Baseball America is loaded with College World Series veterans. Aaron Fitt, who will be in Omaha from beginning to end, and Jim Callis and John Manuel have all been to Omaha many times, with a combined 46 CWS appearances between them. Even Jim Shonerd, who will be assisting in our College World Series coverage for the first time, has been to Omaha before as a fan.
So when one of our summer interns, Michael Lananna, got the opportunity to go to Omaha for the first time to cover it for his student newspaper, we thought it was a golden opportunity to see the event with new eyes. Not only is Lananna going for the first time, but he’s also road tripping it from Chapel Hill, N.C., to Omaha (with fellow reporter Marilyn Payne), so we get to tag along. You can follow him on Twitter at @mlananna and we’ll be posting images from along the way on the Baseball America Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts.
Epilogue: Back To Reality
Waking up in Chapel Hill on Monday was unusual to say the least. And watching the College World Series finals on TV? Well, that was even stranger.
When North Carolina fell 4-1 to eventual champion UCLA on Friday and was sent packing from Omaha, we were sent packing, too. I actually believe my first thought in that ninth inning was, "Oh my goodness, I have to pack tonight."
I was unprepared.
It wasn't that I was convinced UNC would win it all. It's just that I had already adjusted to Omaha life. I had gotten used to the one-hour time difference, the sweltering heat, the hotel pillows. Heck, I had gotten so settled that I was prepared to do laundry the next day.
It wasn't meant to be. My clothes would come home dirty, and you know what? I'm OK with it. The experience of road tripping to Omaha, of covering the College World Series and seeing all of those sights along the way was one that I will hold on to for the rest of my life.
And who knows, maybe someday I'll go again.
If you're contemplating making the road trip yourself one of these years—whether you're a student reporter like me, a professional or simply a fan—here are a few bits of wisdom that we discovered along the way:
On the Road to Omaha
• Don't go by yourself. Just don't. You won't have nearly as much fun.
• Bring lots of clothes. I very nearly had to do laundry. Laundry! Don't make the same mistake.
• Break the trip up as much as possible. Definitely don't try to do it in one day, and make sure you plan out the best route for maximum sightseeing. We grabbed dinner in Nashville, went to the top the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, had some famous barbecue in Kansas City (at Arthur Bryant's, which came highly recommended), and we stopped in Louisville on the way back.
• Bring a book for the Midwest—or at least get ready to pump some loud music. I have nothing against the people of Missouri or Iowa, but the road through those states isn't exactly a thrill a minute. If you're a big fan of cornfields, though, you're in luck. So . . . much . . . corn.
• Take lots of pictures. This is a no-brainer and a standard road-trip rule, but it's important nonetheless. We made it a goal to take a picture of each welcome sign as we crossed state lines. It's easier said than done, but eventually we got it down to a science. Mostly.
• Watch out for outdoor Tennessee bathrooms. They're not clean.
• Wear your summer clothes. It's hot, man.
• Take a picture in front of the Road to Omaha statue. This is a must—especially since you drove there. I mean, you literally took the road to Omaha.
• Go to as many games as you can. You're here for the baseball, right? The ballpark is top-notch and the teams are obviously top-notch, too, or they wouldn't be there.
• If you're going as a fan, get to the park early and check out Fan Fest. It's like a little baseball-themed funland. Just try not to throw your arm out.
• Eat some steak. Seriously, you're in Omaha. You have to. We went to The Drover, which is the place recommended by pretty much everybody–and particularly the Baseball America crew. Get the whiskey filet. It's $40, but it's also beef heaven.
• If you're looking for breakfast, Amato's is a nice little Italian place on the outskirts of town. Get the blueberry pancakes or the French toast or an omelet or all of the above. Tell them we sent you.
• Go to the zoo. We were there for almost three hours checking out penguins, sharks, giraffes, rhinos, sleepy jungle cats, gorillas and so much more. It's huge. It's almost like an animal college campus.
