- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2004

OMAHA, Neb. — Much has changed since the College World Series started here in 1950. Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium has been expanded and modernized. There are glitzy opening ceremonies with fireworks and a rock band and interactive games for kids like at other big events. ESPN televises every inning, and you can’t miss the corporate presence.

The CWS is all grown up.

“Grown and grown and grown,” says Omaha police officer Kevin Cunningham, stationed outside the ballpark. It is a tougher ticket than ever, a major force in college sports, the No.2 NCAA revenue producer. And yet the continuity and tradition remain the same. You just have to know where to find it.

Like in Section J, Row 3, behind home plate. Ann Walters has held the same season tickets for 45 years. During that time, she says, she has missed six games. Three years ago she got a new hip. “But I keep going,” she says cheerily, walking with the assistance of a cane before the start of Game 1 on Friday between Arizona and Georgia.

It is raining.

“I’ve been in worse than this,” says Walters, wearing a red Nebraska poncho and orange pants, an homage to the University of Texas, one of the eight teams competing this year.

“This is the best event there is,” she says. “It’s wonderful.”

Meanwhile, another CWS fixture, head groundskeeper Jesse Cuevas Jr., keeps the field in its usually splendid condition. Cuevas is a disciple of the legendary Kansas City turf master George Toma, and his own reputation is equally as entrenched. Alerted to the threat of rain Thursday night, Cuevas and crew took all the precautions.

“We knew it was coming,” says Cuevas, a large man whose first CWS experience was shagging baseballs at the age of 9 in 1969. “We stayed until 2 a.m. getting things ready.”

When the tarp comes off, little is needed to be done except play. “Drag it, mark it and go,” Cuevas says.

Inside, Chuck Underwood sells general admission tickets at one of the windows. The white-haired Underwood hands out business cards with his name and “Man-At-Large” written underneath. In the four corners of the card are the words, “No Phone,” “No Job,” “No Business” and “No Money.”

He is kidding, sort of. Underwood worked at a bank for 47 years and has served in the CWS all-volunteer army for 38. He started selling tickets behind a wire mesh screen without air conditioning. Now he works in modern surroundings behind Plexiglas.

Underwood’s boss is Eddie Sobczek, the box office ticket manager, a 43-year CWS veteran. Sobczek likes to tell folks he is 39 — the old Jack Benny line. When pressed, he claims to be 84. But he might be even older. “He lies about his age,” says Mike Sobczek, Eddie’s son, who drives from Boston with his son to help sell tickets.

Underwood is a spry 82 himself. Everyone puts in 12 or 13 hour days for almost two weeks. “We don’t mind,” he says. “It gives you something to do. And I meet people. People from New Orleans bring me steak and shrimp every year.”

Those are Louisiana State fans, many of whom show up annually even if their team doesn’t qualify. LSU fans are considered the best in terms of numbers and enthusiasm, and they are probably the best cooks, too. The Tigers were in the CWS this year (they were eliminated yesterday), and Troy Slinkard is back again, whipping up crawfish etouffee in the parking lot, handing out samples and beers and beads to pretty much anyone who passes by.

“Until LSU fans started coming up, nobody knew how to tailgate,” Slinkard says.

This statement is disputed by one of the locals, a Nebraska fan, but she doesn’t mind. Sue Hull, from nearby Elkhorn, has gotten to know much of the LSU crowd over the years. They even show up early at the stadium to grab parking spaces near each other. She offers to wash Slinkard’s dirty dishes.

“Now that’s Omaha hospitality,” says Slinkard, who drove up from Shreveport, La.

From the adjoining space, Joey Cannatella, also from Shreveport, chimes in, “It’s either that or he’s doing them in the shower.”

• • •

Maybe at least in small part because of the LSU influence, the College World Series has become the Mardi Gras of sport. It is a perpetual tailgate party, a big deal not just to America’s heartland but elsewhere, nearly two continuous, double-elimination weeks of baseball, beef and beer.

Really, does it get any better than that?

“What’s there not to like?” says Texas fan David Seaton, who drove here from Austin. “I love the food. I love the atmosphere.”

Beer flows everywhere except inside the stadium. Omaha has a few taverns, but fans bring their own by the caseload. Even more pervasive is the whiff of barbecue. Depending on the breeze, you can catch it even before you reach the stadium, which is perched on a hilltop. Of course, tailgate chefs like Slinkard are proud of their concoctions.

“We’re all here for one reason,” Slinkard says. “To have a good time and watch real good college baseball.”

The CWS, which landed here after starting out in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1947 followed by a brief layover in Wichita, has ballooned in size and stature. Marketing people came up with the slogan, “The Greatest Show on Dirt.” Young ballplayers dream as much about “going to Omaha” as they do about reaching the major leagues. Fans wonder whether they’re watching the next Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds.

Emmett Hoover, from nearby Bellview, sits in the front row during the teams’ workouts Thursday. For 15 years he has taken this day off, brought his kids and watched players take batting practice and field grounders. Today he has his 7-year-old daughter, Katherine, with him. He talks of “the pureness of the kids coming here and giving it everything they’ve got.”

For many of the players, he notes, “It’s their final games.”

