Omaha loves a CWS underdog
Omaha loves itself an underdog.
That's why The Big O, though always thrilled to see the return of old friends such as South Carolina, Florida and Arizona, will be waiting along the banks of the Missouri River with its arms opened just a little wider to embrace Stony Brook and Kent State.
In 1950, the city hosted its first College World Series. The mighty Texas Longhorns won the title but first had to stagger through an eight-team field that included first-and-only-time CWS participants Wisconsin, Colorado State, Rutgers and Tufts.
Over the past 63 years, a total of 111 different schools have sent teams to Nebraska for college baseball's ultimate tournament. But only 24 of those colleges and universities have claimed College World Series titles. That makes for a lot of lovable losers.
As a rule, the people of Omaha are collective suckers for such would-be Cinderellas, from Rider and Dartmouth to Texas-Pan American and Ithaca to Southern Miss and UC Irvine. Years after they have come and gone, their logos can still be seen in the grandstands of TD Ameritrade Park, worn by the locals who continue to find inspiration from their unlikely runs. And it is among those beloved underdogs that the Seawolves and Golden Flashes might also find a little inspiration, as they embark on their very own Omaha love story.
Which stories are the most stirring? Of which teams do they still tell the tales of in the darkened corners of steakhouses throughout the Gateway to the West? Glad you asked. Here are the 10 most beloved underdogs in Omaha's College World Series history.
10. Harvard: 1968, 1971, 1973-74
• CWS Record: 1-8
• Finish: Tied for last place three times, 5th once
Yale appeared in the first two editions of College World Series, losing both times, but those games were held in Kalamazoo, Mich. Their archrival became something of an unlikely staple in Omaha, making the field of eight four times in seven years. Harvard's only win over that span was against BYU in '71, and three of its eight losses were by one run.
The Crimson played then-fledgling Miami in the Canes' first CWS game ("Don't let this be a math contest," quipped Miami coach Ron Fraser) and in that game it was Harvard that swung the first aluminum bat ever to cross the plate at Rosenblatt Stadium in a CWS contest.
"People here in Omaha absolutely loved seeing Harvard come to town," late USC coach Rod Dedeaux recalled in 2003. "I think it made us all feel smarter being around them."
9. The Citadel: 1990• CWS Record: 1-2
• Finish: T-5
Like Stony Brook and Kent State, the Citadel and Georgia Southern shared the underdog spotlight in 1990. In Game 1, Georgia Southern lost an extra-inning thriller to top-ranked Stanford after a potential game-winning homer was ruled a double, much to the displeasure of the Rosenblatt Stadium crowd.
Three days later, The Citadel, led by quote-machine coach Chal Port, provided one of the most thrilling finishes in CWS history. The Bulldogs, who had been displaced from their home field all season by the destruction of Hurricane Hugo, rallied from down 4-1 to take a 6-4 lead over Cal State Fullerton. The Titans sent the game into extra frames, but Tony Skole's 12th-inning single and Anthony Jenkins' fearless slide into home is still one of the Series' most beloved moments.
8. Loyola Marymount: 1986
• CWS Record: 1-2
• Finish: T-5
All the Lions did was beat LSU, who had been ranked No. 1 nearly all season. Down 3-2 with two outs in the late innings, Loyola had two men on when a lazy fly ball was popped up toward Albert Belle, who misjudged the sun and dropped the ball. Both runners scored. Rosenblatt, not yet known as Baton Rouge North, went nuts.
"It's still the greatest day in the history of Loyola Marymount baseball," recalled LSU coach Skip Bertman. "As far as I was concerned, it was the worst day in LSU history at that point. Of course it wasn't, but it sure felt like it at the time."
7. Eastern Michigan: 1976
• CWS Record: 3-2
• Finish: Runner-up
The last MAC team to make the CWS field before Kent State this season, Eastern Michigan was no slouch. The Eagles made it to Omaha the year before and were ranked third in the nation entering the '76 Series. Tired of seeing teams from Arizona and California dominate the finals, the city of Omaha got behind the Eagles. Led by future L.A. Dodgers and Oakland Athletics ace Bobby Welch, Eastern made it to the finals by beating Arizona State. But a matchup with Arizona in the finals proved too much, as the Eagles lost twice to the Wildcats, 11-6 and 7-1.
Eastern Michigan hasn't made it back to Omaha since.
6. Rollins: 1954
• CWS Record: 3-2
• Finish: Runner-up
The Tars participated in the first intercollegiate sporting event, an 11-10 baseball victory over Stetson in 1895. Nearly 60 years later, the school of only 700 students made it all the way to the title game, losing to Missouri, 4-1. Rollins is still the smallest school to make it to Omaha. Now it plays in NCAA Division II and is the only program to make it to the national championship series in the NAIA and both NCAA divisions.