• When you go to the zoo—and you will go to the zoo—make sure you get there before 4 p.m. That's when Lemur Island closes. That was a bummer.
• Buy some souvenirs. Again, this is a road-trip given, but you want to make sure you have a tangible way to remember the journey. (Hint: T-shirts for eliminated teams are 50 percent off. Wait it out if you have to.)
• Remember that your stay in Omaha can end at any time, so whatever you do, don't take it for granted!
June 20: Let’s See What All The Fuss Is About
When I left you last, my Daily Tar Heel cohorts and I were getting set to check out the much-ballyhooed Drover steakhouse in Omaha.
As it turned out, we weren't alone.
We had been sitting at our table for barely five minutes when we heard a familiar voice: "Who's picking up the tab for this?" North Carolina baseball coach Mike Fox joked from his place in the salad bar line.
It was Monday night—the night before UNC took on LSU and won in an elimination game—and Fox was showing his appreciation for his coaches and support staff by taking them out to a nice steak dinner. It has become something of a tradition, Fox said, and judging by tweets from some of his players, UNC has enjoyed the restaurant a couple of times since arriving.
It's hard to blame them. My whiskey filet, which was highly recommended to me by BA editor-in-chief John Manuel, was outstanding. The service was great, the restaurant itself was lovely . . . and the tab? Well, we were on our own for that. But that's OK. It was worth it.
As for the game against LSU, UNC made the gutsy and ultimately correct call of starting freshman closer Trent Thornton against the Tigers, who delivered seven strong innings of two-run ball. The game was chock full of memorable moments—and strange ones, too. UNC's Colin Moran, Parks Jordan and Michael Russell all hit the ground going after a pop-up in foul territory. Moran later hit a ball off first base for an RBI single, and LSU grabbed a hit with a ball that struck an umpire.
After the game, emotions were at opposite extremes. LSU head coach Paul Mainieri teared up when discussing senior Raph Rhymes, who popped up three times with runners on base, saying he didn't want Rhymes to blame himself for the loss. UNC obviously had much higher spirits. At one point, Thornton's teammates laughed at him for answering a question nervously. And when I asked Thornton what he was screaming into his glove between innings, Fox jokingly interrupted, "It's not profanity . . . I want to make that very clear since his mom and dad are back there in the back."
The game also marked the last night Brooke Pryor, Marilyn Payne and I would all be together in the press box. Brooke, an intern for the Colorado Springs Gazette, drove back to Colorado on Wednesday morning. Marilyn and I, who made the trek together from Chapel Hill, will be here as long as UNC is.
As we know now, that’s going to be at least one more day, after UNC defeated rival N.C. State in their fifth matchup of the season. So maybe we’ll see the Tar Heels again at The Drover.
June 17: Whirlwind Arrival
Late Saturday night, I got my first glimpse of Omaha and my first look at the bright green lights outside of TD Ameritrade Park.
And then, just like that, it was gone. In a cruel twist of fate, we couldn't book a hotel in Omaha for Saturday and had to stay in Iowa instead (no offense, Iowa). A brief look at the stadium on the way by was just a tease for what was to come Sunday.
More on that in a minute.
Saturday, despite the ending, was equally as adventurous as Friday's rendezvous from Chapel Hill to Asheville to Nashville and then finally to downtown St. Louis to spend the night. We got up Saturday morning and properly explored St. Louis, including a tour of the Gateway Arch and the Museum of Westward Expansion. The arch, if you've never seen it in person, is absolutely awe-inspiring on the outside, and the ride to the top is a unique and highly recommended experience. You're pulled to the top in round spaceship-like pods, and the view at the top is nothing short of incredible—unless you’re afraid of heights, in which case it’s probably pretty freaky.
Because of its sheer awesomeness, leaving St. Louis wasn’t easy. But Omaha was waiting, so we continued on our long road. Most of the day was spent in Missouri. We drove through sideways sheets of rain that slapped at our front windshield. We passed Mizzou, home of fellow Baseball America intern Ian Frazer, and we found some time to stop in Kansas City at Arthur Bryant’s for some delicious Kansas City barbecue.
