just getting out here is just so much fun. To be with people that are living in the heartland of America and creating something that every college baseball player aspires to, and that’s to get to Omaha.”
What follows are short stories about the people who make the College World Series what it is. From the PA announcer to the umpires, the broadcasters, concession workers, NCAA officials and — perhaps most importantly — the fans, these are the fine folks who help stage the Greatest Show on Dirt.
THE PA ANNOUNCER
The College World Series public address announcer doesn’t eat on the job. He rarely even leaves his seat in the press box.
You can imagine those doubleheader days at the ballpark get a little long. One p.m. starts, with the action extending well past sundown.
But Bill Jensen won’t complain.
“I just have to stay away from popcorn and peanuts — but maybe one of the guys might get me a Coke,” Jensen said. “But I get to be there for everything. It’s such a ball.”
By now, he’s settled into the routine — and all of the demands that go with it. This summer marks Jensen’s 20th season at the CWS PA announcer.
His voice is the one fans hear blending with the organ’s melodies during pregame and the one that informs them of pitching changes and weather updates. Jensen is behind the microphone when the stadium gates open and he’s there until the final out.
And he can’t wait to start his two-week marathon Saturday, especially after experiencing a summer without the CWS — a first in four decades for Jensen, who’s been involved with the event in some capacity since 1983.
“I am really excited about coming back, I really am,” Jensen said. “Last year was such a departure from what I’m used to. I just missed being at the ballpark, taking in the whole atmosphere, seeing the crowd, watching the players.”
He said he even drove to TD Ameritrade Park last June. Just to see the field, and maybe spark some old memories.
“I was down there and thinking, I wonder if the gate’s locked — and of course it was,” Jensen said last week with a chuckle. “But there was that void there in June, I have to admit, for a little while.”
Especially for a lifelong CWS patron like Jensen.
He thinks he was 10 or 11 when he and a couple of friends started riding the bus to Rosenblatt Stadium for CWS tripleheaders. They’d bring their gloves and run around the top of the grandstand — the red seats — to try to snag a foul ball.
In 1983, Jensen started working the event.
He had a radio gig with KLIN in Lincoln, but at the CWS, he was helping manage ushers. Then he started manning a pass gate. Then he moved up to the press box to run the scoreboard.
He eventually became the PA announcer for the Triple-A Omaha Royals, now Storm Chasers. And once longtime CWS PA announcer Jack Payne retired, Jensen took over the stadium microphone for the series, too.
Jensen’s first CWS game: 2001. The day President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch. Nebraska made its CWS debut that evening.
There have been so many special moments since, Jensen said.
“You think about how for most of these guys playing in the College World Series, this is it,” Jensen said. “Many of them after college won’t go on to play pro ball. So it’s fun to watch their enthusiasm, to watch them compete.”
Their passion is inspiring to Jensen, which might be why he’s so meticulous about devoting extra time to researching name pronunciations. He’ll watch the super regionals closely just to build a foundation in his head. Then he’ll spend the days leading up to the series thoroughly studying the rosters.
Because as much as he enjoys this job — and can laugh about oddities that come with it — he’s all business when he turns on the mic.
“Just when you think you’ve figured it out, it’s not going to happen the way you planned,” Jensen said. “This is the pinnacle for all of the players, and to have a guy behind a microphone mess up their name ... I’d feel awful. I think you’ve gotta keep in shape and work it out every day.”
At some point during this College World Series, probably when he’s assigned to work second base, umpire Jeff Henrichs will take in the scene.
A full 360-degree scan of the packed ballpark.
That’s what Henrichs, a Lincoln native, did the first time he worked a CWS back in 2003. It’s what he’s done every series since. This year will be his eighth.
“Getting the call to go to the College World Series is what you work for — and you’re proud to be there,” he said. “I always tell everybody when you get there to take a deep breath and realize there’s only eight people in the country that are here (to umpire).”
The CWS is the goal for players and coaches involved — they’ll compete for a championship starting Saturday. And they’ll be the stars of the show.
But the annual event is also a reward for the college game’s top umpires. Eight get a spot, and they’ll rotate assignments while in Omaha. The NCAA picks its postseason umpires based on a nomination and evaluation process.
