For the first time, Major League Baseball will play a regular-season game in Omaha, Nebraska — home of the College World Series — when the Kansas City Royals take on the Detroit Tigers on Thursday (8 p.m. ET on ESPN).
With the overlap of colleges and the pros, we asked current MLB players who played in Omaha for the College World Series to share their favorite memories from the event.
Whit Merrifield, Kansas City Royals; South Carolina, 2010:
“Walking it off, being the last team to win it in Rosenblatt, is still, to this day, my baseball highlight. I can remember everything about it. I can remember even into the bottom of the ninth, leading off the inning, missing a fastball down the middle trying to hit a homer, thinking that was it, I wouldn’t get another chance.”
Jump ahead to the 11th inning …
“I stepped in the box. The catcher squatted down. I just got hit by a wave of nerves, butterflies, whatever you call it. National championship on the line. I get a hit, and we win it. First pitch, he yanked a fastball down and away, not really close. Second pitch, same thing. I figure they’re doing the unintentional-intentional-walk thing, trying to get me to chase. It’s 2-0, I’m standing there, I’ve taken a little while, standing there, he’s shaking, shaking. I called time, stepped out. I had that unintentional-intentional thought in my head. I think to myself, ‘One out, national championship-winning run on base. If this ball is anywhere close, I’m gonna swing.’ He threw the same pitch, fastball down and away. It was a little better of a pitch, but not a great 2-0 pitch. Got the barrel on it, hit the line drive to right. As a hitter, there are certain balls you hit and you don’t know exactly where it goes. You hit it and look up. I knew I hit it to the right side, but I sort of panicked because I thought the first baseman might’ve caught it. Then I saw it was high enough and went down the line.
“The next thing I remember is being on the bottom of a dogpile. Honestly, it was awesome, but it got kind of scary. You’ve got probably 1,500 pounds of man on you. We were celebrating, and then I was like, ‘All right. Get up!’ It was a special moment.”
“The super regional when we were playing against NC State in Athens, we had split the first two games. The third game of the series, we came out and scored a bunch of runs in the first inning. My third at-bat, I believe, I came up and hit a home run. We were well ahead by my next at-bat, which was in the next inning. I got up, and all the sudden there was a standing ovation because this was probably going to be my last at-bat in Athens, in front of the home crowd. I tipped my cap and got back in the box, and the whole stadium started chanting, ‘Let’s go, Gordo.’ I ended up hitting another home run. The whole stadium was going crazy, and the frat house was playing my intro song out in right field — “Your Love” by The Outfield. They played it for the rest of the game on full blast. It was a really cool day.
“So we went to Omaha, and the first game we played against Fresno State, in the best-of-three series in 2008, we were down two or three runs, and I hit a two-run home run to get us within one, and then we scored two more in the bottom of the eighth to go up and win that game. We ended up losing the series, but that first game was a cool moment.”
Kurt Suzuki, Washington Nationals; Cal State Fullerton, 2004:
“Once that last pitch got hit in the air, that pop fly, you’re waiting for it to come down. It feels like forever, and then when it finally comes down, it’s just like pure — I don’t even know how to describe it — it’s just incredible. All the work you put in, and the grinding you do throughout the school season, and to be able to reach that pinnacle is pretty cool. It was a 3-2 game, and I was catching. The pop-up went to right-center, and you never know in Omaha. That was the old stadium, too — Rosenblatt. So, the ball flew there. Whenever it gets hit in the air, you kind of hold your breath a little bit. It was a big boy that hit it, too. I threw my glove and my mask in the air and spun around and dogpiled on the mound. They were all pretty big guys compared to me, and I hate being constricted, so I said I am not going to be on the bottom of the pile. I’m gonna jump around first, wait ’til everybody comes, and then I’m gonna jump on the top. I was kind of in the middle, though, because I just couldn’t help myself to jump in. There were a couple big boys on me, but it was all worth it.”
Justin Miller, Washington Nationals; Fresno State, 2008
“I wrote a saying on our whiteboard before we left for Omaha. It just said, ‘F— it. Win it all.’ And we wound up doing it. We were in the pool with Rice, North Carolina and LSU. We played Rice the first game and blew them out of the water. Then we played North Carolina, and I started that game. We beat them, and then they came back from the loser’s bracket and beat LSU to come back and play us in the make-or-break game. We beat them, and then we played Georgia in the finals. So it was Bulldog vs. Bulldog. We beat Georgia for the championship, and the next day, we flew back. When we landed, we had a parade that went all through downtown Fresno. Then, we met at our stadium and had a ceremony. When we went into our clubhouse, that’s when I saw the whiteboard again. I was like, ‘Oh, I forgot about that.'”
Alex Cora, Boston Red Sox manager; Miami (Fla.), 1996
“Those three years I went there, it was a great experience. I used to go to Omaha, too, as a kid. I went to two World Series. We actually have friends there. There’s a military base in Omaha, and we stay with some Puerto Rican families. It’s great.
“I already cried in Omaha. What they do now is amazing. I’ll say it. The thing I don’t like anymore is that Saturday game. First of all, it’s not fair for us that we lost that game, but at the same time, two out of three is hard. You’ve got to have a lot of pitching to survive the finals. I get it. That Saturday game was the coolest thing ever. Put CBS on and watch it. Winner takes all. Obviously, I was part of that one. I know how it works. But I thought that championship game was the best. I’m not saying they should go back to it, but they should consider it.
“We got more than close. We’ve turned the page already.
“My last at-bat there. Man on second, two outs, tie game. Eddie Yarnall was warming up. Skip Bertman went to the mound and didn’t bring him in. I remember I took the first pitch. It was a ball. Next pitch, I hit a line drive to left field. We got ahead. And, obviously … the rest is history.”
Kole Calhoun, Los Angeles Angels; Arizona State, 2009
“I think we were the last year when they were playing in Rosenblatt, before they built the (new) stadium. But that was a blast. It was the first time I’d played in front of 25,000-plus. The place was rocking. They loved ASU when we were there. Just a lot of fun, man. I grew up watching the College World Series, and to be playing in it was just a surreal thing for me.
“(The stadium) was awesome. There was just so much history at that stadium, in terms of college baseball. Just that whole city, how it embraced the College World Series, was fantastic. Always packed and people outside the stadium. It was 25,000 people inside, and there were just as many outside. It was almost like I would imagine a college football game. It kind of felt like that, that kind of atmosphere. People tailgating outside, and everybody had their team that they were rooting for. I don’t know, it was just a lot of fun.”
“It was the atmosphere. The town is just electric. It’s shut down for that event. You want to play in the College World Series your whole life, but to be there exceeds your expectations. Sold-out crowd, the fans very into the game. I remember we played there in the Big Ten tournament the following year. It was sold out with Nebraska fans. That got you prepared for going on the road in the big-league level and having fans on you. It definitely was a similar feel.”
Eddie Matz, Jeff Passan and Alden Gonzalez contributed to this story.