Many of the fans start out younger than Katherine. Kyle Peterson, who grew up and went to school here, says he was 2 years old when he attended his first CWS game, sitting in his grandparents’ seats. When Peterson was 14, a couple of Georgia players, including Dave Perno, came to one of his practices. Perno is now the Bulldogs coach. As for Peterson, he returned as a pitcher on the Stanford baseball team in 1997.

“That was unbelievable,” says Peterson, who had a fling with the Milwaukee Brewers and now does commentary for ESPN.

Peterson looks out at the stadium, at the new bleachers and the distinctive dome that looms beyond right field, part of the acclaimed Henry Doorly Zoo.

“This is a cool place,” he says. “You look at what the city’s done. This is their show. They do a [heckuva] of a job. They put on a great show every year. It just continues to grow. You look around, I don’t know if they can add any more seats. It’s awesome, the setting. When it’s full, it’s something else.”

Rosenblatt Stadium is home to the Kansas City Royals’ Class AAA farm club, but that’s not why $34.4 million was invested since 1991 to expand the seating capacity to about 24,000 (it can accommodate more), replace the field, build a new press box and VIP lounge and install a new sound system, among other improvements.

In 1964, the CWS drew less than 61,000. Last year it set a record with more than 260,000 fans. According to a study by a professor from host Creighton University, the event adds nearly $34 million annually to the local economy.

Is that what it’s all about? Probably it is more about how after the game, the players still leave the ballpark via the main entrance, in full uniform, and hang out by the busses chatting with friends and family and anyone else who wants to say hello.

Like an old-time barn raising, it seems as if the entire city of 400,000 — from the business community to those who simply have time on their hands like Chuck Underwood — pitches in and helps. They sell tickets and stay up all night cooking for the players. Service clubs sponsor each of the eight teams, arranging accommodations and playing host to activities and parties. It is the essence of volunteerism.

“This is our signature event,” says Jack Diesing Jr., an insurance executive who serves as president of College World Series of Omaha Inc., the same job his father, Jack Sr., once held. “What that really means is we’ve been able to nurture an event nobody wanted. Now everybody wants it.”

Even though Omaha and the CWS are synonymous and even though fans and players and the local populace can’t imagine this being held at any other site, Minneapolis, with its giant Metrodome, and other places have let it be known they would like to play host. Omaha’s five-year contract with the NCAA expires after next season.

“You never say never,” Diesing says. “We don’t own it. But we treat it like we do, and that’s perceived very positively by the NCAA. … I’ve been in this business long enough. I don’t use the words ‘never’ and ‘always,’ but I don’t think [the CWS moving] would happen in my lifetime. It would be a tremendous risk to move it from where it is, at the top, to someplace unproven.”

Dennis Poppe agrees, using words like “family” and “Americana” when he discusses the CWS. He says it is unlikely another city would get it. Still, as managing director of baseball and football for the NCAA, he cannot commit to an official position, at least not with the contract coming up for renewal.

Poppe (pronounced “Pope”) says some fans complain about the stadium being too small and the relative lack of hotel space. But, he noted, “We don’t know if another site could provide the things Omaha provides,” Poppe says.

“It’s first class. The people treat us great. It’s a great town,” says Tom Pagnozzi, a 12-year major league catcher who is now an Arkansas assistant coach.

Pagnozzi spent most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. After he got to town he had dinner with two other ex-Cardinals, Ted Sizemore and Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, perhaps Omaha’s most celebrated resident — he has a street named after him.

“This is a different type of event,” says Pagnozzi, who made a few postseason appearances. “You’ve got a handful of players who will make [the majors], but for most of the guys it’s the biggest weekend in their sporting lives. We’ve got a lot of guys, they know this is it.”

• • •

Merchandise tents spring up all along 13th Street across from Rosenblatt on this rainy Friday, opening day. Caps, shirts, gloves and more, all for sale. One lawn features a tent operated by the 9th Inning Ministry. “Christians Who Love Baseball,” the sign reads. The lawns of private homes have been converted into parking lots. Entrepreneurism flourishes in Middle America, as everywhere.

One young capitalist is Tony Aliano, who owns a home on 13th Street and is renting out the front yard to a couple of businesses. Harrah’s, which operates a nearby casino, has a tent on Tony’s lawn. Skylark Meats is scheduled to be here, and at some point, some Hooters girls were supposed to show up.

“I’m making about $4,000 for one week,” Aliano says as friends and strangers wander around the front of the house and his garage, where he has a TV set up. Most of the visitors are carrying some form of malted refreshment.

No doubt about it, the CWS is a huge marketing endeavor, for both the little and the big guys. The NCAA corporate “partners” are everywhere, notably Coca-Cola, with its logo plastered on the interactive exhibits, samples of its new low-carb drink, C2, available to all.

Everything is so much bigger now. On Thursday night, before the opening ceremonies, Dave Kovar and his 9-year-old daughter, Lynsey, wait in line for more than an hour for a few player autographs. A native, Kovar came here as a youngster.

“Back then, you’d show up, get your tickets and come in,” he recalls wistfully. “Now it’s quite an effort. I expect to get home at midnight.”

Lynsey says she’s rooting for Arkansas because that’s where her mom was born. The Razorbacks were the first team to go home, but that’s OK. The most important thing is being here, just like her dad was here as a kid.

“This is a big thing,” Lynsey says.

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