So getting here is meaningful for people like Henrichs, who’s been umpiring for 37 years — the past 27 in college.
Especially this time around because, well, it’s been a long year for everyone.
In March 2020, Henrichs landed in Las Vegas for his layover when he found out the college baseball season had been canceled. He was on his way to work a game.
Instead, he went back home and perfected his rose garden for the next several months.
Even when he returned to the field in February, strict protocols were in place.
Henrichs said he’s been tested for COVID-19 67 times. He’s worn face masks while fully geared to work a game on a turf field in the southern sunshine. He’s taken his own precautions off the clock, too.
But it was all worth it, Henrichs said.
“I look forward to walking on that (TD Ameritrade Park) field,” he said.
This year, Henrichs said his three sons will be in the ballpark on Sunday. A Father’s Day treat.
And because he grew up in Nebraska, he has lots of family and friends around. So he’ll hear someone from the crowd yell his name — usually while he’s working the first- or third-base line, an old friend or acquaintance will shout. Henrichs actually moved back to the state this year.
He won’t be taking these next couple of weeks for granted. He’ll remind his colleagues to do the same.
Their primary goal, though, will be to perform at their best. The approach doesn’t change, Henrichs said, even on the big stage.
They’ll review video to analyze their positioning on calls. They have to know the rulebook inside and out. They’re evaluated regularly. Those that work the postseason are required to submit a report on their performance — and crew chiefs have to assess all the umpires they worked with.
“Trust me, we want to be perfect ... and then try to get better from there,” Henrichs said. “It’s still such a challenge to go behind the plate, to do a good job and be consistent. But it’s a lot of fun.”
Especially in Omaha.
At last, Kyle Peterson will be leaving his home to broadcast baseball games.
The physical travel won’t be long — the longtime ESPN college baseball analyst lives in his hometown of Omaha — but being in a booth at TD Ameritrade Park on the call for the College World Series will feel like the celebration at the end of a grueling journey.
Broadcasting remotely had become the norm for the former standout pitcher at Omaha Creighton Prep and Stanford. He figures he wasn’t in a ballpark working between August 2019 and this May, when he was on site for the SEC tournament. He called and watched regionals and super regionals through a screen.
But he’ll be a fixture at 13th and Cuming for the next few weeks.
“It’s a lot easier to do your job when you’re there and a lot harder when you’re at home,” Peterson said. “I understand the reasons why we had to do it, but it really makes you appreciate being there and seeing the way the play unfolds from the vantage point you have in the booth that you just don’t have at home.”
All the little things he forgot he missed will come rushing back this weekend.
The smell of the ballpark. The buzz of a big crowd. Watching players work out on the field for the first time the day before the CWS opener and seeing the excitement on their faces as the idea of making it to Omaha gives way to the reality of the sport’s biggest stage.
Being in person also brings back a camaraderie with his broadcast crew that gets lost when calling games hundreds of miles apart. The quality of their work will be better during the day, he said, and the downtime they spend together will be more enjoyable. The hunt for stories that pop up — like fans driving through the night to see their teams play a crucial game — are best done face to face.
“Those are the ones that are awesome,” Peterson said. “I don’t know who they’re going to be yet but I promise you we’re going to find them. That’s one of my favorite things, how dedicated people are to it.”
Peterson laughs as he describes how much his phone is buzzing again this week after a quiet summer in 2020.
Omaha is his city, which makes him an unofficial host for ESPN personnel and other media who arrive looking for restaurant recommendations and entertainment options.
Even more exciting for the broadcaster is the return of his alma mater. Stanford is in the CWS field for the first time since 2008.
Just this week he got a call from a former Cardinal teammate he hadn’t spoken with in at least five years. Stanford coach David Esquer was an assistant when Peterson played there. Other friends and acquaintances from out west will make their way back to Omaha for the first time in a while.
There will be reminiscing, Peterson said. And there will be ticket requests.
“It’s fun and it’s the advantage of being at home,” Peterson said. “Amazingly, everybody thinks we have like 100 tickets randomly sitting in the house, which is not the case. Inevitably you catch up with 10 to 20 to 30 people over the course of the next two weeks, and not just people coming to the town for the event.”
