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MLB In Omaha Shows Potential Of Better Partnership With NCAA

Major League Baseball came to Omaha on Thursday and put on a good show on the eve of the College World Series. TD Ameritrade Park turned into a sea of royal blue, as 25,454 fans packed the stadium to see the Royals play in the hometown of their longtime Triple-A affiliate in the first MLB game in Nebraska.

The Royals didn’t disappoint their fans, as they delivered a 7-3 victory against the Tigers that saw shortstop Nicky Lopez, who played his college games at TD Ameritrade Park, hit his first career home run.

Before the game, the eight CWS teams paraded around the field and a representative from each team threw out a first pitch. Dave Winfield and Barry Larkin, Hall of Famers who played in the CWS before going on to big league stardom, were on hand for the festivities, and USA Baseball held its Golden Spikes Award ceremony on the field, with Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman taking home the honors.

“The energy level was fun,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “When you have energy levels like this you really sense it. You have to really stop yourself listen and look around, but you sense the energy, you sense the electricity. Every time I turned around all I saw were Royals uniforms and Royals hats. It was really neat for us to come in and play a good game for our fans here.”

Royals outfielder Whit Merrifield has had some special moments before in Omaha—he closed out the College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium with a walk-off hit to win the national championship in 2010 at South Carolina. He said it was special to be back in the city.

“It was a great crowd,” Merrifield said. “It was great to see a sellout. I thought they did a great job putting this on.”

For the college players, Thursday was an opportunity to relax a bit before the games begin on Saturday. They’ll get another chance to do that Friday at the opening ceremonies, but Thursday came with a big league feel. They were able to briefly interact with the major leaguers, and many of them spent time during the game signing autographs and taking pictures in the stands.

“It’s an awesome experience for the players,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “You’re part tourist. You’re signing more autographs, taking more pictures than they ever have. They feel like they’re part rock star, too. It’s a nice setup for the first couple days. They can immerse themselves in a carnival-like activity that this is. It’s a big party.”

The MLB portion of this party is over, however. The Royals and Tigers will go on with their seasons, battling for last place in the AL Central. And the college game will return to center stage for the next two weeks in Omaha.

The question remains what is to come of this arrangement. MLB and the NCAA haven’t been able to find common ground on much in the past, although the relationship has improved since Rob Manfred became commissioner. Will MLB in Omaha become an annual event the way the Little League Classic has? Will Manfred get his ultimate wish of holding the draft in Omaha just across the street from TD Ameritrade Park at CHI Health Center Convention Center? Or will the two entities continue to struggle to find common ground?

Thursday night was a good start. But there’s a lot that can be accomplished if MLB and the NCAA can find a way to improve their working relationship. The draft’s position on the schedule remains a thorn in the side of all parties, and there are plenty more topics they can discuss from scholarships to increased attention on the college game from MLB’s media arm and beyond.

Manfred’s One Baseball program, meant to unify all levels of baseball and use MLB’s clout to highlight other parts of the game, has turned the Little League Classic into a runaway success. It’s helping to reshape the way high school players prepare for the draft. And it’s taking the game to new places internationally.

But college? It hasn’t quite squared that away yet.

Whatever the answers are, MLB and the NCAA need to find them. A better partnership could bear fruit—if they can just find a way to move beyond one-off events.

Hunter Hollan (Photo By Wesley Hitt Getty Images)

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