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Survival of the Grittiest: As the world changes, the College World Series keeps evolving

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Mike Martin misses Omaha.

It’s been three years since the former Florida State skipper retired as the winningest coach in any sport in NCAA history. Three years since he brought his last team to Omaha to experience a slice of baseball nirvana.

Pay attention, Martin said, and you’ll notice most players and coaches don’t say they’re going to the College World Series. They’re going to Omaha. The two proper nouns have been synonymous for seven decades even as the sport, event and world changed in ways predictable and unrecognizable.

Martin jokes that he got his unofficial start in coaching at the 1965 CWS, when the then-outfielder at FSU coached first base during a game in front of a few thousand people after breaking his arm that season. By 2019 — the last of his 19 CWS trips including one as an assistant and 17 as the Seminole head man — his team’s every move was documented by droves of smartphones while games were broadcast around the globe from inside a sparkling $131 million facility.

Both Omaha tours remain precious to Martin. Along with every other one in between.

“The only way I know how to say it is like a southern boy: They’re the cat’s meow and it’s a beautiful situation,” said the 78-year-old from his home in Tallahassee. “It’s an improvement from one year to the next. It’s not the same old-looking thing.”

Winning in Omaha has always been about survival of the grittiest, but The Greatest Show on Dirt arrives for its 72nd iteration in the state’s largest city this week with an evolutionary march as reliable as the summer heat.

Format changes, new technologies, a ballpark relocation, aluminum bats, shorter attention spans and a pandemic — the CWS not only navigated all of it but emerged stronger than ever as popularity and attendance continue to rise.

ESPN analyst Kyle Peterson marvels at the scale of the event even from what it was 40 years ago. The Omaha Creighton Prep grad used to be part of the crowd of grade-schoolers hanging over dugouts at Rosenblatt Stadium looking for autographs after a game. He would root for whichever team had the best hat — The Citadel still stands out from 1990.

He lined up with friends by the buses of teams that were eliminated and begged for any kind of equipment as players walked through the concourse on the first-base side to get from the field to the parking lot. One year in the mid-’80s a player with little left to give offered Peterson his athletic cup.

“It’s nothing I would accept now,” Peterson said. “But at 10 years old it was something.”

Peterson returned to the CWS with Stanford as a standout pitcher in 1995 and again in 1997, soaking in an atmosphere that felt much like the youth tournaments he grew up playing. The team arrived early at Rosenblatt and sat in the stands to watch the game still going on. Peterson casually walked to the concessions for something to eat on days he didn’t pitch. If fans wanted to chat, players were happy to engage.

With growth has come more structure. Buses pull right up to Schwab Field on North 13th Street and unload players who need only cross the width of a sidewalk before they’re into a tunnel. A few yards later and teams are into holding rooms with catered meals before they take the field.

Of course, a watershed moment for the College World Series was moving from Rosenblatt — which hosted the event in South Omaha since 1950 — to downtown in 2011 at TD Ameritrade Park, renamed Schwab Field last winter. For all the nostalgia it left behind, the shift also made the eight-team, double-elimination tournament an event beyond just baseball.

The CWS loosened its belt and spread out in its old age.

It occupies a large swath of land encompassing adjacent parking lots and hotels. Baseball Village — an infield grounder from the right-field park entrance — features souvenirs, interactive displays, food and a beer garden. The Mattress Factory, Fan Fest, restaurants and concerts are all entertainment options for visitors without a mobile ticket to scan.

Crowds at Rosenblatt would have gawked at such a setup even a decade earlier.

Space was much more limited around the Diamond on a Hill. It shared parking with the zoo and its closest lodging was the houses along South 13th that various fan bases rented out. King Kong was the only outside food option within walking distance other than a Zesto for those craving a cold treat.

“Dingerville” — also known as RV City in the lot south of Rosenblatt in the late ’80s and later in a lot north of the stadium in 2000 — made for close quarters and quick friends until the city scuttled it in 2007 to make room for more cars. One of the few must-stops was Stadium View, the baseball memorabilia shop run by longtime owner Greg Pivovar.

“Besides that? There was nothing,” Peterson said. “There wasn’t room to do anything else — it didn’t exist.

"Now there’s activity everywhere. All it does is encourage more people to show up.”

And crowds have almost always showed up.

The CWS welcomed its 10 millionth fan in 2018 and set a total attendance record last year when 361,711 passed through the gates in 16 games (22,607 per game). It topped 100,000 for the first time in 1981, with a then-record one-day crowd of 15,333 spilling onto the field with overflow spectators sitting on the cinder warning track in front of the bleachers. It broke the 200,000 barrier in 1997 and 300,000 in 2006.

