Originally created 06/18/04

Omaha is where college baseball players want to be



OMAHA, Neb. -- Indianapolis has the 500. Pasadena has the Rose Bowl. And Louisville has the Kentucky Derby. But Omaha has the College World Series.

Every summer for the past 54 years, college baseball's championship tournament has been played there. And though it lacks the glamour of some sports events, it has an ardent following, and the crowds are bigger than ever, thanks in large part to ESPN's live coverage since the 1980s.

LSU athletic director Skip Bertman, who won five national titles as the Tigers' coach, said players don't talk about going to the College World Series. They talk about "going to Omaha."

Exactly how Omaha came to be chosen for the College World Series seems to have been forgotten. But for at least 10 days each summer, this city of 400,000 is in the spotlight, with hundreds of thousands of fans making the trek from all over the country to watch the eight-team tournament.

The strong local support has kept the NCAA from seriously considering moving the event.

"It would be the biggest mistake the NCAA ever made," said Wayne "Chief" Hall, who comes from Tempe, Ariz., to watch the series. "If you took it to Yankee Stadium, it would just get lost in a big town like that. It would be just another event. In Omaha, it's something."

The event, which this year runs from Friday through June 27 or 28, has grown since its humble beginnings, when crowds averaged less than 1,800 a game. Last year's total attendance was a record 260,091.

A study by Creighton professor Ernie Goss found that 48.5 percent of the fans are from out of state, and the economic impact on the Omaha area is $33.8 million.

Back in the 1970s, when the College World Series was trying to fill a mostly empty stadium, its advertising slogan was "See the stars of tomorrow today." In that regard, the series has never disappointed. Ninety-five participants were in the major leagues at the start of this season.

Some stars who have played in the series include Dave Winfield (Minnesota, 1973); Roger Clemens (Texas, 1982, '83); Barry Bonds (Arizona State, 1983, '84); Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro (Mississippi State, 1985) and Nomar Garciaparra (Georgia Tech, 1994).

"To me, it was just a great atmosphere the whole time we were there," said Palmeiro, who plays first base for the Baltimore Orioles. "They treated us very well. We were there with seven other great teams and a lot of players that I've played against in the big leagues."

The series came to Omaha in 1950 after it didn't do too well in Kalamazoo, Mich., the site of the first College World Series in 1947, or Wichita, Kan. It didn't do too well in Omaha at first, either.

But Omaha business leaders supported the event, and the city - about 170 miles from the nearest major league team, the Kansas City Royals - stuck with it.

Each college team that competes in Omaha is sponsored by a civic organization, and players and coaches are given celebrity treatment that includes cookouts, golf outings and tours of Omaha attractions.

"In addition to all of the events, where no stone is left unturned, they make it so special for every single person and player that you always look forward to coming back," said Texas pitcher Huston Street, who is making his third straight College World Series appearance.

The series' epicenter is Rosenblatt Stadium, tucked in a blue-collar neighborhood about three miles from downtown. The ballpark, which seats 26,327, was built in 1948 and has undergone $30 million in improvements over the last decade, mostly at the NCAA's request.

Houses along 13th Street, the main thoroughfare by the stadium, are rented out to visitors.

The unofficial College World Series headquarters is Pauli's Bar, about 5 miles from the stadium. Owner Paul Griego said 2,000 to 3,000 patrons come to his bar on the biggest nights of the series.

At the Zesto's ice cream and hamburger stand near Rosenblatt, owner Gabe Barajas meets and greets the same people year after year. He said the 10 days of the series account for more than a quarter of his annual business.

"It means a million," he said. "If there were no College World Series, it would be a graveyard around here."

Omaha, to be sure, is where all college baseball players want to be this time of year.

Former Mayor Hal Daub said it is the duty of city administrators to make sure that happens long into the future.

"A mayor's greatest nightmare is to lose the triple-A bond rating for the city that we've had since 1941," Daub said, "or to lose the College World Series."

A smiling Mike Fahey, the current mayor, said, "I'd rather lose the bond rating."

On the Net:

College World Series: www.cwsomaha.com