5. Hawaii: 1980
• CWS Record: 3-2
• Finish: Runner-up
During the Warriors' lone CWS appearance, they won over the locals with their grass-green uniforms, laidback island style (which included bringing boom boxes into the dugout) and by beating big-time programs. They knocked off Florida State, Miami and St. John's (the last New York team to make it to the CWS until Stony Brook this year) to make the finals, where they lost to Arizona and CWS Most Outstanding Player Terry Francona. They haven't been back since.
4. Creighton: 1991
• CWS Record: 2-2
• Finish: T-3
With all due respect to all the other teams on this list, when it comes to city support none can compare to the Bluejays' grandstand-rocking effort of '91. The hometown team -- whose campus is only four miles from Rosenblatt Stadium -- electrified Omaha for six glorious days. Led by future big leaguer Alan Benes, it knocked off second-ranked Clemson in its first game and No. 6 seed Long Beach State three days later. But it was a loss that stands out as one of the all-time great Rosenblatt moments.
In front of a then-record 18,000 fans, Wichita State center fielder Jim Audley scored the go-ahead run in the top of the 12th. With two outs in the bottom of the inning, Creighton pinch runner Steve Burns broke for home, but was gunned out at the plate by, naturally, Audley.
"It was Omaha's finest moment," said Skip Bertman, who was scouting the game for his LSU team. "As they walked off the field they received the greatest round of applause I ever heard at Rosenblatt. From that moment on, anyone in the town who hadn't been sold on the magic of the College World Series started standing in line for tickets. It was the moment that turned a football town into a baseball town."
3. Oklahoma: 1951
CWS Record: 4-0
The senior-heavy Sooners got off to a horrible regular-season start but rallied to win the Big 7 title and earned an invite to the postseason. In a field packed with baseball powers, OU upset Ohio State, USC and Tennessee to win it all, ending the year on a 13-game winning streak.
To be clear, this was not the program that became an Omaha regular in the 1970s and '90s. In fact, the '51 baseball team was so lightly regarded by its own athletic department that it didn't receive CWS championship rings until 2001.
"Bud Wilkinson told us we couldn't go," outfielder-turned-Broadway-actor Jim Antonio said in 2008 for the book "The Road To Omaha: Hits, Hopes, and History at the College World Series." He was speaking of the legendary Oklahoma football coach and athletic director. The university president intervened and demanded that Wilkinson send the team to Omaha. The Sooners won the championship game 3-2 over Tennessee and then loaded the bus and drove back to Norman. "We would've liked to have stayed and celebrated. But we didn't have enough money left to get motel rooms."
2. Holy Cross: 1952
• CWS Record: 4-0
• Finish: Champion
The Crusaders played iron-man, rubber-armed baseball. Coach Jack Barry was so hard-hearted, he once teased Boston Red Sox teammate Babe Ruth so relentlessly it made The Bambino cry. Barry carried only 15 Holy Cross players to Omaha and played only 11. They played seven games in six days and won six, with five of the victories coming from two pitchers, basketball players Jim "Shuffles" O'Neill and Ron Perry. All were complete-game efforts, and O'Neill's title-clinching, CWS-record third win came on only one day's rest.
Making the feat even more impressive, the team was stuck in a hotel with no air conditioning during a record-breaking heat wave, so they spent their nights sleeping in a city park across the street.
1. Fresno State: 2008
• CWS Record: 6-1
• Finish: Champion
A roster of unshaven, self-declared dirt bags, the "Underdog to Wonderdog" squad of Fresno State was constructed using tiny parts of all the teams listed above.
The Bulldogs were unheralded, having to win the WAC tournament to simply make the field of 64 and then becoming the first No. 4 seed to make the CWS (Stony Brook just became the second). They toed the line of extinction, winning five elimination games in the NCAA tournament alone, all against titans of the game. They made their march using a two-point strategy of riding the arms of a couple of iron-man pitchers and teaching hitters to be insanely patient at the plate, working deep into counts searching for the right pitch to hit.
But most importantly, coach Mike Batesole's roster of largely overlooked talent was never intimidated by the team in the other dugout, no matter what kind of history it brought with it.
If it sounds familiar, it should. All of the above can also be said about Stony Brook and Kent State. Now let's see if they can match -- perhaps top -- what Fresno did not so long ago.
If they do, they too will own a piece of Omaha's heart forever. History says so.
Ryan McGee is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Road To Omaha: Hits, Hopes and History at the College World Series," which chronicles the excitement and passion of the CWS, is now available on paperback.
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