When we touched down in Omaha, Nebraska, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the experience – and how could I know? The Ole Miss baseball team, to which I dedicate my fandom, hadn’t been here for the College World Series in my lifetime.
A lot of people, I think, are under the impression that college baseball is a dying brand. Lacrosse and soccer are gaining popularity, the MLB isn’t as big as it has been, and the whole aluminum bat debacle a few years back probably turned a few fans away – or maybe not, I’m just rambling.
We checked in to the Hilton Omaha late that afternoon and sat down to grab some food and drinks before the game – already decked out in our Ole Miss College World Series gear (again, it’s not like they print this stuff every year). About five minutes before we started to walk over to beautiful TD Ameritrade Park – the new home, after Rosenblatt, of the CWS – a woman walked up to our table and complimented my buddies “OleMaha” t-shirt and asked if we were going to the game.
Our party gave a grumbled response of yes and yes ma’ams as she started talking over us anyway: “Well, my husband is the president of the College World Series and we have an extra ticket on the first row behind the plate, who wants it?” My hand shot up like one of those fair games where you have to smash the round spot as hard as you can with the sledgehammer to try and ring the bell.
The game ended up being a pitcher’s dual between Ole Miss’s Chris Ellis and Virginia’s Nathan Kirby. It was a close game throughout, not high-scoring, but very entertaining for the sold out crowd. Sitting 10 yards away from the batter’s box in no way deterred me of participating in all of the Ole Miss chants: on 3-1 counts I screamed “DIRT!” as the man 25 rows back started it off by yelling “THROW…. IT… IN…THE DIRT, DIRT!”
Every time we got momentum and someone yelled “ARE YOU READY?” I finished out the “Hotty Toddy Chant.” We did the slow clap, we sang “Sweet Caroline,” we did it all just like it was an afternoon game at Swayze Field in Oxford, Mississippi. All of that said, the fans sitting around us who were neutral quickly jumped on the Rebel Nation bandwagon, as well as our new friends from the College World Series board. They took in all the cheers like a sponge in water, asking questions and then jumping right in.
UVA outhit the Rebs, who never make anything easy, the whole game, but neither could pull away – both having their opportunities to win.
To my point about some people maybe having a decling perception of college baseball: For a few brief moments on a crystal clear Omaha night, in the bottom of the last inning, with a full count on Virginia’s best batter Mike Papi vs. Ole Miss’s closer Aaron Greenwood, with 24 thousand strong holding their breath on the hanging off-speed pitch, college baseball was the only thing that mattered.
Mike Papi hit a walk-off. Why we chose to pitch to him with an open base, I’ll never know.
After the game, I couldn’t even bring myself to go out on the town – some fun college student I am. We went back to the bar of the hotel, where (of course), the Virginia baseball team was staying along with hundreds of fans. But, the weirdest thing happened, we had a great time.
We stayed for hours talking to fans of other teams, seeing those we hadn’t seen in years and wondering why such an entertaining baseball game had to end like that for us. People from UC Irvine wanted to experience the grove, people from Virginia were asking about all of the cheers, outfits and why the heck all the women were so pretty. People from Texas wanted to know why and the hell we kept choking against Texas A&M in football, to which I responded: Well, actually I can’t type exactly what I responded.
After a late start we grabbed
breakfast lunch, at Freddy’s, which is kind of like the Midwestern version of an In-And-Out Burger, and proceeded to walk around the brick build Old Market. There was this store (below picture), which we went in because of the obvious “Superbad” reference – sadly, they weren’t related, yet I still left with two shirts. We grabbed a few cigars and walked around stores like Outlanders and acted like we were actually interested in the pelts and sheep rugs and jackets.
After the double layered patty melt digested, we laced up our shoes and walked over to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which is the longest pedestrian bridge to link two states, connecting Nebraska to Iowa. We had to take a picture, any person that has seen “A Walk to Remember” would be insulted if we didn’t. The scenery was amazing, many people that we passed yelled “Hotty Toddy” or “Tough one last night, get’em tomorrow.”
We stopped by famous Blatt’s, right across the street from the ballpark after our
run jog walk, kind of just to say that we did and watched the US Men’s Soccer team win in dramatic fashion over Ghana. Fans may have been divided on the action happening a block away at TD Ameritrade, but I didn’t see many people on that roof top cheering for Ghana.
