OMAHA—Every team that reaches the College World Series is good. But to win the national championship, teams must stay loose and relaxed in the face of an intense blitz of fan and media attention that is foreign to most college baseball players.
So it’s no wonder those lovable jokesters of South Carolina are in the CWS Finals for the third straight year. And it’s no wonder Arizona stands in the way of a South Carolina three-peat.
The comedic stylings of the Gamecocks and Wildcats were on full display in a Saturday press conference to preview the best-of-three Finals, which begin Sunday night at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha.
Arizona coach Andy Lopez opened the press conference with a quip: “We’re excited to be invited to the Ray Tanner invitational.”
South Carolina’s Tanner, sitting to Lopez’s right, put one arm around Lopez and began mock-pummeling Lopez’s arm with his other fist. The tone was set for a jovial hour of entertaining interplay between the two finalists.
South Carolina’s media darling-in-chief, Michael Roth, was in top form throughout. Roth certainly doesn’t take a third straight trip to the Finals for granted.
“I did say to coach Tanner after we won last night, I was like, ‘Can you believe we’re in a position to defend our title with these knucklehead freshmen we have?’ ” Roth said. “And we were kind of laughing about that.”
Maybe the Gamecocks and Wildcats can get together for a comedy jam this weekend at the Hilton Omaha, where both teams are staying.
“The Hilton Hotel Battle Royale—that’s the new name for it,” Roth said. “Probably the worst part is at some point in this next week, somebody’s going to be celebrating and the other team has to hear it. So, I mean, that’s probably the only downside.”
He paused a beat, then added, “And there’s no free breakfast.”
Fellow Gamecock co-captain Adam Matthews joked about riding the Hilton elevator with a bunch of Arizona pitchers who “were all a foot and a half taller than me.”
Then Arizona shortstop Alex Mejia’s turn came to comment on the dynamics of sharing a hotel with the opponent. “I think they took all the clever things to say,” he deadpanned.
The two teams are also sharing the hotel with a growing population of swimmers in town for next week’s U.S. Olympic swim team trials. “I think we’re getting outnumbered by the swimmers,” Arizona junior outfielder Robert Refsnyder said. “The whole lobby smells like chlorine.”
Refsnyder later said it won’t be easy to win the battle for Omaha’s hearts against the Gamecocks, given how difficult it is to three-peat. In fact, no team has done it since Southern California won five straight from 1970-74. Certainly, South Carolina fans outnumber Arizona fans by a hefty margin in Omaha.
“The first day I was here, I went to the Fan Fest,” Refsnyder said. “I went to a stand and it was crazy in there, and I think every single team T-shirt was sold out but ours. So I think I was the only one who bought one . . . But the weird, quirky fan who wants to see Arizona win, I’ll take that fan, because definitely it’s nice having fans here, and it’s nice not getting yelled at in right field with fans behind you. So hopefully Arizona fans are sitting in right field.”
Matthews, who also plays right field, has had his own difficulty with fans. But not the fans behind him in the bleachers. Roth joked (we hope) that Matthews was getting death threats on Twitter after stranding the bases loaded twice Friday, before finally coming through with a game-winning bases-loaded walk in the seventh.
“I’ve wore it on social media in Omaha,” Matthews said. “It’s been fun; it’s been funny. Me and Michael share a bunch of laughs about the fans.”
There were plenty of laughs to go around Saturday. These are easy teams to root for, but it won’t be easy for fans—or Hilton staff members—to decide who to root for.
“I think, to be honest, they’ll be rooting for these guys just cracking jokes over here,” Mejia said, gesturing toward the South Carolina players. “I feel like I should be rooting for these guys, too.”
That set off another round of laughter. If the games are half as entertaining as the press conference, CWS fans could be in for a real treat.