A lifetime ago Steve Arlin was a 19-year-old righthander with a hopping fastball and a 12-to-6 curve. He and his Ohio State Buckeyes came to the 1965 College World Series as "relative unknowns," he says, but at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Arlin turned in a pitching performance for the ages. In an elimination game against Washington State, he threw shutout ball for 15 innings, striking out 20 batters and beating the Cougars 1-0. Despite his efforts the Buckeyes came up short that year—but they would win it all the following spring. In the 1966 CWS, Arlin appeared in five of Ohio State's six games, allowing two runs in 20? innings; he was one of two starting pitchers (with Texas great Burt Hooton) named in 1996 to the alltime CWS team. " Rosenblatt Stadium was an amazing place," Arlin recalls. "It's up on a hill, and you would approach it by bus, and the lights would be on for night games. It's the central viewpoint for the whole city, and the crowds are amazing. The way college baseball is supported in Omaha is as good as anything in the pros."
For two weeks each June, eight teams arrive for the double-elimination tournament, and Rosenblatt becomes, in the words of former USC coach Rod Dedeaux, who won a record 11 CWS tides, "the cradle of college baseball." Since 1950, when Omaha assumed control of the tournament—it previously had been held in Kalamazoo, Mich. ('47, '48), and Wichita, Kans. ('49)—the town and the game have fused, each sustaining the other. "We found an unwanted baby on the side of the road, and we nurtured it," says Jack Diesing Jr., president of CWS of Omaha, Inc., the nonprofit group responsible for staging the tournament. "We've watched it develop into the spectacle it is now. The kids play for the love of the game, not for money, and fans love them for that. There's a good, wholesome atmosphere and a down-to-earth work ethic, quite illustrative of Midwestern culture."
Wholesome, for sure. No beer is sold at Rosenblatt, but fans can buy hot dogs and bratwursts, pulled-pork sandwiches and Omaha Steaks burgers. So ubiquitous is the grilling, inside and outside the ballpark, that a catchphrase has evolved to describe a ball club knocked out after a pair of losses: two and barbecue. The crowds, which continue to arrive in droves (260,091 fans last year, the most in the event's history), possess a heartland homeyness, always enthusiastic and upbeat. "It was such a neat place to be, I just got hooked," says Ann Walters, 80, a retired schoolteacher from Council Bluffs, Iowa, just across the Missouri River from Omaha, who estimates that she has missed just six CWS games in the last 54 years.
"The world series is synonymous with Omaha," says Jack Payne, the P.A. announcer for the event from 1964 to 2000. "The hospitality, the grassroots interest, the civic pride—the guy on the street has taken to it." Upon arriving in Omaha, each of the participating teams is matched with a local service club—Kiwanis, Rotary and their ilk—and treated to trips, cookouts and parties throughout the series. The CWS also gives much back. According to a study by Ernest Goss, an economics professor at Creighton, the tournament's host school, the College World Series added $33.8 million to the local economy in 2003, sustaining the equivalent of 641 full-time jobs. It is one of Nebraska's biggest tourist events; Goss estimates half of last year's attendees came from out of state.
The CWS also showcases elite competition. Ninety-five current major leaguers have played in Omaha, including the Giants' Barry Bonds ( Arizona State, '83 and '84) and the Astros' Roger Clemens ( Texas, '82 and '83). "It was the excitement of it, the uncertainty of Who are we playing tomorrow?" says Dedeaux, a spry 90, who retired in 1986 after 45 years at the Trojans' helm. "There was never a day's rest."
The World Series was the brainchild of college coaches following World War II. Its creation was spearheaded by Cal's Clint Evans, whose Golden Bears won the inaugural title. "College baseball at that time was widespread and organized, but it just wasn't generating the attention of football or basketball," says W.C. Madden, coauthor of The College World Series: A Baseball History, 1947-2003. "The coaches wanted to change that. They wanted a championship of their own." The CWS's history is deep in Americana. Yale, captained by first baseman George H.W. Bush, finished second in the first two series. "We took an overnight train from Grand Central to Kalamazoo," says Jim Duffus, an Eli starting pitcher. "Poppy Bush ran the best gin-rummy game on the train, and when we arrived, there was a big banner hung over Main Street announcing the series."
Duffus, 77, a retired banker and insurance man in Pittsford, N.Y., relishes re-counting the bizarre finish of Yale's opening game of the '48 series, against USC: The Eli, trailing 3-1 in the bottom of the ninth, loaded the bases with nobody out. Pinch hitter Jerry Breen—"who subsequently went into the priesthood, probably because of this," Duffus says—smacked a comebacker to the mound, but Trojans pitcher Wally Hood made a lucky stab and fired home to start a game-ending 1-2-3-5 triple play, leaving Poppy Bush in the on-deck circle.
"The most exciting play in the history of collegiate baseball," says Dedeaux. "When Bush was vice president, there was an article about that play, and he sent it to me, along with a letter, saying that 36 years later he was still smarting."
The CWS can supply as much drama as its big league counterpart, from USC's amazing comeback in '73—trailing Minnesota and pitcher Dave Winfield 7-0 in the bottom of the ninth, the Trojans rallied for eight runs and the title—to LSU second baseman Warren Morris's bottom-of-the-ninth, series-winning home run against Miami in '96. The participants, like Arlin, tend to find themselves stamped for life. After an undistinguished six-year big league career, mostly with the Padres, Arlin became an endodontist in San Diego, where he practiced until retiring a year ago. A few years back he received a phone call from a man who identified himself as a member of the '66 USC team that Arlin had beaten twice en route to the championship. "He was giving me all kinds of grief about how they shouldn't have lost to us, on and on," Arlin says. "I wasn't sure how much was tongue in cheek and how much was serious."
The two weeks in Omaha are as serious, yet as fun, as baseball gets. Filled with fervent fans and Kiwanis parties, tense games and camaraderie, the CWS is the pinnacle of many careers. It's quite a fortnight—even if all you do is two and barbecue.