Peterson’s first assignment is the Saturday night game between Vanderbilt and Arizona. But he plans to be on hand earlier to watch Stanford battle North Carolina State. Maybe a few memories will pop up from his playing days. The rush of being back in the ballpark figures to be with him all day.
Probably for the rest of the month, too.
“I may turn into a fan for a few hours on Saturday,” Peterson said. “I’ll be taking it all in.”
Kevin Kugler knows that the first time he puts the headset on in TD Ameritrade Park’s radio booth, and sees a full crowd in front of him, it’s going to be emotional.
“It’s been such a hard year-and-a-half for so many people, and for so many families, and for so many business owners, and you name it,” Kugler said. “To have everybody gathered together again, you watch Major League Baseball games at full capacity, and you watch these events at full capacity and you hear that roar and you feel that excitement and you see the camaraderie in the stands, people all cheering and celebrating, I am eager to experience it.
“There’s going to be a moment or two where I will just sit in that booth, look out and smile. I fully expect to get goosebumps. I get goose bumps just thinking about the fact that I am going to be back with full fans, calling a game again. I can’t wait.”
Kugler, who lives in Omaha, has been the lead play-by-play announcer for Westwood One’s radio coverage of the College World Series since 2004.
He also calls the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for Westwood One and broadcasts football, basketball and baseball on television for Fox and BTN. Other broadcasting commitments mean Kugler won’t be in the booth for the opening weekend of the CWS, but he will call games in bracket play and will be at the helm for the championship series.
“I can’t wait to see the crowds and be part of the atmosphere again,” he said.
Kugler was in Indianapolis in March 2020 preparing to broadcast the second day of the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament when the NCAA canceled the remaining winter and all of the spring championships. His first thought was of disappointment for Omaha, missing an event that is synonymous with the city.
“(The College World Series) is such an integral part of what summer in Omaha has meant to me for a lot of years and what it’s meant to a lot of Omahans for a lot of years, and the fact that it was yet another casualty of the pandemic was incredibly disappointing,” Kugler said.
Last June, when he would have been spending his days and nights at TD Ameritrade Park, Kugler drove past the stadium. He was struck by the quiet and emptiness.
“Seeing it empty and realizing there was nothing going on really just sort of drove the point home that we weren’t having a College World Series,” he said. “It was hard. It was hard to go through a June without knowing that Omaha was going to have its signature event.”
During the pandemic, Kugler has broadcast a combination of events virtually and in person. His NFL duties and work at the NCAA men’s basketball tournament were all in person while many other events have been broadcasted from the studio in his basement.
The College World Series will be the first event he broadcasts without capacity restrictions since the pandemic began, and the full crowd will be one sign for him that things are returning to prepandemic days.
“It feels a little bit of a signal that maybe normal is here or close to here for so many of us, that if I’m back in a booth with full fans, calling a baseball game, in the summer, in Omaha. That’s normal,” he said. “That’s what normal has been for me, in every summer since 2004, sitting in a booth, calling college baseball, in Omaha.
“To have the chance to do that again, is going to feel normal. Normal is something that we’ve strived for for the last year-and-a-half. We’ve looked for it. We’ve tried to find it in various moments in our lives, and to be able to say, ‘This is a normal moment,’ it’s a simple sentence, but it carries an awful lot of weight after everything that’s gone on over the last year-and-a-half.”
THE NCAA OFFICIAL
Megan Hall and her NCAA colleagues have spent more than a year coming up with contingency plans, and she expects there to be some on-the-fly adjustments once they’re on site trying to manage this year’s College World Series.
It’ll be different. And hectic. And unpredictable.
But there’s something about the idea of seeing a full-capacity TD Ameritrade Park that has Hall energized.
The moment when all eyes lock on the video board to watch a CWS intro video that she and a team from Van Wagner Productions collaborated on. The moment when that first pitch zips across the plate. The moment when the fans erupt at the first spectacular defensive play or majestic home run.
“One-hundred percent capacity, it makes my job a lot easier and a lot more fun,” Hall said. “It won’t be completely normal but I’m looking forward to having a full crowd and feeling that energy and being able to feed off it.”
