Originally created 06/09/01

Major leaguers have fond memories of 'other' World Series



OMAHA, Neb. -- When Roger Clemens took the mound and saw the packed stands at the College World Series, he suddenly got nervous.

Sure, it was 19 years ago when Clemens was pitching for the Texas Longhorns, but the "other" Series does something to every player. And those effects seem to last a lifetime.

"I was probably 19 my first go-around, so it was nerve-racking, a little intimidating," said Clemens, a five-time Cy Young award winner and two-time World Series champion. He won a national championship with Texas in 1983, a year after his first trip to Omaha.

"For some guys it can be nerve-racking, and for others it can get you pumped up," the New York Yankees right-hander said. "The whole Omaha experience, not only the first year, but to go back the second year and be more familiar with the surroundings and win it all is exceptional."

Clemens is one of dozens of current and former major leaguers who played in the College World Series. The list includes Albert Belle, Barry Bonds, Bob Boone, Will Todd Helton, Jeff Kent, Dave Kingman, Barry Larkin, Mike Mussina, Rafael Palmeiro, Greg Vaughn, Robin Ventura and Dave Winfield.

"You hear about going to Omaha the day you get to school," said Ventura, the New York Mets third baseman who went with Oklahoma State in 1986 and '87. "Then, to get there and actually play in the College World Series gets the adrenaline going and you get excited. It's a great time."

The College World Series started Friday and runs through June 16.

Many players say a trip to Omaha at the beginning of June is an experience in itself.

"The atmosphere there is just phenomenal," said Boston catcher Jason Varitek, whose Georgia Tech team that lost the championship game to Oklahoma in 1994 included Nomar Garciaparra and Jay Payton. "We had a group of fans that seemed to get behind us right away. They liked us for some reason and rooted for us."

Signs welcoming teams and fans to the College World Series appear everywhere - on billboards, store windows and on the people themselves in the form of hats, T-shirts and jackets.

Fans debate which teams they think are going to win and dedicate songs like John Fogerty's "Centerfield," Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days," and of course, The Counting Crows' "Omaha" on the radio.

The concourse and parking lots around Rosenblatt Stadium are filled with food stands, souvenir tables, promotional tents and, of course, people. Many of them just sit in folding chairs tailgating and soaking up the baseball atmosphere.

"We had big crowds at Texas, but the fan turnout there is unbelievable for a college athlete," Clemens said. "That's the big thing. The people of Omaha welcome you and do a great job. The field's great, and the whole town just puts their arms out to you."

Memories of being wide-eyed and almost overwhelmed are still strong for some players.

"It's the first time being in a big arena like that, one totally dedicated to college baseball," said Larkin, the Cincinnati Reds shortstop who went with Michigan in 1983 and '84. "They had opening ceremonies, all that kind of stuff. It was a huge deal. It was awesome."

Texas Rangers reliever Jeff Brantley went to Omaha with Mississippi State in 1985 with future major league stars Palmeiro, Clark and Bobby Thigpen.

"It's a great time for comparison internally, to be able to go in there and pitch against guys that you know are the best in the country," Brantley said. "You always wonder in the back of your mind, even though you are facing great players in the SEC, you are wondering if you're as good as those guys or those guys are as good as they seem to be."

San Francisco Giants outfielder Armando Rios, who went to Omaha in 1991 and '93 with Louisiana State, played a major role in one of the College World Series' more memorable moments.

In the 1993 semifinal game against Long Beach State, Rios hit a two-run double in the ninth inning to tie the game at 5, and scored on Todd Walker's single. The Tigers went on to beat Wichita State in the championship game.

"Just coming across the plate - everybody was cheering. It was intense," he said. "It was the best game I ever played, definitely. You don't forget moments like that."

Kent, last season's National League MVP, had a less memorable experience when his California team was eliminated after two games in 1988.

"By the time we figured out what it was all about, the series was over," the Giants second baseman said.

Many players said they still try to watch the Series in the clubhouse.

"When it's on, we definitely like to watch," said Ventura, whose Cowboys lost to Stanford in the 1987 championship game. "We see so many major league games throughout the year that it's a nice break to see the college guys."

Varitek said players competing this year should remember to have fun and stay focused.

"You really have to concentrate game to game, especially the way it's set up," he said. "But you've got to try to take it all in, enjoy your teammates and enjoy the chance to win together and try to win together. You should have your fun, but know what your ultimate goal is while you're there. Getting to Omaha is what you play for in college baseball."