Word began to get out nationally in 1980 when a fledging networked — ESPN — started broadcasting a few CWS games. That morphed into CBS covering the title game until the early 2000s and the tourney still rates among ESPN’s best baseball numbers. That after the first College World Series in Omaha in 1950 drew far below the expectations of organizers, who persuaded the NCAA to move the event from Wichita. Just 17,805 total came out that cold and rainy first year. Then 27,789. Then 38,731.

“One of the things I still remember was that there were very few people in the stands,” said Steve Rosenblatt in 1999, recalling his time as a batboy during the first two tournaments in Omaha. "It's hard to believe what this thing has become. Based on those first couple of years, it's hard to believe that it's still here.”

Steve’s father, former Omaha mayor Johnny Rosenblatt, was instrumental in the location and construction of the original Omaha Municipal Stadium — renamed for Rosenblatt in 1964 — which cost $770,000 to build and seated 10,000. The format expanded from four teams to eight that first year in Nebraska and has kept that number ever since, even as it split into two four-team brackets in 1988 and the NCAA expanded the field to 64 in 1999.

The College World Series was a dynasty event in its early years. Southern California coach Rod Dedeaux — college baseball’s John Wooden — won 10 national titles between 1958 and 1978, including an unmatched five straight from 1970-74. Arizona, Miami, Texas, Cal State Fullerton and Arizona State all won multiple titles between 1967-87.

Now more schools than ever are pumping money into baseball as lavish TV contracts from football trickle down. It’s made winning harder. Since the 1999 format shift, 15 schools have dogpiled in 22 seasons.

“There are too many good teams in college baseball,” former Arizona State coach Bobby Winkles said in 1987. “Back when we coached (in the ’60s), I don't feel there were that many good teams. Now there are more players going to college.”

Roster composition has changed, too.

In 1950, Texas won the title with three pitchers and 14 total players in Omaha. It dogpiled in 1983 with 25 players (eight pitchers) and 2002 with 36 players (15 pitchers).

Spray charts, exit velocities and batter/pitcher tendencies — all detailed information that barely existed even 10 years ago — make for more pitching changes and strategic shifts than ever.

Aluminum bats appeared in Rosenblatt for the first time in 1974. There was “gorilla ball” in the late ’90s, including a record 62 homers over 14 games in 1998. Then the “dead ball” era with deadened bats in the early 2010s — the 2013 and 2013 events combined for six long balls in 30 contests. This year’s power-heavy trend promises a continued resurgence of slugfests, even as some purists grouse about the downtown venue facing “the wrong way,” with batters facing southeast into prevailing winds.

Some of what the College World Series has become is thanks to change that didn’t happen.

A failed push from Dedeaux in the mid-1950s aimed to move the event to Los Angeles, where he envisioned games at a new amusement park called Disneyland and an environment not unlike football’s Rose Bowl. Minneapolis made an aggressive bid in the early ’90s.

The NCAA’s desire to get CWS games on an over-the-air network — and in predictable time slots — nearly resulted in a Final Four, single-elimination format starting in 1988. Coaches pushed back so hard that they compromised with two four-team brackets (from one eight-team bracket).

Anxiety often festered as Omaha and the NCAA operated on one-year rollover contracts for the first 40 years of their marriage. They went to five-year pacts soon after. Now they’re in the midst of a 25-year agreement that began in 2011 in conjunction with the downtown ballpark.

More change is taking hold this edition. A return to a format used from 2003 through 2007 starts the CWS on a Friday instead of a Saturday, and the championship series beginning on a Saturday. Mobile-only tickets and cashless concessions. No general admission seating in the outfield, a move made last year due to the pandemic, also returns.

Other traditions have ebbed and flowed through time.

Until the early ’90s there was a CWS “queen” elected by sportswriters and sportscasters, with eight other women serving as individual team “sweethearts.” Beach balls popped up in Rosenblatt’s wooden bleachers along with chants of “Left field sucks!” and “Right field sucks!” that still endure.

Less traditional food options have arrived, including recent features like the one-pound Colossal Tot and lobster truffle fries.

And Martin thinks he knows why the CWS has stayed so fresh: Nobody can complain about anything in Omaha. One constant amid the change is the commitment from local businesses to make it a first-class experience.

All these years later, that passion can’t be replicated.

“They really and truly want this event to be something the participants will never forget,” Martin said. “If Florida State goes to the College World Series in the near future and I’m still living, good Lord willing, I’ll be there. There’s no place I’d rather be.”



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