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The Road(trip) to Omaha

Everyone’s favorite optimist decided 11+ hours in a car each way was no deterrent to seeing Vandy compete for a national championship.

NCAA Baseball: College World Series
Infante, you can sit down now, but you get to do it as a champion.
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Like all good decisions by someone in their mid-20’s, the choice to drive to Omaha, Nebraska, for the final series of the College World Series was made at the last minute. The “last minute” in this case was approximately 23 hours before first pitch of Game 1 between Vanderbilt and Michigan. 7 PM CT was zero hour for one of the most exhausting yet exhilarating trips of my life. The 736 miles to get from home to TD Ameritrade Park was daunting, and sleep would be minimal. Oh, and my co-pilot would be my Vandy alum but THEM fan best friend.

The drive itself was nothing spectacular. It was actually quite straight-forward. The most difficult part was not pushing the gas pedal of the Dodge Challenger R/T to the floor on the wide-open lanes of I-70 between St. Louis and Kansas City in the post-midnight hours of Monday morning. That and not to turn my sweet mix of Shinedown, Bad Company, Linkin Park, and basically everything else rock from the 60s forward way up. Unfortunately, the loser in the passenger sleep needed that sleep thing for his shift at the wheel. The wheel was not surrendered until the other side of Kansas City. The 10 PM to 6 AM drive meant that the rest of the ride into Omaha was spent looking at the inside of my eyelids to avoid his disgusting taste for everything Top 40s radio. My best friend really does have terrible taste in everything, which might explain why he puts up with me.

A couple more hours of sleep were had at the hotel before wondering into the Mecca of college baseball. With little time and no experience in the area, we decided to eat near the ballpark. Blatt Beer & Table was the chosen destination. They did have a limited menu for the big event, but I am a simple man. A Blatt Burger with bacon, cheese, and an egg on top was the perfect pre-game fuel. A couple Twist & Stouts also got me in the mood to enjoy some championship baseball.

My friend and I decided on the General Admission option for tickets. At that price, we could sit anywhere in the outfield or at standing room only areas behind any section around the stadium. These SRO areas had a little metal counter/table to set drinks or food on while you stood. Ticket prices were not bad, but the chance to be in the stands for the CWS at $15 was too cheap to pass up for two guys on limited incomes. We took our places in right center field and awaited a home run off the bat of JJ Bleday or Stephen Scott. Unfortunately, this game’s Bledinger landed about 25 feet away.

The tough game did give me a chance to sit back and just soak in the quirks of the CWS at TD Ameritrade. One peculiar “tradition” is a rivalry between the LF and RF bleachers. Apparently, each side needs to inform the other side that they “suck.” I am a Nashville Predators fan and do love telling opposing teams they suck, but this felt really weird and was inevitably over-done by drunken frat boys who wanted us all to do the jeer about 5 times too many times. Also, people who start the wave are in fact the fans who suck. The wave is the dumbest fan activity at any sporting event. Even these weird and mildly annoying antics along with the bad result could not keep me from really appreciating what a special event I was attending.

It should be noted that the hotel was 37 miles outside of Omaha in Fremont, Nebraska. Hotels closer to downtown Omaha were as expensive as expected. Even with having to park at the stadium, it was only $10 to be right across from TD Ameritrade. This continued a happy trend in Omaha – prices for everything were generally acceptably low. Big events like this are notorious for price gouging fans, but the CWS and surrounding establishments avoided doing so as far as I saw – outside of the aforementioned hotels. The limited sights to be seen in Omaha also kept us from spending too much downtown except for just before the games for a meal and enjoying the on-site tent city for souvenirs. Even after the Game 1 loss, I kept gambling and waiting to get a souvenir until there was a National Champions shirt to take home. Spoiler alert, that gamble paid off in the most satisfying way.

Before Game 2, lunch was Raising Cane’s. Yay for fast food restaurant chains. Do not judge me too harshly. Fremont has no local places we found except the weirdest looking sports bar called Big Red Restaurant and Sports Bar (so clever Nebraska fan owner!) that has zero windows on 3 sides of the building. Maybe the food was good, but it seemed like a weird little place trying too hard to emulate chains like Buffalo Wild Wings.

The seats were basically the same for the second game but closer to the now-Vandy bullpen due to switching dugouts. It was fun to see Clarke’s bomb enter the bullpen. The number of balls Bleday and Scott ripped just foul of being HRs was a little annoying, but the near misses ultimately did not matter. Speaking of fun, the amazement and chatter of other fans when talking about Kumar Rocker was cool. The kid has made a name for himself and is developing quite the reputation.

For the pivotal Game 3, a little more involvement was required. We made it over to the team hotel to watch the sendoff. It was amusing to see them loading the bus to move two blocks, but the event was fun. I am not sure how excited the Hilton of Omaha was to have a couple hundred Commodore fans flooding their lobby, but other fans were getting drinks at the bar to give them some return on the commotion. The team came down the elevators in pairs and trios. It was amusing to see other guests of the hotel come down the elevators and be greeted by a bunch of cheering fans before we realized the doors were not opening for a Vanderbilt baseball player. We left and went to get dinner at Rocco’s pizza and cantina (yes, the name used lowercase letters). All of the pizzas come in their 16” square, thin crust style. The Barbecue Brisket Pizza was good with a big chunk of brisket on each slice, but the sauce portion was limited for my liking but typical of that type of pizza. It was a decent pizza but nothing extraordinary. We headed back to Blatt Beer & Table for pre-game drinks. The move felt risky with how Game 1 had gone, but I am not superstitious and like good drinks. The rooftop bar was 3 to 1 in favor of the Black and Gold over the Maize and Blue.

I made sure we were on the front row right behind the Vanderbilt bullpen for this pivotal game. I wanted to be able to see how guys were warming up and maybe overhear or lip-read what the plans were as they came from the dugout. Hickman’s first inning struggles caused Jake Eder to come down in the 1st inning, but he was alone and never started warming up until into the 4th inning when Fisher, King, and Jackson Gillis made their way down to join him. Others would slowly filter out such as Raby and eventually Brown and Fellows. Eder’s battle in the 8th inning created an amusing series of phone calls where Brown was told to get ready to go in during the 8th then to be ready to take over for the 9th before being told Eder would start the 8th but to be ready to enter. In the end, Tyler Brown was never called upon as Jake Eder finished off Michigan and got to be the man on the mound for the final out. Unlike Ravenelle, Eder did not get to have the strikeout moment. Instead, all eyes were on senior Pat DeMarco as he hauled in a routine fly ball to secure the national championship.

The post-game celebration was not as raucous as other sports, but the aura of being live and in-person for a Vanderbilt National Championship was awe-inspiring. Hearing Tim Corbin immediately acknowledge David Williams first and foremost mixed a twinge of sadness with the joy. Watching Corbin guide Donny Everett’s father onto the stage to be honored was a tear-jerker. It would surely be a different, and probably even deeper emotional experience, for a Vanderbilt alumnus who is heavily invested in the university’s success. However, even as a “sidewalk” fan, I felt so proud of the players, coaches, and staff members on the field. Their success does nothing for me except entertain. It says nothing about me since I am tied to the institution by nothing more than a business transaction, but Corbin and his players are, by all accounts, genuine people who deserve success. This senior class may deserve it, both by tragedy and commitment to the program, more than any other. Being in Omaha to experience them getting what they deserve was really special. We can all whistle happily into the offseason and hope to have another reason to debate making the trip as a fan next season.