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Mike Lopresti | | June 8, 2020

Omaha waits, eagerly, for the return of the College World Series

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In normal times, Omaha would be abuzz. Eight baseball teams would be in town, and the torrid love affair between a city and the College World Series would be renewed and rejoiced, for the 71st consecutive year.

Instead, there is a silence. Vacant hotels, barren sidewalks, an empty stadium. No lines of people in orange and red and purple from hither and yon, waiting hours to make a rush for the seats on the rail. No berrie kabobs on sale inside. The iconic statue near the main gate — players celebrating a walk-off victory — stands mostly alone, when it is usually the backdrop for a gazillion pictures. Lots of cities have cancelled events because of the pandemic, but nobody — noooooobody — has a deeper sense of something missing than Omaha. 

There’s the money, for sure. It’s estimated the College World Series has more than a $70 million annual economic impact on the city. Imagine all that, suddenly gone from the local coffers. But it’s also something very personal. So many from Omaha have served and cherished this fortnight for decades.

“I can’t imagine there is any city that would feel the loss as keenly as Omaha feels the loss of the College World Series,” said Kathryn Morrissey, executive director of College World Series of Omaha Inc. “It’s really going to, I think, affect our psyche. I think we’re very resilient, I think we’re going to rebound from it, but right now it’s really hard not to feel very sad.”

This is the week the games were supposed to start, and you can hear the pain.

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Listen to Roger Dixon, president of MECA, the city agency that operates the ballpark, among other venues:  “It’s kind of like there’s a big hole. That started the summer, and now we have nothing to start the summer.”

His expectation for this June: “Boring.” 

Listen to Morrissey, who has been involved with the event for 31 years. One sight brought it home to her. “It’s particularly poignant for us because one of the parking lots that normally would be bustling with pre-event activity and certainly full of fan vehicles during the College World Series is a temporary testing site for Covid. To see people lining up to get Covid test screening done in a lot that should be having tailgating as its primary activity is kind of unsettling.”

Listen to Bill Jensen, who has done everything from usher supervisor to taking tickets, to being the voice of the College World Series as public address announcer for 19 years:   “This would be the time I’d start doing my prep work for familiarizing myself with the eight teams that come to Omaha. I’m not doing that this year, I’m kind of a lost character here without a cause. I keep thinking, it is June isn’t it?  But we’re not playing baseball.”

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Listen to Herb Hames, the volunteer ticket chairman who has been working the CWS for three decades: “What I’m going to miss is being down at that ballpark early in the morning and going out and sitting in the stands when nobody’s there, watching the field, watching the sprinklers, watching the groundkeeper getting ready for the game, walking around a clean concourse with the gentle morning breezes."

"It’s a sad time for me now, to be around that stadium.”

This was to be a glorious year for Omaha, in terms of sports host. Not only the College World Series was coming to town, but also the first and second round of the men’s NCAA tournament, and the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. And then came March, when coronavirus fears swept the land.

 “Everything just started evaporating,” Dixon said. “It’s like there’s an emptiness.”

“Now we’re just hoping we keep the volleyball championships in December. All of those things impact the tax base of the city.”

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Indeed, the financial loss is enormous. “In sales tax, we’ve lost $40 million with the cancellation of the Series, the swim trials, no hotels, no rental cars,” Hames said. “That’s devastating for a local economy.”

Many businesses near the ballpark base their entire year’s financial health on those two weeks, and those two weeks won’t happen. “My heart really goes out to the people that count on this the way a lot of merchants across the country count on Christmas, or if you’re in New Orleans you count on Mardi Gras,” Morrissey said. But it goes deeper than dollars. Omaha lives for the College World Series. Always has, which is why the CWS has never gone anywhere else since 1950.

“It’s a lot more than just economic impact or a chance to maybe be in the national spotlight,” Morrissey said. “That’s all wonderful and I wouldn’t try to discount that, but it’s really part of our DNA. We’ve all grown up with it. It’s what we do. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say,`I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself this year.’

“Back in 1950, we adopted this little baseball tournament that lost money and didn’t get very much attention, and we nurtured it and we loved the coaches and we cheered the student athletes, and any fans who came here, we loved them and wanted to make them feel like they were part of our baseball family here. And they returned that love and affection, and it grew. It’s part of us. This is almost like severing a limb.”

