The Best Baseball in Town

Omaha hopes changes to CWS enable it to stay the same

The blue and white sign out front of Zesto’s said they had the “best cheeseburgers in town.” It never really mattered whether this was true or not. What mattered was that hundreds of thousands of visitors to Rosenblatt Stadium every summer for the College World Series saw that sign and could believe it. The advertising seemed honest because the advertising was old. Perched just south of the stadium entrance, Zesto’s looked like small-town America. There were picnic tables out front and walk-up windows nearly papered over with handwritten signs advertising dip cones and sundaes. Little more than a shack, it looked like the sort of place people want the best burgers in town to come from. Rosenblatt Stadium wasn’t much different. It wasn’t an architectural marvel or even a particularly quirky ballpark. It didn’t look like much but that made whatever happened there that much more special. It had to be good. Rosenblatt’s advertising was a giant sign facing Interstate 80. “Home of the College World Series.” Every I-80 motorist of the past 60 years who has ever complained about the unending flatness of driving across Nebraska either started or ended their journey with a polite reminder: Omaha and the College World Series are happy to have each other. The “Road to Omaha” is college baseball’s championship catchphrase but the literal road wasn’t a freeway. It wasn’t the fast lane either. It cut right through where Omaha lived and worked and we liked it that way. Residents of South Omaha rented out their houses or let you park on their lawn. Buildings that sat empty 11 months a year became local bars and souvenir stands. Inside, Rosenblatt Stadium happened on TV. It belonged to ESPN and anyone who cared to tune in on a carefree summer afternoon. Outside, Rosenblatt Stadium only happened here. It belonged to Omaha and the fans from across the country that made the trip over the past six decades to see our city all dolled up. TD Ameritrade Park is different. It’s a gleaming new stadium built of glass and Nebraska clay. It looks like the major leagues. It sits in our new NPR-approved section of the city, the hip $100 million part of town that people might be surprised to see in flyover country. This CWS will be impressive in a far different way than was the one in South Omaha. So what happens when a city’s historical best foot forward meets the city planners’ new and improved one? To put it another way: Can you take the old Zesto’s, move it three miles north to an empty lot on the corner of 12th and Mike Fahey Street, make a new Zesto’s and have it feel anything close to the original? We’re about to find out. “This year’s College World Series is going to be very interesting,” says Jere Ferrazzo, food and drink supervisor for the Douglas County Health Department. “Nobody really knows what’s going to happen.” What Ferrazzo does know is that the city has issued more than 5,200 peddler permits this year, more than it ever issued at Rosenblatt. Some of the new sports bars near the stadium have been prepping for the CWS for two or more years. Others have been prepping for the last two months to be sure they’re open this weekend. The rest of North Downtown, an area still largely under development, is essentially up for grabs. “Every vacant lot is going to have food vendors and big-screen TVs,” Ferrazzo says. “There’s only so many people that can go to a game but there will be plenty for people to do around the stadium.” And it’s the people themselves that CWS organizers are banking on to help navigate the change from old to new. You don’t go from a stadium named after an old Omaha mayor to one bearing the name of a corporation that gained $11.5 billion in new assets last quarter without making the traditionalists uneasy. Joe Menaugh, marketing and events manager for CWS Omaha Inc., has heard those reservations since taking the job last January. He’s confident, however, that the essence of the event remains the same. “We know that it’s Omaha that makes the event,” he says. “It’s the community and how we revolve around it for two weeks. As much as Rosenblatt was home, it was the people who went there that made the event. “We had a 98 percent renewal rate on season tickets from Rosenblatt. Everything else might look different, but the people aren’t going to change. They’re the same season ticket holders we had. We’re going to rely on them to keep the atmosphere alive.” During a week of uncertainty, that may be the only sure bet to be had. This year’s College World Series will undoubtedly be different. It was the step Omaha had to take to ensure it remained the same. But for the players on the eight teams in town this week it might not seem different at all. This year’s CWS isn’t a contrast between new and old for those guys. Omaha is still the ultimate destination to them, a word that means more to them than most. It’s written on the goals they post in the locker room. It’s printed on some of the bats they swing. It’s the title of that slightly grating song they play when they finally earn their trip. For them, Omaha is a dream realized. For the fans, the College World Series has always been about carving off just a slice of what that must feel like. That still only happens here. These are the teams making it happen this year: Virginia National Seed: 1 Record: 54-10 CWS