I love the College World Series. The ping of the aluminum bats. The exuberance of the crowds. The passion and hunger of the players. The fact that something important in the baseball universe takes place in Omaha, Nebraska. I love it.
Every year around this time, college baseball takes center stage on the ESPN family of networks. The game is still the same, with subtle strategic differences from the pro game. Because of the forgiving nature of an aluminum bat, collegiate pitcher's pitch away from contact instead of inviting contact outs in the name of pitch economy. The sacrifice bunt is also much more prevalent in college. But by and large, baseball is baseball, and Rosenblatt Stadium showcases some of the most exciting games you'll see all year.
I remember my first exposure to the College World Series, the 1996 final between LSU and Miami. As a 13-year old professional baseball snob, I didn't think there was any way the college game could be nearly as exciting as the professional game. After all, they aren't even pros, right?
Well, I was wrong. The game proved to be a taut thriller, as the game proved to be a back-and-forth slugfest that gave me a few names to tuck away for a rainy day.
As I traded study time for my English final to my dad for allowing me to watch the game longer, Miami ace J.D. Arteaga helped pave the way for a 7-3 Hurricanes lead going to the seventh inning. The Canes also showcased a hot shot freshman third baseman that day, a 19-year old who led the nation with a .476 batting average and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. This fellow's name was Pat Burrell, which I remembered well and was very excited about when my beloved Phillies made him the first overall pick in the draft two summers later.
Back to the game, the Burrell and Arteaga led Canes held a 7-3 lead in the seventh, but the Tigers scored twice in the bottom of the seventh and eighth to tie the game at 7-7. Miami scored one in the top of the 9th, and brought on closer Robbie Morrison. Morrison allowed a baserunner but got two outs to bring up LSU second basemane Warren Morris. Morris roped a pitch from Morrison down the right field line and just inside the foul pole to give the Tigers a 9-8 win and the College World Series championship. The homer was Morris' first of the season. This of course produced the championshp dogpile, which is best done on the field at Rosenblatt after the final out of the final game.
Morris went on to play a few years in the majors, reaching no higher than the level of being "a guy." But do you think he pays for a drink or a dinner very often in Baton Rouge? I don't either. I have no idea what I got on my English final, by the way. My dad doesn't either. But I do know that I was introduced to Burrell, who became quite a figure in my summers for the next decade.
So who will it be this year? There probably won't be a walk-off homer to end the series, but there probably will be unlikely heroes and names to hold onto, just like there were for me in 1996. If you've never given it a look, take my advice and do so this year.