LINCOLN, Neb.—Even on a cold Friday night in late March, with the wind howling and snowflakes falling, 1,669 hearty souls showed up at Haymarket Park to watch Nebraska take on UNLV.
"I have to say, it was one of the loudest crowds I've ever played in front of," Rebels ace righthander Erick Fedde said. "You you feel them on the mound, the pumping in your chest. That was kind of a cool experience to be part of."
Given such a lively crowd on such a miserable day, it was easy to imagine crowds of 8,000-plus packing Haymarket Park, as they have for big Nebraska games in better weather conditions in past years. A beautiful double-decker facility that the Cornuskers share with the Lincoln Saltdogs of the independent American Association, Haymarket offers a great view of the Lincoln skyline to right-center field, in between Memorial Stadium (home of the storied football program) and a brand-new basketball arena.
"We're very fortunate to have fantastic facilities," Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said. "With no pro sports teams in Nebraska, this is it. Fortunately we have the donors and the financial backing to be able to do that and give these guys a great college experience. When the weather warms up a little bit, we've had some games 35 degrees and we've had 2,800 people here. When we get some warmer weather, we'll be in that 3,500 to 6,000 range. Just a tremendous fan base, not just for baseball, but basketball sold out the arena this year, football's been sold out every year since the '60s, volleyball always sell out. Every sport is supported, and it's a pleasure to be a part of it."
Nebraska's fan base and facilities are the best of any baseball program in the Big Ten, and among the best in the nation. That's a significant reason Erstad—who won a football national championship as Nebraska's punter in 1994 and was the No. 1 overall pick in baseball a year later—was thrilled to get an opportunity to return to his alma mater after his pro playing career ended. But the decision to return to the Cornusker State was made before Erstad ever latched on as a volunteer assistant under former coach Mike Anderson in the summer of 2010.
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"We were based in Southern California, we have our place there," said Erstad, a North Dakota native. "Everybody says you're retired. You don't retire. The grim reaper comes and hits you on the shoulder and says, 'You're old, your body's broken down, your bat speed's gone.' They basically tell you you can't play anymore. So that time was coming. I was playing in Houston, and my wife and I said, 'OK, where do we want to raise our kids?' We took a map of the United States and said you cross off one state, I'll cross off one state. She grabs a marker and the first thing she crosses off is North Dakota. And I'm like, 'Come on!' It's too cold for her up there. We went through the list, and we ended up with Nebraska being the last one.
"Before I was done playing, we bought our house here. We knew we were going to raise our kids here. I had no clue I was going to coach. We come back, drive back from California and move into our house, get ready for the afterlife. One thing led to another, and I started coaching. To say that I feel blessed is the understatement of the world. It's great to be in the Midwest and be able to give back to the place that's given me so much."
Erstad is known for his high-energy, intense playing style, and the grind of college coaching has been a perfect fit for his personality.
"I absolutely love it," he said. "I can't tell you how many times people had told me, 'Oh, you're going to hate recruiting. There are so many things, the administrative red tape, you can't stand—you're going to hate it.' I literally have not had a day where I've hated my job. I'm one of those fortunate ones who finished playing, a lot of guys don't know what they're to do. I was fortunate enough to get this opportunity to work for my alma mater, and I just absolutely love it. I get paid to do this—it's a crime we get away with this. I've got a great product to sell in Nebraska, and obviously I'm biased to the place. But it's great to be a part of it."
Erstad and assistants Ted Silva and Will Bolt have had no trouble selling their vision for the program to recruits. Their 2013 recruiting class ranked 11th in the nation, Nebraska's highest-rated class since BA's recruiting class rankings began in 2000. The headliner of that class, blue-chip outfielder Ryan Boldt (.337/.422/.474, 7 doubles, 3 triples, 15 RBIs, 5 SB), has quickly established himself as Nebraska's most dynamic player. The No. 2 ranked freshman in BA's Top 50 Prospects by class lists entering the spring, Boldt has caught fire of late, hitting .486 over his last 10 games heading into this week. A true five-tool talent, Boldt earned some comparisons to Erstad when he was coming out of high school. But Erstad dismissed those parallels.
"If I was going to compare people—which I don't—but if I was going to, let's see here: He's faster than I was, he has a better swing than I do, he runs the bases better, he has a better arm," Erstad said. "So sure, we're the same. But I can beat him at punting, that's one thing I can beat him at. I don't want him to go down my path, I don't want him to go down anybody's path. I want him to do his thing. And there's a lot of talented players out there, we all know that. But the one thing that is going to separate Ryan is his work ethic. There's so many talented people out there that probably don't tap into their full skill set, empty the tank and get what they can out of their bodies. Ryan's that kid who does that, and not just on the field but in the classroom and the weight room."
Erstad suggested his favorite part of his job is getting to watch players "empty the tank," and helping them do it. Erstad's intensity has certainly carried over to his coaching career; it probably carries over to the dinner table too, for that matter. His eyes have a piercing, focused quality, and his gaze never wavers during any conversation.
Erstad holds his team to a high standard, like any successful coach, and Nebraska's 15-13 start has had its frustrations. He said he's generally been pleased with his offense, which features good balance and depth. Veterans like Pat Kelly, Austin Darby and Tanner Lubach have performed up to expectations, helping the Huskers sport a .305 batting average after 28 games.
Nebraska's pitching has been less consistent. Cape Cod League all-star lefthander Aaron Bummer got off to a slow start but has shown signs of putting it together recently, including Sunday against UNLV, when he battled through seven innings to pick up the win and help Nebraska avoid a sweep. Friday starter Christian DeLeon is a gritty veteran who reminds Erstad of former big leaguer Aaron Sele, because he always gives his team a chance to win. But the Huskers need more contributions from the key arms in their freshman class, Derek Burkamper (9.00 ERA), Max Knutson (6.23) and Ben Miller (11.05).
"We are taking our lumps with some young guys, some growing pains on the mound," Erstad said. "That's something that we just need to be patient with. We have some talent there, but it's going to take a little time to develop. And you've got to throw them into the fire, let them do their thing.
"I know everybody wants it now, but those guys are going to have to go through it, and eventually they'll figure it out."
When they do, Nebraska will be very dangerous, just as it was down the stretch last year, when it came up just short of regionals. With a strong base of talent already in place and another excellent recruiting class lined up for next year, Nebraska looks on the verge of once again becoming a superpower on the plains, as it was a decade ago. The college baseball landscape in the Midwest is in the midst of a dramatic shift, but Nebraska's inevitable ascent under Erstad will be simply a return to normalcy for a program that has the winning tradition, resources and fan support to get back to the College World Series soon.