Omaha, the home of the College World Series, is a meat-and-potatoes kind of town. An abandoned stockyard, covered with weeds, still stands a few blocks from downtown. There seems to be a steak house at every corner. Farmers in pickups pass through on their way to buy and sell cattle at nearby auctions.
So it was no surprise when a record crowd of 22,027 crammed into Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium last Saturday to watch Cal State-Fullerton and Southern Cal play in the College World Series championship game. After all, this year's Series featured beefy sluggers who had mashed a tournament-record number of taters.
USC rightfielder Geoff Jenkins, who had already hit three homers in Omaha, was caught up in the home run euphoria as he looked up at the flags blowing out during batting practice. "It is tempting [to swing for the fences]," he said, with a sly smile. "With the wind blowing like that, why not go for it?"
Unfortunately for USC, Fullerton sophomore Mark Kotsay was sitting in the Titans' dugout nearby, dreaming of taking some prime cuts of his own. And after Kotsay had belted two home runs—and pitched the final 1? innings in relief—to lead Fullerton to an 11-5 victory and the championship, he was the player wearing the sly smile.
"That's two more steaks, buddy," Kotsay said, as he threw an arm around teammate D.C. Olsen's shoulders after the game. "We've had a running bet: one steak dinner for every home run. He owes me a bunch now."
The way Kotsay performed in Omaha, Olsen might even throw in dessert. Kotsay had three homers in the College World Series and 21 for the year. His first homer against USC was a three-run shot in the top of the first inning that cleared a revolving sign 400 feet away in right centerfield. After Southern Cal's Ernie Diaz cracked a three-run homer to tie the score in the bottom of the inning, Kotsay answered with a two-run shot over the rightfield fence to cap a four-run second inning that put Fullerton ahead to stay, 7-3.
For the tournament Kotsay batted .563, with 10 RBIs and a whopping 1.250 slugging percentage. He also was error-free in the outfield and didn't allow a run in two relief appearances, and took home the Most Outstanding Player award. "He's the Messiah," said USC catcher Chad Moeller.
But Kotsay's blasts weren't the only balls raining down from the heavens. A staggering 48 homers were hit in 14 series games, obliterating the previous mark of 29 dingers hit in 13 games last season. All the heavy-metal music coming from the aluminum bats helped to boost series attendance to a record 182,759, including a gathering of 20,072 for the Stanford-Tennessee game on June 6—a crowd that outdrew six major league games that night.
Kotsay started every game in centerfield during the regular season, leading the Titans in hitting (.413), and came on in relief to save 10 games. Yet even after starring for a Fullerton team that was ranked No. 1 most of the season, he finished behind Tennessee first baseman-pitcher Todd Helton (.413 and 19 homers; 7-2, 1.75 ERA and 12 saves) in balloting for college player of the year. The Titans then eliminated the Vols with 11-1 and 11-0 victories in Omaha, with Kotsay going 5 for 8 with a home run and five RBIs. Helton, a junior who was the eighth pick, by the Colorado Rockies, in the amateur draft on June 1, was 2 for 8 in the two games. "He would never say it, but I think it did bother him a little," Fullerton assistant coach George Horton said of Kotsay's losing out to Helton.
Kotsay will be eligible for the amateur draft himself next June, but until then he will be content to set his sights on another trip to Omaha, another national title and surely another steak dinner or two.