Dave Winfield, Major League Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2001, is the guest speaker for the opening ceremonies for the men’s College World Series Friday at T.D. Ameritrade Park Omaha, Nebraska. Winfield, who played both baseball and basketball at the University of Minnesota in the early 1970s, led the Gophers to their last College World Series appearance in 1973. He was also named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Winfield, who was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame inaugural class in 2006, was also in Omaha to work on projects promoting the Capital One Cup, which is a multisport award given to the best men's and women’s sports programs in Division I to acknowledge athletic success across all sports. Winfield, who now lives in Los Angeles, participated in the festivities surrounding an event near and dear to his heart: the College World Series.
As I prepared to take a trip to the Cornhusker state, I told my friends I was going to Omaha, and they asked, “What for?” I kidded them, saying that I was having lunch with billionaire investor Warren Buffett to get some insight into the economy.
This is the third time I’ve been back to Omaha since I played in the College World Series. One year I brought my then-high school-aged son so he could see the competition, atmosphere, intensity and even how teams take infield practice.
My own experiences in Omaha are well documented. The good parts and the bad parts of the tournament occurred for me in 1973. It was the first time the University of Minnesota had returned to the College World Series since winning the national championship in 1964. That’s right, as unusual as it may seem today, the U of M -- a northern school -- took home the prize in both 1960 and 1964.
When I played, the College World Series was a pure double-elimination tournament, and we eventually lost to the eventual champion, the University of Southern California, which made a monumental comeback from a 7-0 deficit against us in the ninth inning.
Our other loss in the tournament came against eventual runner-up Arizona State University. The good side of the coin is that we played well, and I was able to earn Most Outstanding Player honors and become a first-round draft pick for the San Diego Padres.
Being involved in college sports was the platform that helped me take the next step in my life and career. I stepped from my last collegiate baseball competition to Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego without a stop in the minor leagues.
It was more difficult than anyone could imagine because I only pitched until my last year at Minnesota, but the Padres wanted me to play the outfield.
It was only after a decade of listening, learning and a lot of coming early to work and staying late that I started to figure things out. But it all added up to experiences that I’ll never forget.
Some of the most positive experiences I had in my life center on my days as a student-athlete at Minnesota. The things I learned lasted more than a quarter or semester in school. Those days taught me that I could and should continuously learn throughout life.
I didn’t know what to expect going into college sports because I didn’t know anyone who preceded me from my community. There wasn’t anyone to guide or mentor me.
I made my name, career and life in baseball. I owe a lot to the sport, my school and, most important, my family; and I am truly blessed in that respect.
If I had the chance to do it all over again I would. A few years back I returned for a 40th reunion of Minnesota’s Big Ten basketball championship team that I played on as well.
That gathering made me recall that youthful guy from St. Paul, Minnesota, who was an unfinished kid with some rough edges. But after four years of schooling, academic drive, athletic challenges, expanded travel and better socialization, I matured as a person.
College life helped me as a person and a player, and I became more comfortable in social situations. Without a doubt, a college career was right for me; others faced with the opportunity choose a path to Major League Baseball out of high school. I was blessed to make it, and even today I think it was the best job in the world.
As I returned to Omaha, it looks so much different than I recalled back when I played here. It seems newer and shinier than the days when the games were played in Rosenblatt Stadium.
In a pre-ESPN world, the games were not televised as all the games in the College World Series are today. I recall it being a big tournament in a small town.
It has definitely changed. TD Ameritrade Park Omaha has 24,000 seats, sponsors abound everywhere, and there’s a 10-day interactive fan festival.
The NCAA has built this two-week event into the second-largest and lucrative post-season tournaments of its men’s sports, right after basketball. In 2014, more than 347,000 fans attended the 16 games, averaging 21,734 per game, all while essentially there is no home team.
I loved my time playing college baseball, but there is one primary change I would like to see in the sport. If we could get more scholarships dedicated to all Division I baseball programs, it would attract even more kids to the sport, and in turn they would be attracted to trying to earn a college baseball scholarship.
Each Division I baseball programs are allocated only 11.7 scholarships, which is divided up among 27 counters (players who can receive athletics-based scholarship money) and a roster capped at 35 players.
In an era of extremely high tuitions, you understand why baseball could lose out to football, basketball and other sports that are fully funded by scholarships.
The reason I took on playing basketball myself was to receive a full scholarship while attending school.
You can see why poor kids, many of them African-American, choose the other sports. In the 2013-14 academic year, only 1,260 of the 33,433 college baseball players were African-American.
It’s quite ironic that my friends who went on to star in the NFL and other sports are saying, “I wish I would’ve kept playing baseball.” They say this for any number of reasons, including longevity, pensions, benefits and health concerns.
Paying it forward
Through the years, I’ve always considered ways to give back to all those who helped me succeed in life. One way was creating a scholarship and recognition dinner in my hometown. Today, we are 39 years into that.
Each year we recognize and reward 10 minority student-athletes who are headed to college for success in the classroom, in athletics and in the community. Almost 400 kids have been helped through the years.
My second approach was by coaching youngsters between the ages of 8 and 14 in Little League and travel baseball. I enjoy helping the kids develop a love for the game. Some of them ended up playing longer than they otherwise might have played the sport. I’ve even had a couple of kids who play Division I baseball today, and another was a first-round draft pick two years ago.
No matter how far they go in baseball, I tell them all: “The best way you can repay me is, when I’m old, just say, 'Thanks, coach. I listened to what you had to say, and you made a difference.' ”
When that happens, I’m more than paid in full.
Advice to today’s College World Series players
In closing, I’d like to offer some advice to all the players who are getting a chance to compete in the 2015 College World Series.
If this tournament happens to be the last competitive baseball you play in life, it’s the experiences you will have at this time that you’ll share with your family and others for the rest of their life.
Most of you won’t go on to play baseball at a higher level because you’ll become doctors, lawyers, businessmen, administrators and possibly another President of the United States.
Remember this experience fondly and hold it close to you because, years from now, you’ll tell everybody about the things you saw, felt and did right here.
I took the Road to Omaha and the College World Series. It’s a road only a few thousand people have ever taken. It’s a great trip, and one I’ll not soon forget.