KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Day game after a long game the night before. It’s the baseball equivalent to sitting in a dentist’s chair for an early morning root canal.
As players from the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians trickled into Kaufman Stadium, scowls and glares ruled.
The last thing anyone wanted to do was talk. Heads were buried in iPads and phones. There was some chatter about the World Cup, and the relievers were working on the crossword puzzle du jour.“Luke, can I get a couple of minutes?” I asked Luke Hochevar – the former Tennessee Vol and current Royals starting pitcher who is sidelined after Tommy John Surgery. He was hesitant, so I continued.
“I’m on a college baseball roadtrip, heading to the College World Series and wanted to get your thoughts about the event …”
That’s all he needed to hear as he smirked and reminisced about his fondest memories of that trip back in 2005 with the Vols.
“It was awesome,” Hochevar said. “The biggest thing I remember about Omaha are the fans. There were fans from every college it seemed like. Every fan base had its own little stakeout. The college game is so fun, it was a great experience.”
Talk of Omaha on such a morning was like a breath of fresh air. For a lot of players, the College World Series is the pinnacle. It’s the biggest stage they will step on in the sport of baseball.
But even for those lucky guys who get to play professionally and make it all the way to the big leagues, their time on the #RoadToOmaha is something they will never forget. Even the manager of the Indians, Terry Francona, remembers his trips with Arizona in 1979 and '80 like they were yesterday.
It could be because the Wildcats won the whole thing in 1980 and he was named most outstanding player.
“As fun as it was to go in ’79, we lost two in a row,” Francona said. “We went back in ’80 and lost to Frank Viola and St. John’s so we thought ‘here we go again.’ Back in the day, when you got in the losers’ bracket, you had to reel off like six wins in a row – and we did. It was one of the funnest experiences of my life. It doesn’t matter where you win – that’s the most important thing. In college, I was so close to those guys and my coach – my mom and dad were there.”
Francona was named to the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011 and was named one of the 25 CWS legends in 2010. Francona set an NCAA record at the CWS when he got hits in seven consecutive official at bats on June 4 and 5, 1980.
“I took a lot of pride and enjoyment of what we did as a team,” Francona said. “We were such a close group. I thought Omaha did such a phenomenal job – I’m glad it didn’t move. The fans adopt the teams and they come out in droves. They make you feel really special.”
Danny Valencia of the Royals helped carry Miami (Fla.) all the way to Omaha in 2006 by winning a regional in Lincoln, Nebraska, and a Super Regional in Oxford, Mississippi. His grand slam against the Rebels in Game 3 gave him villain-status among Ole Miss fans.
“Up until playing in the playoffs here in Major League Baseball, nothing really compared to it,” Valencia said about his time in Omaha. “The way you’re treated, the fans were unbelievable – it’s honestly one of the best baseball memories I have to this day.”
Valencia still talks to current teammate and former Nebraska star Alex Gordon about knocking the Huskers out of that postseason on the way to Omaha. There’s actually a lot of college baseball talk in these clubhouses this time of year – especially in Cleveland’s.Scott Atchison and Josh Tomlin are part of an Indians’ bullpen, which ranks eighth in baseball with a 3.14 ERA. On Sunday when they are in Boston playing the Red Sox, the two of them may have their eye on another game going on in Omaha – TCU vs. Texas Tech.
Tomlin is a Red Raider and Atchison is a Horned Frog. Even though they didn’t make it to Omaha as players, it’s been a special few weeks for each watching their former teams make a run in the postseason.
“It’s awesome, it’s unbelievable,” Tomlin said of Texas Tech’s postseason run. “I haven’t had a chance to introduce myself to the new staff down there, but they seem like a great group of guys and it’s been a lot of fun to watch.”
“The program has come a long way,” Atchison said about TCU. “Since I was there, they’ve got a new stadium and they have 5,000 people there for games. Hopefully they can go up there and win.”
Atchison even made it to Lupton Stadium to watch a couple innings of TCU and Pepperdine since the Indians were playing the Texas Rangers.
So what’s on the line between the two this weekend?
“We got some stuff in the works,” Tomlin said. “It might be something with the mascots or letter jackets. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch those two play.”
“We have to figure something out,” Atchison said. “A little friendly wager. I like it a lot – three teams from Texas are there so that shows what kind of baseball is being played collegiately.”
For some current teammates, they actually played against one another on college baseball’s grandest stage.
“Everyone knows what years guys were in it,” Hochevar said of the CWS. “It’s like we’re a little fraternity.”
Kansas City pitcher Jeremy Guthrie was with Stanford in 2001 and '02 when the Cardinal made runs to Omaha. Guthrie helped guide the Cardinal to the title game in 2001 when he held Cal State Fullerton to just one run in 7.0 innings of work. But it’s the second trip he vividly remembers.
“We got to go when Nebraska went for the first time, so it was pretty electric seeing a sea of red chanting ‘Go Big Red’ was really cool,” Guthrie remembered. “We had really good crowds during the tournament
And that’s the beauty of the #RoadToOmaha. Years later, on a morning when it’s tough to shake the cobwebs and think about much more than the day’s opposing starting pitcher, the memories are still vivid as if they happened the night before.