Anyway, we hustled back to the hotel and changed in time to make it to the Vandy/UC Irvine game. The two teams were on the opposite bracket of Ole Miss, so I didn’t have a dog in the fight. I grew up a few hours from Vanderbilt, who is also in the SEC; we have pride in that conference in the south. Unless you’re a Mississippi State fan, and then you just cheer for the Bulldogs and even harder for whoever the hell is playing Ole Miss any given day. However, we met some Irvine fans, who were also staying at the Hilton, and I kind of wanted them to celebrate again that night. I found myself cheering for both teams. I got emotionally attached to whoever was losing at the time.
I sat with some buddies of mine, one being Errol Robinson, Ole Miss’s shortstop. You would have thought he was Derek Jeter to all of the little kid’s, from all fan bases, asking for his autograph in between innings. Right before the game was over, he looked at me and said “Man, I gotta bounce now.” It was the eighth inning of a tightly contested two run ball game; I was confused. He said, “Dude, our curfew is in seven minutes, I’m about to jog back to the hotel, I just didn’t wanna leave this place before I had to.”
Vanderbilt ended up winning by two runs, and back to the hotel bar it was.
The next morning, I headed down to the workout room to attempt to sweat out some of the calories that I’m sure I destroyed the day before. I was running next to an LSU fan, and we of course started talking. To this day, I think some Ole Miss fans are convinced that “Go to hell LSU” is actually part of the national anthem. Anyway, the rivalry is a fun one, actually. There is no fan base I appreciate more than LSU’s, and also no team I enjoy beating more.
Mid-conversation he said something that really nailed my few day’s in Omaha right in the head. I asked, “Since LSU didn’t make it, did you think about selling your tickets or not coming or anything like that?” His response without a second of thinking was: “Why the hell would I do that man? This is the (freaking) College World Series.”
Our second game held a bit more luck, yet the beginning looked all too familiar. Neither team was getting much done at the plate, and Ole Miss was clinging to a one run lead off another huge pinch-hit RBI from Holt Perdzok. It was nothing new to my eyes, I think Holt had 400 RBI’s against us in high school, but it was cool seeing him do it on that stage; he was also responsible for our only run in the previous loss to Virginia.
However, Texas Tech rallied back and it was 1-1 going into the bottom of the 9th with Ole Miss at bat; we wouldn’t be Ole Miss if we didn’t make everything extremely difficult and nerve-wracking to watch. Taking a page from the 2009 cotton bowl playbook, John Gatlin, another substitute dropped a ball right over the head of second baseman Bryant Burleson. It was truly a surreal moment. It was a shame someone had to lose that game and be eliminated from the tournament, but I sure was glad it wasn’t us. With all the close one’s I’ve seen Ole Miss lose, we earned that one – but that is kind of the allure of being an Ole Miss fan: sometimes to see the really great games, you’ve got to sit through some bad ones. (skip to about 45 seconds on the video if you want to get to the good stuff)
Oh, our new friends from the College World Series let us grab six tickets this time around instead of just me. Honestly, I tweeted this:
…but I think I really would.
I’m writing this on the return trip back to Memphis, and I wont lie; I’m sad leaving. The people were great, locals and visitors. The food was impressive. The city, the 42nd largest our wonderful country has to offer, had all the amenities of a big city with all the feel of a close-knit small town. It was the kind of place that if a pedestrian was walking down the (again, impressive) sidewalk and saw a piece of trash, he would bend over, pick it up and take it to the nearest trash can. I think I invited half of the city to our Grove tailgate (even though I will already be back at school in Maryland), and above all: baseball rules supreme.
When I left Omaha around 7pm today, the first pitch between TCU and Virginia was just thrown. As I lay in my own bed now, the game just ended five hours later, rendering Virginia as the survivor via another walk-off. One thing is for sure, If Ole Miss squaks by TCU and takes one from Virginia and I have the opportunity to put the real world on pause for a few more days, I’ll take it in a second. Is this Heaven? No, It’s Omaha.
*A very special thank you to the Diesing family for all of the hospitality. You all were nice just because it was your natural attitude, and it truly is amazing.*