Jensen: “I had people talk to me and ask, why can’t they just hold off and play it in August? Well, first of all, you have to have eight teams get here.  How are they going to get here if they don’t have a season?” 

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The next two baseball-less weeks will only make it worse, especially when they go by TD Ameritrade Park and nothing is happening.

Dixon: “I try not to think about it.”

Jensen: “I might try to avoid driving by the place. I might tear up.”

Hames:  “The offices are right across the street so I may find myself wandering over just to take a look, and it’ll be melancholy.” 

The last time there wasn’t a College World Series in Omaha, color television had not been introduced, Jackie Robinson was the National League MVP and gas cost 17 cents a gallon. There were 48 states. So this is one odd June. Usually, the folks in Omaha are frantically busy in their labor of love, but now there is time to kill, and a Nebraska-sized void to fill.

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“I can tell you my garden has never looked better,” Morrissey said. “Usually it gets completely ignored in May and June, and then I get out a hacksaw in July and try to get back into it, so there’s a silver lining. I’ve planted my first tomato plant in more than 30 years because usually this time of year, if I put in anything that requires daily nurturing, it’s going to die.

“I have worked on the College World Series since 1988...I’m still in this mode — and it’s reinforced every time I look at my calendar — of what should I be doing?  I just have this nagging feeling that I should be doing something different than what I’m doing what right now.” 

She said the CWS office will be trying to keep one tradition alive. The staff always had a coordinated polo shirt schedule during the Series, so they could be easily spotted by fans. They’re having a schedule this month, too.  The shirts will be worn in unison, even if there are no fans to notice.

Dixon works on future plans for the deserted venues of Omaha, hoping, for some vestige of normalcy one day.

“We’re still in the throes of rescheduling everything that we lost in the spring. Hopefully we’re going to start seeing some business start coming, because there is not a single thing going on in our facilities right now.”

The next baseball crowd in TD Ameritrade Stadium? “It’ll probably not be until next spring when Creighton starts its baseball season again. I’m just hoping we get a basketball season this year. We’ve never been through something like this.”

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Hames sits on his deck, looks out at the Midwestern pasture, and reflects on how many Junes he has spent at the ballpark. But not this one. “I was thoroughly consumed with this event. Now I’m seeing multiple generations, where father took their sons, and now those sons are taking their sons.

“What will I miss? LSU always brought the greatest of fans. They were creative fans, too. I’ll miss the call from the TV station that said.`We’ve got a newlywed couple from Louisiana, they can’t get tickets, can you help them out?’ We did a whole ticket presentation on TV, so they could go and spend their honeymoon watching their LSU team. We found out afterward they weren’t even married. When parking was a real challenge at Rosenblatt (Stadium), LSU fans just went ahead and bought memberships to the zoo, which is right across the street, so they could park in the zoo lot.” 

The Sunday night before the finals, Hames won’t be at the ESPN dinner that was always a highlight, with its non-stop stories. “So maybe I’ll take my wife out to dinner, just to pretend like I’m going to do something fun.”

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Jensen has been playing more golf, and often wears a CWS shirt. “I’ll stop at a convenience store on my way to golf and be wearing one of those shirts and this one lady will say,`aren’t you sad?’  Then you see other people and they’ll say,`You’re not going to have anything to do this year.’ I’ll say,`Yeah, I know. I’ll probably have to get the lawn mower out.’

“Maybe some of us will get together, if we’re allowed to congregate in bars or restaurants, and have dinner and talk about all the things that have happened in the past, and hope that next year we get to do it.”

Ah, yes, next year. When it comes to the College World Series, the magic number in Omaha is 2021. The virus will be history by then, right? Right?

“It was surrealistic to learn that the Series had been cancelled,” Morrissey said. “Nothing in my experience would have led me to believe that was ever going to happen. Not even in my wildest — I would say dreams, but more like nightmares — would I have imagined not having a College World Series.

“Everybody is going to be so excited to be back. We won’t take it for granted anymore, we’ll look at it with fresh eyes.”

How’d a 19th century poet say it? Absence makes the heart grow fonder. And they were already pretty fond of June in Omaha.

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