Hall is an assistant director of championships, alliances and game presentation with the NCAA, a role she’s held for three years. Her job is to enhance the CWS experience — for players, their families, the fans and anyone else who walks through TD Ameritrade Park.
She and her team are always full of ideas.
It’s just that this year, they had to think differently.
The opening ceremonies did not take place. The NCAA’s Fan Fest is limited. There won’t be on-field promotions to liven up the between-innings pauses (though keep an eye out in the stands instead). The national anthem will be virtual during pregame, at least until the CWS finals.
“For us, it’s been, how can we pivot and do something different, and make it fun?” Hall said. “Just rethinking how we do things.”
This year, they’ll have themed nights at the ballpark and giveaway days. They’ve tried to come up with creative video elements on the big screen to grab fans’ attention.
And they’re still brainstorming, tweaking and maneuvering, Hall said, even as the CWS opens Saturday.
“We’re going to walk through things and we’ll have to adjust then,” she said. “And then after we get through a game, there’s going to be more adjustments. You can’t be afraid of making mistakes and learning.”
That’s been evident the past several months as Hall and her colleagues have worked to conduct fall and spring championships during a condensed calendar. She helped out with the men’s Final Four, hockey and volleyball in a month’s time. Then women’s lacrosse in May.
She’s been in baseball mode ever since, though, pondering the scenes as she prepares for this signature event.
“I am looking forward to being back in Omaha and being back in the community — I know this championship means so much here,” Hall said. “There are still health and safety protocols in place, but I think we’ve got some exciting things planned.”
Saturday begins a stretch of 14-hour days. Every day. Until the College World Series ends either June 29 or June 30.
But the chefs at TD Ameritrade Park know the deal. And everyone could use some comfort, especially after the past 15 months.
“We thought about how people really wanted to get back to the series, and what that meant,” said Chris Myers, an executive sous chef with Levy Restaurants, which operates the ballpark concessions. “For me, it means a hot dog and a beer.”
The chefs bucked tradition and didn’t create any new dishes this year, instead concentrating on the classics that CWS fans didn’t get when the event was canceled in 2020. So you’ll see items like the Home Run Burger, chicken and hatch chile taquitos, grounds crew totchos, the Reuben, grand slam nachos and NachOmaha (which comes in a long box that’s just slightly shorter than a baseball bat and is highly recommended).
Myers said he’s also felt the labor shortage that is ongoing throughout the country during the pandemic. Doubleheader days are really tough, he said.
“We have to adapt as well as we can,” he said. “I even got my nephew to come help.”
Chefs from several other Levy locations also are coming to Omaha to lend a hand.
Overall, Myers said, “It’s not fun, but it’s not the worst.”
And he’ll get to see his visiting chef friends, which was one of the things he missed in 2020.
Plus, it’s only two weeks out of the year. The alternative — no College World Series — was much worse.
It was June 2020 and there was no College World Series, an annual tradition for Laura Buddenberg and her family.
As the month passed, she wished they would have one more year to spend with her father, Morgan Holmes. He also was a huge CWS fan, with the Holmes family having attended the event for 50-plus years.
But Holmes was taken into assisted living a few months earlier after a series of small strokes. He died July 8, 2020.
“I had hoped we weren’t going to lose him as fast as we did,” Buddenberg said. “We would have moved heaven and earth to get Dad to the ballpark one more time.”
The earliest memories Buddenberg has of the CWS are from the late 1960s. Her dad was in a service club at the time, which would often sponsor the teams in Omaha.
“I remember having teams over to the house for dinner, and Dad would get us tickets, we would all troop off to the College World Series,” she said.
By 1970, they had four season passes to divide among Buddenberg, her three siblings and her parents. Some had their preferences. Her dad loved the matinee games and brother Andy Holmes made sure to always attend the two opening day games. Later, family friends got involved.
Sometimes they wouldn’t be able to fill all four seats at every game. So her dad gave the ticket to someone else who could go — free of charge.
“Dad also was a firm believer that we would have these tickets, and as soon as his kids got to choose which and he’d choose which games, any tickets we weren’t using, we were to find somebody to use those,” she said. “And we were never to ask them to pay for those tickets.”
