The South’s Gonna Do It Again

With all due respect to any Cornhuskers that may be reading this, yesterday began what I believe is the most significant stretch of days that Omaha’s gonna see all year.  The one time I set foot in the city was in the dead of February, the tmperature hovered around zero and even the downtown buildings were little more than a sea of grey and white.

But it’s a LOT hotter and eminenly more colorful when the College World Series comes to town, and this year the music of choice will likely be a lot more countrified than ever. For the first time in CWS history, the eight representative schools are all from south of the Mason-Dixon line, and from just two conferences, the ACC and the SEC.  Yep, what was left of the Pac-12 ceased to exist last weekend when Oregon and Oregon State both failed to win their Super Regionals.  And longtime representative Stanford didn’t even make it that far.

If you happen to live in an area where major league baseball or more temporal climates exist, the CWS may be off your radar.  But the cities that are being represented by this octet are nowhere near either.  Yesterday, Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Charlottesville, Virginia opened things up (UNC eked out a 3-2 win).  Lasy night, Knoxville, Tennessee and Tallahassee, Florida really kicked things up a notch, as FOR THE WIN’s Charles Curtis reported this morning:

Whew, what a game at the College World Series!

Tennessee and Florida State went back and forth on Friday night, trading leads late into the game, and thanks to Christian Moore’s cycle, the Volunteers emerged victorious.

But there was some controversy! With Tennessee’s Blake Burke up and a 2-2 count on him, Burke checked his swing, and the third base umpire confirmed that was the case.

But the replay shows it was … questionable at best. It really looked like he offered. Then, Burke tied the game at 11. Tennessee went on to win, and FSU manager Link Jarrett didn’t go too hard on the umpire for the call, as you (can) see.

And today, the other quartet of combatants begin play.  Raleigh, North Carolina and Lexington, Kentucky kick things off.  And if you did a double-take by seeing Kentucky in the field, you’re not alone.  The esteemed and experienced Eddie Timanus of USA TODAY provided context in a preview article dropped earlier in the week:

Somewhat surprisingly, the Wildcats have never been here. The Wolfpack have, and they’ll be eager to erase the memory of how their last trip to Omaha ended when COVID-19 positives sent them home one win from the championship series. N.C. State fans are enjoying quite a ride this spring after both the men’s and women’s basketball teams reached the Final Four. The top end of the Wolfpack batting order, featuring Alec Makarewicz and Garrett Pennington, is as formidable as any. But Kentucky does a lot of things well, and its winning formula relying on speed and defense could serve well at this venue. The Wildcats lead the CWS field with 118 stolen bases, led by Emilien Pitre (25) and Ryan Waldschmidt (24).

But perhaps an even bigger Cinderella story, and arguably the Series’ most interesting participant, will be saved for tonight’s clash between College Station, Texas and Gainesville, Florida.  It is the Gators, the Series’ only unseeded team, that will be showcasing who some call college’s answer to Shohei Ohtani, returning for an unlikely encore to the splash he made last summer.  ESPN’s prolific Jeff Passan sang his praises last June:

JAC CAGLIANONE WAS a freshman in high school in 2018 when Shohei Ohtani arrived in Major League Baseball. Like so many, the 15-year-old Caglianone marveled at Ohtani’s ability to hit tape-measure home runs on the same day he threw 100 mph fastballs. His fascination went beyond just gawking, though. Caglianone aspired to be Ohtani.

“I just thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he said. “I’d always done both, and it was something that I planned to do in college, and seeing the way his game grew and keeping a pretty close eye on him and studying all that he did — that was exactly who I wanted to be.”

Lately, I’ve been spending some time considering options in the Gainesville area lately, and it’s clear it’s as different from Los Angeles as Caglianone is from Ohtani.  But believe me, his fan base considers him as major league in stature as Southern Californias do Shohei.

And all of the fan bases of the college towns that have schlepped their teams to Omaha–with plenty of those fans in tow–consider these teams as their major leaguers.  Take a look at their facilities.  The passion.  The trajectory of ratings and revenue they and ESPN are likely to see, particularly as it’s looking like the respective winter major league finals will shortly be ending.  I’d put that up against anything in MLB these days.

I know this much.  I’ll be watching with a great deal of interest.  I’d much rather be in a place like Gainesville in February than Omaha.  Or even LA.

Courage…

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