OMAHA, Neb. – Day 1 of the College World Series seemed like a good time to search for examples of passion. Because isn’t that what makes this fortnight go?

This was three hours before the first pitch . . . 

The CWS could begin. Oregon State was here. Cal State Fullerton was here.

Also, Chris and Kyle from Kansas. Roger and Mark and Rich from Nebraska and Kurt from Michigan were here.

They happened onto each other 15-some years ago outside the gates of Rosenblatt Stadium, waiting to get into the ballpark for the World Series opener. One conversation led to another, and now it’s an annual reunion, at the head of the queue together every June, even though they aren’t family.

LSU scraped together a comeback on Saturday — featuring one kooky eighth inning — to eke out a 5-4 victory.
LSU Athletics
LSU scraped together a comeback on Saturday — featuring one kooky eighth inning — to eke out a 5-4 victory.

“We are family,” Chris corrects.

“CWS family,” Mark concurs.

They have their trade secrets. No last names, no telling how early they get here to be first in line. But since the gates wouldn’t open for another hour, there was time to talk of how they met that first time.

Chris: “They were already on line. It was completely downpouring rain.”

Mark: “We stay in line in the rain.”

Chris: “About five of the guys online had ponchos on and I’m walking around Rosenblatt, and under a tree trying to keep dry. I saw these guys and I walked over and they kind of took me in.”

Roger: “The stragglers, we take in.”

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The group grew in numbers and states as the years went by, although health problems have thinned this June’s turnout. “There’s other ladies usually here,” Kyle said, “but I’m going to be it this year.”

They will come as long as they can. “This is where we all get together,” Chris said. The others nodded. The baseball chatter continued, waiting for the gates to open. It is June in Omaha.

This was eight hours later, Florida State vs. LSU in the nightcap. . .

Leaning over the rail in the first base dugout was the 73-year-old coach from Florida State. This is Mike Martin’s 16th College World Series. He was going to his ninth the same June of 1996 that Tyler Holton – his starting pitcher Saturday night – was born.

Sixteen trips to Omaha, or 22.5 percent of the World Series that have ever been played.  “It still feels new,” he said. That’s one way to never grow old.

Sixteen trips, and he’s still looking for that first championship. In a way, he’s fortunate this isn’t basketball. Imagine the questions aimed at a coach who was 0-for-15 in the Final Four. But he has come to terms with it all.

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“I must admit for many years, I was Captain Ahab, and I was trying my best to get Moby Dick,” he said the other day. “And nothing ever happened. But I can say this. You’ll never be able to take away the memories. You’ll never be able to take away the excitement.”

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You’d think he’s way overdue for a break, but look what happened Saturday night. The Seminoles lost to LSU 5-4, largely on two moments that seemed express mailed right out of the Department of Foul Fate.

How many times do you see three errors on one play? Florida State committed that many in the eighth inning, letting in the tying run and setting up the go-ahead run. A botched ball in the outfield, an errant throw back in to second, a dropped ball at home plate. “I just kept looking up,” LSU’s Antoine Duplantis said. “Things kept happening, I kept running.”

How many times do you see a runner score from first base on a third strike? Duplantis did in the first inning, taking off on the pitch – which turned out to be a swinging strike three, even though a wild pitch – and then continuing on around when the ball got away from the catcher, and nobody covered home.

“I’ve seen some things crazy, but I never saw a guy score from first base on a strikeout,” Martin said. “It’s hard to cover that in practice. `OK, today boys we’re going to work on covering home when we strike a guy out.’”

So now Florida State faces the trials of the losers’ bracket. Looks like karma might be against Martin for the 16th time. “Anything can happen in this great sport,” he said. “I want to use the word, this is fun, but then you all would know I’m really lying. But it’s challenging. And everybody in here likes a challenge, unless it’s trying to get a lawn mower cranked up sometimes.”

They made fitting bookends to this day. The fans from hither and yon who have formed a once-a-year bond through baseball. The coach who has made the game his life, and no matter how often this place crushes him, is thrilled to come back for more.

The College World Series opened Saturday. Passion was not hard to find.

Mike Lopresti is a member of the US Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, Ball State journalism Hall of Fame and Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He has covered college basketball for 43 years, including 38 Final Fours. He is so old he covered Bob Knight when he had dark hair and basketball shorts were actually short.
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