They saw plenty of memorable moments together. Some of Buddenberg’s favorites were Warren Morris’ walk-off homer for LSU in 1996, Coastal Carolina winning it all in 2016 and attending the final CWS game at Rosenblatt Stadium in 2010.
Buddenberg said her dad was initially sad when the CWS moved from Rosenblatt to TD Ameritrade Park, but it took all of five minutes in the new facility to change his mind.
Over the years, they’ve kept the spot consistent — aisle seats in Section 203, off the first-base line.
“They’re nice seats,” she said. “I mean, it doesn’t get too hot. You get a little shade there. It’s fairly decent in the late afternoon and evening.”
Still, some things have changed. Buddenberg is married with kids of her own. Soon after TD Ameritrade Park opened, her mom died. But Holmes was still dedicated to keeping the tradition alive.
“As Dad, his own health started to suffer and after mom died, he was very concerned that we hold on to these tickets,” Buddenberg said. “So we went through the whole process to get the tickets transferred into my name.”
Her father was taken into assisted living in March, just as the pandemic shut everything down. Her family was unable to visit him and he was unable to leave. They talked on multiple occasions over FaceTime, but he had also lost his speech and use of his right hand, his dominant one.
Without him now, the family is still carrying on the tradition. This week, they had their annual pre-CWS meetup, where they planned who would attend which day. Often, they’d get pizza from La Casa, where her parents had their first date. The family plans on attending as many games as possible. Buddenberg said she’ll grab a CWS shirt while there, like her father always did.
While Buddenberg said it’ll be “really weird” not to have him at the ballpark this year, she’s ready to go back. She recently went to the D.J. Hero Awards Luncheon at the park, and got emotional looking out at the stadium.
“These traditions matter, so I am over the moon that the College World Series is here this year and I can hardly wait to get to the ballpark,” she said. “I did kind of lose it a little bit, looking at those seats and knowing Dad won’t be there this year.”
As soon as the teams start clinching their bids to the College World Series, Creighton coach Ed Servais knows to keep his phone on.
He’s the one who helps organize the off-day practices — the sessions for CWS squads at CU’s campus or area high schools. And the way the set-up has evolved, it’s almost a race between CWS participants to book the best time slot.
So Servais’ cellphone has been buzzing all week.
“It used to be, I’d never hear from them until Wednesday (before the CWS),” Servais said. “Now, those phone calls are coming in immediately after they qualify for the series. Because they know there’s prime times to practice and they want first dibs.”
Servais is glad to sort through it all.
Of course, he’d prefer to be one of those coaches preparing a team for the final eight-team championship tournament. Creighton’s lone CWS appearance was in 1991. The Bluejays reached an NCAA regional title game in 2019 but 2021 ended in the Big East tournament.
And even in the early stages of the offseason, there’s still plenty on Servais’ to-do list with CU.
Recruiting. Evaluating his players during summer ball. Revisiting strategies and philosophies from last year.
But he recognizes the importance of contributing to college baseball’s crown jewel. Servais thinks this year’s CWS, after the 2020 cancellation, could be especially entertaining for players and patrons.
“This year — you could tell in the regionals — the fans were out, and there was excitement and a lot of enthusiasm,” Servais said. “I think you’re going to see that this year in Omaha, too.”
Servais usually makes it inside the stadium for at least one CWS game.
Coincidentally, his first was in 1991. Creighton beat Clemson 8-4. Incredible, Servais said.
He remembers the Jays performing well in an electric atmosphere, which — as the coach at St. Mary’s (Minnesota) at the time — left a strong impression.
Seven years later, he came to CU as an assistant. And for a few summers, he found a role at the CWS, too, keeping stats inside the ESPN production truck.
“I always try to get over there (to the CWS) for a couple games, just to get the flavor of it,” Servais said. “Because it’s just amazing.”
At the very least, he’s gotten a chance to catch up with the coaching staffs this week, which is always a treat, Servais said.
He’ll pick their brains or try to find some new ideas by watching practice. He’ll pass along tips about TD Ameritrade Park and offer his congratulations.
And he’ll assign practice times and locations, doing his best to be fair to all.
“My fear is, I’ll double-book somebody,” Servais said. “And then if it rains, what do you do? So it’s a busy time. But it’s also fun.”