Record: 1-2 Last CWS: 2009 (2 total) Omaha loves a hometown success story and Virginia has that in head coach Brian O’Connor who pitched on Creighton’s famed 1991 CWS squad. His likeness appears on the “Road to Omaha” statue at the foot of the steps outside the park and his Virginia jersey hangs in Barry O’s in the Old Market. You could say Omaha is still attached. But the Cavaliers are more than just their locally famous coach. LHP Danny Hultzen was the second overall pick in the MLB Draft, going to the Seattle Mariners who later picked up his battery mate C John Hicks and 3B Steven Proscia. A well-balanced squad, Virginia brings the lowest team ERA in the nation into the Series at 2.26 and is one of three teams at the CWS batting over .300 on the season. Florida National Seed: 2 Record: 50-17 CWS Record: 8-13 Last CWS: 2010 (7 total) Florida sent five pitchers to the bigs in the 2011 MLB draft but the Gators might be better known as this year’s big boppers. Florida leads the CWS field with 67 homeruns on the season and nearly 6.5 runs per game. C Mike Zunino and 1B Preston Tucker did the most damage offensively, combining for 32 homeruns and 132 RBI on the season. Anaheim Angels draft pick LHP Nick Maronde leads the Gators staff with a 2.03 ERA over 33 appearances. North Carolina National Seed: 3 Record: 50-14 CWS Record: 14-17 Last CWS: 2009 (9 total) The Tarheels have become an Omaha fixture of late, reaching their fifth CWS in the last six years under coach Mike Fox. SS Levi Michael was the first Tarheel taken in the draft, going 30th overall to the Minnesota Twins. North Carolina doesn’t overwhelm you with their team statistics but starting pitchers Patrick Johnson and Kent Emanuel went a combined 21-2 in 31 starts this season. Anytime you can throw those guys back-to-back you’ve got a shot. South Carolina National Seed: 4 Record: 50-14 CWS Record: 23-17 Last CWS: 2010 (10 total) CWS Titles: 1 (2010) Last year South Carolina became the last team to win a CWS at Rosenblatt Stadium and they’re back this year to break-in TD Ameritrade Park. LHP Michael Roth brings the second-best ERA in the country at 1.10 along with 93 strikeouts and 12 wins to Omaha to lead the Gamecocks. More than just defending champs, South Carolina is battle-tested with wins this year over Florida and Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt National Seed: 6 Record: 52-10 CWS Record: 0-0 Last CWS: None The Commodores are making their first trip to Omaha, but with only four seniors on a team that had 12 total MLB draft picks this year, it likely won’t be long before they’re back. Vandy’s .319 batting average is tops in the field and sixth best in the country. Combine that with the third-lowest team ERA, 2.38, led by first-round draft pick RHP Sonny Gray and you have a well-rounded team that might just be young and brash enough to not realize they shouldn’t win it all just yet. If the CWS was a horse race this is the team all the value-hunting wise guys would love. The Commodores also have OF Mike Yastrzemski whose grandfather, Carl, reportedly played some baseball in Boston back in the day. Texas National Seed: 7 Record: 49-17 CWS Record: 83-56 Last CWS Appearance: 2009 (34 total) CWS Titles: 6 (2005, 2002, 1983, 1975, 1950, 1949) Everything’s bigger in Texas except, this year at least, the bats. The Longhorns have the lowest team batting average (.276) in the CWS but they’re holding opposing batters to a paltry .196 average on the season. RHP Taylor Jungmann is the ace of a deep Longhorns staff and fits the country hardball mold at 6’6”, 220 lbs. with a fastball that routinely hits 95 miles-per-hour. Jungman enters the series off back-to-back losses in the NCAA regionals and super regionals; but this is still Texas and the fact that the Longhorns had to win two straight twice to get here means coaching legend Augie Garrido shouldn’t have to look far for inspiration. That’s a dangerous concept for a school with more CWS wins than the rest of the teams combined. Texas A&M National Seed: NR Record: 47-20 CWS Record: 2-8 Last CWS Appearance: 1999 (5 total) The Big 12 Tournament champion Aggies pounded fifth-seed Florida State 11-2 in Tallahassee to earn their first trip to Omaha since 1999. Thought of mainly as a reliever coming into the season, RHP John Stilson posted a 1.68 ERA and went 5-2 in 13 starts this season. Texas A&M is sure to get some Nebraska support for two reasons: 1) They don’t like Texas either, and 2) head coach Rob Childress, associate head coach Andy Sawyers and assistant Justin Seely all spent some time on the Cornhuskers’ staff. California National Seed: NR Record: 37-21 CWS Record: 10-6 Last CWS Appearance: 1992 (6 total) CWS Titles: 2 (1957, 1947) Five weeks before this season started, Cal didn’t think they’d even be playing baseball. Some creative funding choices and $10 million in donations later, the Golden Bears are headed for Omaha for the first time in 19 years. To say they’re the underdog — Cal went 13-13 in the Pac-10 this year — is understating things; but the role fits this team well. Expect to see a lot of guys in Omaha wearing new Cal hats this week, which is just fine. Featuring a throwback Cleveland Indians style block-C, they might be the best-looking lids in the tournament.

posted at 08:24 pm
on Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

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