story by Chris Rushing
Follow me on Twitter: @rushicw
With more than 4,000 spectators watching every pitch and swing of the bat, Auburn University’s hometown product Creede Simpson had battled to a 1-2 count against Clemson reliever Tomas Cruz with two on and two outs in the top of the ninth. For the second-straight batter, the Tigers were down to their final strike and final out of the 2010 season.
Strike two had been a checked-swing foul Simpson wished he could have had back. It was his pitch to groove, and he knew it. Cruz didn’t figure star player Trent Mummey’s defensive substitution could catch up to his fastball again.
With his team’s hopes and dreams clinging to Simpson just reaching base to keep the season alive, Cruz’s next offering was crushed over the green monster set in left field of Plainsman Park. The crowd erupted, the Tigers poured out of the dugout and the regional host now found itself up 11-9 and three outs away from forcing a decisive game three.
It was, by far, the most exciting baseball game I had ever attended. As Simpson rounded third en route to home plate and the circle of teammates waiting just on the other side of the fourth and final base of his celebratory trot.
Very few things in college athletics can match the College World Series. Taking 64 teams and using two weekends to dwindle the field to eight lucky super regional champions that will finish their seasons in a permanent location — Omaha, Neb. — is a highlight of every summer.
THE RAZORBACK POSITION
On Memorial Day, the Arkansas Razorbacks (39-19) learned they would be a No. 2 seed in the Rice Regional in Houston. The Hogs will face No. 3 seed Sam Houston State at 1 p.m. Friday to open the regional weekend, while Rice and Prairie View A&M square off in the nightcap Friday at 6 p.m.
The four teams will take part in one of 16 double-elimination four-squad pods this weekend that make up the 64 teams selected to take part in the Road to Omaha 2012.
In all, eight Southeastern Conference schools will be represented in the field of 64, with three national seeds in No. 1 Florida, No. 7 LSU and No. 8 South Carolina. The league will seek its fourth-straight national championship with South Carolina gunning for the school’s third-consecutive title when the first pitches are delivered Friday.
COLLEGE SERIES HISTORY
If you haven’t been able to yet, I highly recommend watching ESPNU’s NCAA Baseball special, “The Long Road Home” which aired as the College World Series approached its final running in legendary Rosenblatt Stadium. If you care just a little about our nation’s pastime, it will give you chills as guys like Robin Ventura, Kyle Peterson and Barry Larkin describe their College World Series experiences from their college days.
One of my favorite stories was from Ventura, who talked about watching the games from Omaha in Major League Baseball clubhouses every summer of his illustrious career. He talked about how you can always tell the difference in the guys that went to college and the ones who actually were fortunate enough to play in Rosenblatt on Father’s Day weekend from the guys that skipped out on college to get an early jump on their careers.
Discussing the level of competition with their teammates in the minors is what played a big part in the void those guys felt because they weren’t able to enjoy such a climatic experience with a group of guys that had been best friends over the span of a five-month journey to the little Nebraska town. Especially with the MLB Amateur Draft wrapping up in early June, it’s easy to overlook a detail such as this one as many 17- and 18-year-old kids face the biggest decisions of their young lives.
LET’S PLAY BALL
Let’s be honest: The minors are good for honing your skills and getting more used to a wooden bat, but to be a true teammate and understand what Ventura spoke of, the only way to go is spending time in college getting an education and setting a goal with 24 of your best buddies. Your competition isn’t in the form of the guy with the locker next to you but in the opposite locker room or clubhouse.
I hope you are lucky enough to spend some time at a ball park over the weekend. With the rising popularity of soccer, sometimes baseball falls down on the list of America’s favorite sports. I’m not one to dog soccer, but I am not sure you will never see 4,000 people living and dying on every pass or kick for an NCAA soccer match. The crowd at Plainsman Park over that first weekend in June 2010 exhaled, gasped and cheered loudly throughout the 9-inning clash of the Tigers.
Despite Clemson’s 13-7 win in the decisive game the following night, history was made that Sunday. I was a part of it, and I will forever be grateful to Simpson, who wrapped up his Auburn career last week at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, for that 1-2 swing. If the chance is given, don’t miss an opportunity to take the Long Road Home to Omaha in a couple of weeks.
Many more memories are out there to be made in the next four weeks. What will be your favorite memory for the 2012 College World Series?
As they say, “Play ball!” so we can find out.