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OMAHA, Neb. The game was scheduled to start in 20 minutes, but Jeff Richardson and his three buddies from South Dakota had yet to find an affordable parking spot. As they drove down 13th Street, sign after sign advertised available spots for a pricey $20.
Reluctantly, Richardson drove his blue Ford Probe into one of the private lots, a converted front yard, and moaned about the steep fee. “Tell you what,” the unshaven attendant in a sleeveless orange shirt said. “You parkin’ for both games?”
Welcome to the College World Series, a place where big time baseball blends with Heartland Hospitality to form one of our country’s more unique sporting events.
Nowhere else will a parking attendant toss in a couple brewskies to convince you to park in his lot. Nowhere else is pregame traffic often greeted with a smile and a wave. And nowhere else do fans shuffling in and out of Rosenblatt Stadium consistently apologize when bumping into one another.
“It’s Middle America at its best,” Richardson said. That’s why we come down here. Nobody takes themselves too seriously we’re all just here to watch some baseball and have a good time.”
Since 1950, the College World Series has called Omaha’s Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium home. It’s the only major collegiate championship that is played in the same venue, year in and year out.
What Pasadena is to the Rose Bowl, what Indianapolis is to the Indy 500, what Louisville is to the Kentucky Derby, Omaha is to the College World Series.
“They could never, they should never play this Series anywhere else,” Cal State Fullerton athletics director Brian Quinn said. “If the NCAA ever moved this out of Omaha, they’d be nuts.
“This atmosphere, this community, you couldn’t duplicate this anywhere. And it’s authentic. People don’t realize Omaha is college baseball.”
This is no Super Bowl. No Final Four. No Rose Bowl. It’s an event entirely unique to itself. Where else would nearly 250,000 fans spend 12 days cheering for eight teams they barely knew anything about a week earlier?
At a time when corporate America continues to squeeze its way into amateur athletics, the College World Series is a throwback. Sure, somebody from Shell wants you to sign up for a gas credit card here and Nike is putting on a hitting demonstration there, but there aren’t many stuffy VIPs or their stuffier pregame tents.
Instead, the scene outside Rosenblatt is like a five block frat party. Hooters girls pass out coupons for free wings. A sports apparel shop boasts a sign, “We reserve the right to bend your cap if you look like a dork.” Steak sandwiches are grilled on one corner, free bottles of water with the label, “How to have a relationsip with God through Jesus Christ” are passed out on another.
And just down the road, Wahoo (Neb.) English teacher Larry Fangman sits at a card table and peddles “The Cupid Killer,” his murder mystery novel written with the College World Series as its backdrop.
It’s as if the final Sunday at the County Fair meets with a Friday night after hours at Delta Chi Omega.
“It’s two weeks of a carnival like atmosphere,” said Jack Diesing, president of CWS Inc., the local organizing committee. “Basically, it’s just a place to hang out and have fun.”
This year, athletics department officials from Cal State Fullerton rented a house on 13th Street, the main access road to Rosenblatt Stadium. They covered the house in orange and blue,
draped a giant Fullerton flag across the front and partied.
“It’s a great way for every Fullerton fan or just baseball fan to meet and have a good time,” Quinn said. “And it’s proven to be a great fund raiser.”
Even the cops are laid back, with one group of Omaha’s finest chilling under a tent prior to Thursday night’s game, electronically controlling the traffic lights at 13th and Bob Gibson Boulevard while lounging in a director’s chair.
Diesing and his committee estimate the World Series pumps roughly $30 million into the local economy. They’re doing another such evaluation after this year’s series and believe this time, the number will be closer to $40 million.
Locals plan their weddings around this. And then they send out invitations with pictures of Rosenblatt Stadium on the front.
Through Thursday night’s ninth session, 199,949 fans, an average of 22,217 per session had walked through Rosenblatt’s turnstiles. With a best of three series set for Saturday, Sunday and, if necessary, Monday, the Series will likely shatter last year’s total attendance of 223, 762. Rosenblatt Stadium holds just under 24,000 fans.
“What this has turned into is beyond even my wildest dreams,” said former USC coach Rod Dedeaux, who won more College World Series games (60) and championships (10) than anyone else. “For eleven months out of the year, most of these people could care less about college baseball. And then it comes time for Omaha.”
Part of that is the tradition. The College World Series has been played in Omaha for all but three years of its existence. It spent two years in Kalamazoo, Mich. and one in Wichita, Kan.
It’s just as big of a deal for the players as it is the fans. After all, the average college baseball game is attended by a few thousand fans. For most of these players, who will never make the major leagues, playing in front of 24,000 is a dream come true.
The city’s name is so synonymous with the College World Series that a major aluminum bat maker has an “Omaha” line.
“When you put together your scheduled for the season, you put down Omaha. It’s Omaha,” Dedeaux said. “That’s what you talk to your kids about that’s what you’re trying to do get to Omaha.”
The local newspaper, the Omaha World Herald, puts out a special World Series section on each of the series’ 12 days. Downtown offices and hotels boast massive, “Welcome baseball fans signs.” Every bar has some sort of World Series special, depending on who wins. And sit down for dinner in a downtown restaurant, reveal that you’re in town for the Series, and you’re instantly treated like some sort of diplomat.
Even the bus drivers, cab drivers, doormen and meter maids get into the act.
“Name three college championships that you know where they are,” Diesing said. “Maybe you know which bowl the BCS championship is at that year. And maybe you know where the Final Four is going to be held. After that, inevitably,
you’re going to so Omaha. And this city takes a lot of pride in that.