'The Pick' stars again in Omaha

Updated: June 18, 2013, 11:36 AM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

"Col-in!"

The shouts have followed Colin Moran, no matter where he goes in Omaha. Going to dinner … walking through the hotel lobby … fielding grounders at a local high school … striding to the plate at TD Ameritrade Park for batting practice. Everywhere.

"Mor-an!"

It's been this way ever since June 6. That's when the UNC third basemen was drafted sixth overall by the Miami Marlins. In the days since he's attended the Dick Howser Trophy presentation ceremony, for which he was a finalist. He's been announced as a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award. He's also been the unofficial face of the College World Series, shown or mentioned in nearly every TV and print ad to promote the event as the launching pad of future big league superstars.

"Hey! Eight-teen!"

[+] EnlargeMoran
Dave Weaver/USA Today SportsColin Moran has become the unofficial face of this year's College World Series.

This is how life is for the highest MLB draft selection to make it to college baseball's biggest stage. There is one every year, and this year it's Moran. Every player on every CWS roster feels the pressure of Omaha, but for the annual most-hyped player, the spotlight feels a bit hotter. And it's a light that won't turn off until he boards the bus for the airport, whenever his College World Series ends.

"It's hard because there's so many people that want to talk about nothing but your future or they've never heard of you until that week and they expect you to be Babe Ruth," says Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, who entered the 1980 College World Series as not just an Arizona outfielder, but as a just-taken first-round pick of the Montreal Expos. "You just have to keep reminding yourself that all that other stuff people are projecting for you may or may not happen. There's nothing you can do about that in Omaha. You just need to take care of the business at hand first. But it's hard to do."

I once dubbed them The Pick, those unwittingly chosen to participate in a long tradition of "Look at him!" dating back to the dawn of the CWS. From Cal State Fullerton's Tim Wallach in '79 to USC's Dave Kingman in '70 to Cal's Jackie Jensen in the inaugural College World Series of '47.

"There wasn't a major league draft in 1947 and Jensen was just a sophomore," Yale first baseman George H. W. Bush said of the eventual 1958 American League MVP, in a statement the former president sent to me while I was researching my 2009 book "The Road To Omaha."

"But there was an air about Jensen. There are just some people who walk into the room or onto the field and you just know there's something different about them. … I knew there was something special about him."

That something special, that air, is what separates The Pick from all others, even a College World Series field packed with can't-miss prospects.

"There's always a guy," former Miami coach Ron Fraser told me in the fall of '08. (Fraser, who coached a dozen CWS squads, passed away in January.) "In '83 we had all these ace players in the Series who had just been drafted and they all ended up being great big leaguers. Chris Sabo was at Michigan. Dave Magadan was there with Alabama. Barry Bonds was with Arizona State. They were all in Omaha that year. But then Roger Clemens came walking in there with Texas. Even with all those other superstars there, there was something different about Clemens. You just looked at him and thought, s---."

In those days, none of those players knew where they had been picked, not even The Pick, until the CWS had already started. Throughout the '80s and '90s, the MLB draft clashed with the opening days in Omaha.

In 1998, Miami's Pat Burrell was leaving the on-deck circle for his first Game 1 at-bat against fellow powerhouse Long Beach State. A shout came from the stands. It was an athletic department employee, calling Burrell back from the plate to let him know he'd been taken as the No. 1 overall pick by the Philadelphia Phillies. Burrell says he doesn't remember a single pitch and only knows that he drew a walk because the box score tells him so. "I was in a total haze."

"It was really unfair to the guys who had worked so hard to earn their way to Omaha," admits former LSU coach Skip Bertman, who won five CWS titles in Baton Rouge. "And I've never seen a college player have to handle the kind of pressure that Ben McDonald did in '89."

Big Ben, now an ESPN college baseball analyst, arrived in Omaha having already won 29 games in three seasons, a two-time All-American with an Olympic gold medal. In the previous weekend's regional, he'd defeated Texas A&M single-handedly, winning the first game and then coming out of left field to earn an 11th-inning save in the second. Just as he'd arrived at Rosenblatt Stadium, he was named the No. 1 pick of the MLB draft, taken by the Baltimore Orioles.

"We had to set up a separate press conference for him," says Bertman. "That had never been done before. He handled it so well, but he was exhausted. His had blisters all over his hands from Texas A&M.

"Everywhere Ben went in the weeks leading up to the Series he had to answer questions about where he thought he was going to go in the draft. He'd won so many games with that pressure, but he was spent. He lost the first game against Miami and then lost our third game against Texas. If I could have that over I wouldn't do that to him again."

McDonald's '89 news conference after the loss to Texas is legend among college baseball scribes. He had just become the record holder for most career CWS losses. Still just 20 years old, he fought back tears, saying, "Well, maybe I can come back as a pro and do well in Omaha one day. It's a great place."

That's the kind of grace that also makes The Pick, well, The Pick. The strength of character that allows a hitter to stand in against a 95 mph fastball also helps him to handle success or failure on the way out the collegiate door. Success, such as Francona's worry-about-the-here-and-now '80 CWS title and Most Outstanding Player award, happens from time to time. Failure is much more common.

[+] EnlargeDustin Ackley
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesFormer North Carolina star Dustin Ackley has a lot in common with Colin Moran.

"There is a ton of extra pressure being that guy, but if anyone can handle it, it's Colin," says former UNC first baseman Dustin Ackley, now a Seattle Mariner. "You can tell just by watching Colin that he's a guy that focuses on what's right in front of him, not all that other stuff."

That analysis sounds an awful lot like what people were saying about Ackley in '09. Like Moran, Ackley was roundly praised for his unflappable, almost quirky, quietness. He came to Omaha as that year's version of The Pick, the just-announced No. 2 overall MLB draft selection. What the record book says about Ackley's turn in the spotlight is that he broke the record for career CWS hits, with 28 over three Series, and earned a spot on the All-Tournament team. However, what he remembers is a missed chance in a Series-opening loss to Arizona State.

"I had a chance to win our first game against Arizona State, tied 1-1, and got caught looking in the ninth," he recalled earlier this year. "Bat on my shoulder. Can you believe that?"

Buster Posey can. One year earlier, the future NL MVP went two-and-'cue in his lone CWS appearance. After an improbable late rally versus archrival Miami in an elimination game, FSU was down two runs with two outs in the ninth, but had two men in scoring position. Posey, who'd just been selected fifth overall by the Giants and accepted the Howser Trophy a few hours before the Series' opening game, brought his .463 batting average to the plate. He watched a 2-1 changeup creep right through his wheelhouse, but let it go, eventually drawing a walk. His college career ended as the game-ending force-out at second.

"I have replayed that at-bat a lot," Posey admitted during this year's spring training. "I might do it different, but I really only had one pitch to hit. It still hurts, though. I would like to tell you that the pressure of expectations didn't get to me, but looking back they probably did. You finally get to Omaha. You don't want to leave anything on the table, especially when so many people are expecting so much out of you."

On Tuesday, many will be expecting much from Colin Moran as UNC faces LSU in an elimination showdown. Yeah, it's hard. But deep down, that's also how he wants it. After all, he is The Pick.

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR