In right field for the Kansas City Royals, the guy whose walk-off single closed Rosenblatt Stadium.
Catching for Detroit Tigers, the man who popped up with the bases loaded to end the 2012 College World Series.
At first base for the Tigers, the teammate who won’t let the catcher ever forget that.
In the dugout for the Tigers, the manager who once lost to the last team in the universe he wanted to lose to in Omaha.
In the dugout for the Royals, the injured outfielder who still cherishes being a part of the only College World Series victory his school owns.
*Extreme Peyton Manning voice*
OMAHA! OMAHA! OMAHA! pic.twitter.com/tgkR8woGoG
— MLB (@MLB) June 14, 2019
Yes, it was a fine night for Omaha stories. Which is one reason they came up with this idea in the first place.
The first MLB game ever played in this state — Royals 7, Tigers 3 — was designed to serve as something of a lead-in for the College World Series, and a bridge between the big leagues and the college game. A multi-level celebration of the game. There was pomp and circumstance and a full house and all eight CWS teams lining up around the infield before the game, with a player from each throwing the ceremonial first pitch. Great visual.
Dave Winfield and Barry Larkin, two of only five men who can say they both played in the College World Series and were elected to the Hall of Fame, delivered the game ball to the mound. And then it began, with more buzz and a larger audience in the stands than these two struggling teams are accustomed to at home, and Kansas City’s Homer Bailey throwing a strike past Detroit’s JaCoby Jones in what was called the first pitch of MLB in Omaha.
There was also a mighty roar in the Royals’ second inning when Kansas City rookie Nicky Lopez lined a homer over the right field wall. Three things to know about that:
- It was Lopez’s first major league home run.
- He went to Creighton just down the street and played his home games in TD Ameritrade Park, which might make him the first player in major league history to get his first career homer in his college stadium.
- He homered only twice in 519 at-bats for Creighton. One was here, hit to nearly exactly the same place in May of 2016. Watch both and they almost look like repeats of the same play, except the stands are full in one and empty in another.
Good stuff, and all in all, the atmosphere they were hoping for.
“When you have energy levels like this, you sense it,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “You have to literally stop yourself to listen and look around, but you sense the energy, you sense the electricity in there.”
But want to know maybe the best part of Thursday?
Before some of these guys were Royals or Tigers, they were collegians playing in the College World Series themselves. And this was a night to see what that still meant. “When I got drafted, I never thought in the back of my mind I’d ever be in Omaha again,” said Tigers catcher Grayson Greiner, who was here with South Carolina in 2012. “You get to reminisce on some good memories, and some bad memories.”
Take Whit Merrifield. Now he’s a big part of the Royals’ outfield. In 2010, he was the hitter who singled the opposite way into right in the 11th inning to send South Carolina over UCLA 2-1 for the national championship. It was the final year for the Rosenblatt, so that walk-off single was the last hit before they turned out the lights for good.
ROSENBLATT WALKS OFF!
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) February 2, 2017
“It wasn’t what we were thinking about at the time,” he said before the game Thursday night. “We brought South Carolina its first-ever national championship of any sport so that was a big deal for us. And then as the years go by, you kind of reflect on it and think Rosenblatt was such an iconic park, to be able to shut it down the way we did was pretty surreal.
“That’s still, even being in the big leagues, probably my favorite memory of baseball, because it was a big moment for our community.”
His manager, Yost, has a suggestion to all. Call up that hit on YouTube. “Because I’ve done it myself and I watched it eight or 10 times. It’s pretty cool to see.”
Merrifield still has that ball. Always will. By the way, he doubled twice and drove in two runs Thursday. He must like the College World Series atmosphere. And he enjoyed sharing his memories with the college kids on the brink of playing in their own. “That was cool to relive it, because these guys get sick of hearing about it, so it was nice to interact with new faces.”
Or there is Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire. He was here with Texas in the 1970s when the Longhorns were ousted by — oh, my — Arkansas.
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“Of all teams to beat us. They were in our conference. It wasn’t much fun because a lot of the guys from Arkansas were from Oklahoma, and I had to hear about it an awful lot, being an Okie.”
See the two Tigers sitting next to one another on the press conference dais, first baseman Brandon Dixon on your left and catcher Grayson Greiner on your right? Fellow teammates now. In 2012, they weren’t.
They were playing against each other in the championship series, when Dixon broke a 1-1 tie in the top of the ninth with an RBI double for Arizona. With the Wildcats lead 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded and two out, Greiner popped up to shallow right to end the game and the College World Series.
Touchy topic in the clubhouse?
Dixon: “I try not to rip on him too much. It was one of the first memories I have of playing against Grayson, when he made the last out against us. It’s a sore subject, but one I will occasionally bring up.”
Greiner: “The only bad thing about this whole trip is having to hear all these questions about losing the national championship to Brandon.”
— Kansas City Royals (@Royals) June 14, 2019
Another teammate, center fielder JaCoby Jones, was here with LSU in 2013. Lost two games, and the Tigers were gone. “That kind of stunk, but it’s something you’ll always remember.”
Kansas City’s Alex Gordon was an All-American at Nebraska, so he was back home Thursday, frustrated that a shoulder issue kept him out of the lineup. But he remembers 2005 here with the Cornhuskers, and the 5-3 victory over Arizona State that remains the only CWS win ever for Nebraska, with Omaha barely 50 miles from campus.
“To be the only team at Nebraska to win a game at the College World Series was pretty special,” he said. “The fan support was amazing. They made us feel like rock stars out there.”
So the two big league teams in town Thursday night have plenty of guys who understand what the next fortnight is all about.
“From our first team meeting, the thing we talked about was getting to Omaha,” Dixon said.
“Right when you get to college, all around our stadium is the word Omaha. That’s what you set your sights on from day 1,” Greiner seconded.
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Merrifield: “You get to come here and be on ESPN, you play in front of 25,000 people. To be 18 to 21 years old in this situation is something that — you don’t know how to handle it. It’s really, really cool. Those moments that you form together stick with you forever.”
Gordon said he can sense the intensity of the eight teams “because you have lived it . . . It’s just fun to watch how much passion they have during the games and now much it means to them, I know we’re all glued to the TV when these things are going on.”
The list of past and present major leagues with College World Series experience is long and distinguished. Larkin and Winfield are joined by Paul Molitor, Mike Mussina and Mike Schmidt in the small Hall of Fame/CWS club. Barry Bonds was here twice, with Arizona State, Terry Francona, Buster Posey, Nomar Garciaparra, Roger Clemens, Gerrit Cole. On and on.
A trip to Omaha enchants when you’re doing it and lingers when you’re done, no matter how far you later climb in the game as a professional. That connection for life is a big part of what Thursday night was about at TD Ameritrade – big league park for a day.