OMAHA—This year, the star of the College World Series' media day wasn't wise-cracking Pat Murphy or coy Zen-master Augie Garrido. It wasn't the composite-barreled bats or the Academic Progress Rate or any new scholarship rules.
This year, the star was—of course—Rosenblatt Stadium, whose Hall of Fame Room hosted the coaches' press conferences and the annual "State of the Game" press conference for the last time.
There are going to be a lot of "lasts" written about over the next two weeks, right up until the last out at Rosenblatt Stadium is recorded and the last dogpile forms on the Rosenblatt pitcher's mound. And all eight head coaches in Omaha are simply thrilled to get the chance to leave some last—and lasting—impressions.
To understand just how much Rosenblatt means to college baseball, and how special the final CWS in the old ballpark is, just listen to the eight coaches.
Florida State coach Mike Martin: "It's an exciting time for all of us that have had the pleasure of watching the tournament here for so many years, knowing now it's the last year—it's extremely special for players, coaches and fans."
Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan: "We're awfully excited to be a part of the tournament here. Obviously with it being the last year at Rosenblatt, we're even more excited to be here."
Texas Christian coach Jim Schlossnagle: "I would have been physically ill had we not found a way to make our way here in the last year of Rosenblatt Stadium."
UCLA coach John Savage: "Playing in the last year of Rosenblatt is just a dream come true for the entire program, and certainly myself."
Arizona State coach Tim Esmay: "What an honor for Arizona State to be playing in the College World Series, but also because of the last year at Rosenblatt, such storied games, such storied players have come through here, and it's really exciting that we have this opportunity to be a part of this thing."
Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway: "It's almost a little surreal when you think about it. And I think it probably is for all the coaches and student-athletes, knowing the great tradition of Rosenblatt Stadium and having been here in the '90s as a young assistant and getting to see a team, a '94 team dogpile and being on that field. It really hit me, I think, after we won the super regional championship game in a postgame interview, and they were talking about this being the last year. And it got to be kind of an emotional moment, as I know it is for all of the participants this week."
South Carolina coach Ray Tanner: "You pinch yourself for being a part of such a storybook that will close the chapter at Rosenblatt, and it's really just great to be here."
Clemson coach Jack Leggett: "I was fortunate many, many years ago to come here as a player, and to be here as a coach before, I know how special it is. To be here in the last year of Rosenblatt Stadium makes it even greater."
Later, Leggett told stories of his playing days at Maine, when he failed to hit Bob Welch in a loss to Eastern Michigan, when he faced an Arizona State team with Bob Horner and Floyd Bannister, among other big stars. He recited final scores and recalled details as if the games took place last week.
"The great thing about the Omaha experience and playing in the College World Series is it's indelible in your mind forever," Leggett said. "We tried to portray that to our players all along, how special it is as a player. You just never forget about it.
"I got 79 text messages after our super regional win, and a lot of them were from former players. One of them struck home with me, from Adrian Casanova. He said, 'Coach, just tell these kids how important it is. Tell them that for the rest of their lives, people will be asking them what was it like in Omaha.' "
Decades from now, long after Rosenblatt Stadium is gone, former CWS players who never set foot in Rosenblatt will be asked the same question: What was it like in Omaha? College baseball might be losing a treasured piece of its heritage when the CWS moves downtown to sparkling new TD Ameritrade Park next year, but the College World Series will never lose its magic.
"Thirty-some times I've been here, there are tremendous memories and it has a great tradition," said Dave Keilitz, Executive Director of the American Baseball Coaches Association. "But the tradition lies in the tournament itself. And the new stadium is going to be, if you don't already realize it, absolutely tremendous. Looking at it again the other day, it is going to be a special, special place. In five, six, seven, 15 years from now, people can still talk about the great memories they had at Rosenblatt, but it's not going to deter from anything else that takes place at the new stadium, because the tradition of the College World Series will still continue into the new stadium."
Here are some other highlights from Friday's press conferences:
• The wise-crackers might not have stolen the show from Rosenblatt, but as usual the press conferences had their lighter moments. It's always fun to see the coaches interact with each other in a more casual, laid-back setting before the intensity of the CWS really sets in.
Martin is always good for a few chuckles. I enjoyed his comments on All-American leadoff man Tyler Holt: "He plays with a chip on his shoulder. And he's one of a kind, is about the only way I can say it. He's a dirtbag, a fireball, a redneck—take your pick."
Shortly thereafter, a reporter asked Martin to comment on TCU's rise.
"This is a program that nobody even thought about five, six, seven years ago," Martin said. "Jim (Schlossnagle) comes in and starts really getting after it recruiting-wise, and now he's got a tremendous fan base. I got to watch the ballgames that they've played against Texas. Heck, they had a tremendous turnout there at Disch-Falk."
Then he paused and raised his hand in an attempt to make TCU's two-finger toe sign. He turned to Schlossnagle, sitting to his left, and asked, "How do you make that thing?"
