OMAHA, Neb. -- It's always the sure sign the College World Series is about to begin. It's that slow walk up 10th street, as even the day before college baseball's grand event is scheduled to begin, music fills the air and children of all ages mingle around the ballpark.
Then, it's that walk down the hallway on the third base side of TD Ameritrade Park. First, it's a visual and casual wave to NCAA media head honcho J.D Hamilton, whom I've been blessed to get to know over the past decade plus. Then, it's a quick chat with new NCAA Director of Baseball Damani Leech, who's been given the tough, but more than doable, task of replacing an NCAA legend in Dennis Poppe, who sadly, was nowhere to be found this morning. He certainly was missed, but if I know Dennis, he'll poke his head in at some point during the two-week event.
Finally, as you walk into the press conference room for the pre-CWS press conference, at first glance, it's always an exciting time. You almost take count of the faces you've met and gotten to know over the years. Steve Pivovar, Tom Shatel and Lee Barfnecht of the Omaha World Herald newspaper, yep, still here and looking good. Baseball America's Aaron Fitt, who has become a dear friend of mine over the years, yep, there he is as usual on the front row. And of course, I can't get through this column without mentioning two of more favorite people, period, in ESPN's Kyle Peterson and Jeremy Mills, Jeremy who does a lot of behind the scenes work for the Worldwide Leader in Sports. From the media scribes to even the guy who runs the sound system in the back of the press conferences, it's like the College World Series brings together an entire family -- our college baseball family.
Coaches, players and fans alike, no matter where I travel during the season, constantly tell me how I'm living the dream being able to travel around the country during the spring watching college baseball.
I'm not one to look for validation, but going to the CWS on an annual basis is as close as it gets for me. There are hours, 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., to be exact, when my wife will emerge from our bedroom, walk into my office and say, "what are you doing up so late writing?". Well, this is why.
As the hellos and trading of tidings ends in the press conference room, a hush quieted over the room as Mike Bianco (Ole Miss), Brian O'Connor (Virginia), Jim Schlossnagle (TCU) and Tim Tadlock (Texas Tech) took to the podium for the first of two press conferences.
Here are some highlights from the first set of pressers:
• SIGH OF REBELS RELIEF: Much has been made about Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco making his first trip to the College World Series. Bianco detailed during the press conference that one of his greatest memories of last week's CWS-clinching win over Louisiana-Lafayette was immediately after the game, as he joined in and hugged Stephen Head and Jordan Henry, both on his coaching staff. Head and Henry, of course, were members of the 2005 Ole Miss club that lost to Texas, falling one game short of Omaha, despite being one of the best teams of the past 15 or so years.
"The Road to Omaha is windy, and not very straight," Bianco said. "I'm happy to be here. I even joked about how, heck, they don't even play in the same stadium anymore." Bianco, of course, was a catcher on LSU's 1989 CWS club.
• THE BIG 12's RISE: One of the big themes of the postseason has been the rise of the Big 12 Conference, and particularly, the State of Texas on the national stage. With three teams in the CWS, the Lone Star State is reaping the benefits of some good recognition. But it was interesting to see the Big 12 coaches taking such pride in the conference after a strong season.
If you remember last season, the Big 12 got two teams to NCAA Super Regionals in Kansas State and Oklahoma, but both failed to get here to Omaha. In that season, Texas, TCU and Texas Tech were the bottom three teams in the Big 12. Now they're all here.
My oh my, what a difference a season makes.
"This was a great turnaround for our conference. We've been touting the quality of our league the entire season," TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. "I'm glad we're seeing everything we talked about the entire spring showed up in the field of play."
• THE ARM INJURIES: The increasing number of arm injuries in baseball has been a hot topic over the past few months with several premier arms in college and professional baseball being forced to have Tommy John surgery, including East Carolina's Jeff Hoffman and UNLV's Erick Fedde, among others. Naturally, observers, writers and others in the baseball industry have different takes on what is causing these injuries. TCU's Jim Schlossnagle went to bat for college coaches, while other coaches part of the first press conference had other takes.
"I think it's going to be different with each injury," Schlossnagle said. "I think it's a tough question to answer, but if I had to pick one thing, I think there's a whole lot of pitching, and not a whole lot of throwing. There's a lot of organized play, but maybe if there was a lot more disorganized play, arms would be in better shape.
"I do think college baseball coaches across the board take care of pitchers much better than we get credit for," he continued. "There are always a handful of guys who will manage their clubs a little differently, and that sometimes gives a bad wrap to everyone. There are a lot of folks out there who write uninformed things."
Bianco had a different take: "I think the biggest difference now is these kids from ages 10 and on pitch a lot," he said. "They certainly pitch a lot more than I or anyone else I know ever did as a kid."
The he said/she said on arm injuries only will continue. Either way, it's a troubling trend in both professional and college baseball.
• SIMILAR, NOT THE SAME, STYLES: One of the more intriguing first-round matchups in this CWS is the Saturday afternoon matchup between UC Irvine and Texas, and two of college baseball's greatest minds in UC Irvine's Mike Gillespie and Longhorns skipper Augie Garrido. Much has been made about the two teams employing similar small-ball styles. Both the Anteaters and Longhorns thrive on getting early leads by flawlessly executing small ball. UCI, though, tends to take things a step further by not being afraid to lay down some squeeze bunts and installing other tactics the Longhorns don't use much.
Garrido had an intriguing perspective on the similar, but contrasting styles.
"Mike is a lot more daring than I am," Garrido said. "He will push the envelope a little more when I won't. He'll do some squeezes and other things, and he sometimes goes beyond the types of things I'll do. Outside of that, we're about the same."
Seeing the Longhorns and Anteaters skippers strategize on Saturday will be a treat.
• LOUISVILLE/VANDERBILT SCENE-SETTER: The Cardinals and Commodores have developed quite a rivalry over the past few seasons, with the two teams meeting in NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals, and now here in Omaha. Both Vandy coach Tim Corbin and Louisville coach Dan McDonnell told me during the morning session they'd prefer to play each other in the CWS Championship Series, but will make due with the current situation.
The interesting thing about these two teams are the similar styles, especially the Cards, who like many teams in this field, love to put pressure on defenses, forcing them to make big plays.
"Vanderbilt and Louisville, I think there's a lot of balance there," McDonnell said. "They have stolen base threats 1-9, there's balance and they're never one-dimensional."
The matchup between the Cards and 'Dores will feature two of the nation's premier sophomore pitchers in Vanderbilt righthander Carson Fulmer and Louisville righty Kyle Funkhouser. Fulmer has a quirky arm motion but big-time stuff with a fastball in the mid-90s and good secondary stuff, while Funkhouser a dominant fastball/slider combo, with his fastball having the ability to get up to 97.
• STARTING PITCHERS: Here are your starting pitching matchups for the first round of games here in Omaha. Virginia LHP Nathan Kirby vs. Ole Miss RHP Chris Ellis, Texas Tech LHP Chris Sadberry vs. TCU RHP Preston Morrison, UC Irvine RHP Andrew Morales vs. Texas RHP Nathan Thornhill and Louisville RHP Kyle Funkhouser vs. Vandy RHP Carson Fulmer.
• DID YOU KNOW? Texas coach Augie Garrido was kind enough to point this out to me. The last time the Longhorns (like last season) finished dead last in a conference was 1956. Garrido said he was told recently that a year later, in 1957, the Longhorns returned to the College World Series and went 1-2, beating Connecticut, but losing to Penn State and Notre Dame.