And then, after being forced to spend the night in middle-of-nowhere Iowa (again, no offense), we finally made our way to downtown Omaha on Sunday, got our credentials, got settled in the press box and caught our first College World Series game.
Now, I never had the chance to experience Rosenblatt Stadium in all of its glory, but I was certainly wowed by the sight of TD Ameritrade. I was immediately struck by the mile-long line of fans wrapped around the stadium waiting to get into the fanfest (which we might check out at some point). There was buzz aplenty, and it only grew stronger and louder once the 24,000 seats inside the stadium were filled.
The press box was a large and impressive, and I particularly enjoyed the microphone feeds from the umpires on the field that played over the speakers. We caught snippets of a few interesting conversations. Unfortunately, most of them were cut off before we heard anything juicy.
Another Daily Tar Heel colleague, Brooke Pryor, met us there after taking her own road trip from her internship in Colorado. She’ll be joining us for the next couple of days before heading back west. We also finally had the chance to meet the legend himself, BA college national writer Aaron Fitt—the man I’ve heard so much about over at the office in Durham. The handshake was firm.
As far as the game itself, well, it was a bit one-sided. Carlos Rodon did Carlos Rodon things, throwing a complete game in an 8-1 N.C. State blowout, and UNC ace Kent Emanuel continued his struggles and was knocked out in the third inning. The Tar Heels loss threatens to end their trip—and ours—early, which means that we’ll be taking the next couple of days to enjoy Omaha and the College World Series atmosphere as much as possible.
Next stop: The Drover. When in Omaha, right?
June 15: Gateway to Omaha
When Baseball America came out with its "Tobacco Road to Omaha" cover for the College Preview issue, I never imagined I'd be on that road, let alone driving it for all 1,200 miles.
Yet here I am in a hotel in St. Louis, not quite to Omaha yet, but much closer than I was when I woke up in Chapel Hill just one day ago.
I'm a Baseball America summer intern, but I've also been a North Carolina baseball beat writer for The Daily Tar Heel—UNC's student newspaper—for the past couple of seasons. When UNC knocked off South Carolina to advance to the College World Series, I advanced to the College World Series, too. I didn't rush the Boshamer Stadium field or jump in a dog pile—mostly because that is unprofessional and very much frowned upon—but I was certainly excited for purely selfish reasons. It'll be my first time in Omaha, my first chance to see that beautiful new stadium and eat at those fancy steakhouses, and who knows if or when I'll have this opportunity again.
I'm not alone. I've been traveling with Marilyn Payne, a fellow DTH writer and another Omaha first-timer, as we trade off driving and passenger-seat DJ duties. (I have a pretty good mix going. I might start doing weddings and birthday parties.)
With UNC not playing until Sunday, we've taken our time. I was the starter, putting in a few solid innings on the road to get us going. Marilyn was the shutdown reliever, coming out of the bullpen throwing gas—and stepping on it. Along the way, we've discussed UNC's starting pitching issues, and whether they'll have enough to beat Carlos Rodon and N.C. State on Sunday. Most important, we've tried to plot out just how long we and the Tar Heels will be in Nebraska.
We've had some fun, too.
As we headed west on Interstate 40, we each stopped at our North Carolina homes in Winston-Salem and Asheville to give our dads their Father's Day cards. (Father's Day is Sunday. Don't forget!) We then went from lunch in Asheville to dinner in Nashville, where we listened to live country music and watched people line dance, and where I may or may not have kissed a horse. It's a long story.
Today, we plan on exploring St. Louis a little, going to the top of the Gateway Arch, and then getting back on the road with Omaha as the destination.
It's a long way from Tobacco Road–about a 19-hour drive if you don't stop like we have–but with the College World Series getting under way, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.