Leggett's story about striking out against Welch elicited plenty of laughter as well, but the best anecdote of the day game from Esmay, who recalled playing the infield in a CWS game against Oklahoma State during Robin Ventura's record 58-game hitting streak.
"I was kind of laughing when Jack (Leggett) was talking about his experiences, because you don't forget that," Esmay said. "You never forget playing in Rosenblatt. And I remember playing Oklahoma State here, getting here and Robin Ventura was in his hitting streak. Hit a ground ball in the first inning and for some reason it stuck in my glove and I flipped it to Mike Benjamin. We turned a double play. The great player I am, I started popping off to Ventura, and telling him, 'You're not that 56-game streak. You've got to be kidding me.' And then three at-bats later, he's standing on second base after his third double and he looked at me and goes, ‘The streak continues.’ That's a memory I'll never forget."
• Every head coach in Omaha has made the trip before as an assistant, but it's different to be the man in charge.
"I don't want to take anything away from my first three trips here when I was at Clemson—they're all special," O'Sullivan said. "But the fact is when you get an opportunity to be a head coach, there's only one time that you get a chance to come to Omaha with your first team. So this is extra special . . . But when the kids were signing autographs and when I saw the families and how excited they were, that's when it hit home for me."
Schlossnagle seems to have figured it all out, and his revelation about how TCU spent its first day makes me feel even better about my pre-CWS national champion pick. The Horned Frogs had dinner last night at Omaha's best steakhouse, The Drover, and then went straight to Zesto's for ice cream and shakes.
• The eight coaches announced their starting pitchers for their openers. Saturday will feature TCU's Matt Purke against Florida State's Sean Gilmartin, and Florida's Alex Panteliodis against UCLA's Trevor Bauer, who has been the Bruins' No. 2 starter all year but has been a bit more consistent than ace Gerrit Cole.
Sunday will feature Arizona State's Seth Blair against Clemson's Casey Harman, and South Carolina's Blake Cooper against Oklahoma's Michael Rocha. Tanner said Cooper has has progressed nicely since taking a foul ball off his hand in the dugout after exiting a super regional game last week. X-rays revealed no break, the swelling has gone down and his bullpen session earlier this week went well. Rocha, meanwhile, will remain in the No. 1 starter spot after pitching well in that role over the last three weeks.
After Tanner announced his starter, Golloway interjected, "You sure he doesn't need two more days' rest?"
Esmay then quipped, "Now that I heard who you're starting, I'm going to change that, and I'm going to go Mike Leake."
Leggett, whose Clemson team lost to ASU in last year's super regionals, responded, "No, I saw enough of him last year."
• Savage said the Bruins are likely to replace second baseman Tyler Rahmatulla (who broke his wrist in the super regional dogpile) by moving Cody Regis from third to second, as expected. Regis was a shortstop in high school and is athletic enough to fill in at second. Trevor Brown and Dean Espy will take over at the hot corner.
• The "State of Baseball" conference—featuring Keilitz, NCAA vice president for football and baseball Dennis Poppe, and Division I Baseball Committee chairman Tim Weiser—was shorter and less newsy than usual this year. Like the coaches, the three college baseball power brokers spent most of their time reflecting on Rosenblatt and discussing the significance of the final CWS in the sport's great cathedral.
But Weiser and Poppe did address a question about the possibility of seeding the top regional seeds No. 1 through No. 16 and determining super regional pairings based on resumes, rather than geography. Currently, just the top eight teams are seeded, and the next eight are all treated as No. 9 seeds.
Poppe said the localization of the super regional matchups has been good for fans, who are more likely to be able to travel to a super regional in driving distance, and good for keeping travel costs down. But he also acknowledged the other side of the argument.
"Now, I'm speaking as an administrator and as a fan," he said. "As a coach, I can appreciate the fact I don't want to play that perceived No. 9 team if I'm a No. 1 seed. So it may be, given time and history, the tournament has grown to a point that it may be something that we look at. And it's the committee's call. It's one of those things that has been discussed and probably will be discussed as we go forward. We've been close to it, I would say, in going to 16 teams, but there's this hesitation about taking away what allows this tournament to be a little more personal and allowing the fans to get there and so forth."
If that decision is up to the committee, that means Weiser's opinion matters—and his opinion was very interesting.
"I think the flip-side of keeping the fans in places where they can go to games is, from a coach's perspective, it's a bit of a detriment in that, boy, we're seeing the same teams in the same area," said Weiser, the deputy commissioner of the Big 12. "And, of course, that's part of our challenge as a committee is to find some geographic sense about how we seed teams, so that we don't put people on planes and have four-hour flights and the costs associated with it.
"But I also know that schools on the West Coast, for example, are frustrated with seeing the same teams in the same regionals and super regionals. I suppose if you were to say what would be the one thing you would like to see us change, I would probably be more likely to say, let's see if we can move away from that geographic process and do more of that seeding and not be as concerned about trying to keep things localized so we don't have the travel costs. That's easy for me to say because I'm not paying the bill, and that's obviously something the NCAA is very concerned about, and I appreciate that."
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