'That's why it's magic': Omaha celebrates return of World Series

OMAHA, Neb. -- On Saturday afternoon, June 19, 2021, Omaha's downtown parking Lot B was hot, smoky and rocking. Tailgaters partied alongside their campers, pickup trucks and repurposed ambulances, lined beneath the monolithic rightfield tower of TD Ameritrade Park's scoreboard. They drank beer. They burned meat. They reveled in the shade of the rustling leaves of the trees and swayed their hips to the thumping beat of Chumbawamba as it rolled in from a nearby DJ stand. A big red-faced man in a Big Red Nebraska t-shirt sang along, pointing his longneck bottle toward no one in particular. "I get knocked down, but I get up again, you ain't never gonna keep me down...We got knocked down, but here we are again, f----ing COVID can't keep us down!"

The singer -- he said to call him "Crockpot" -- then proceeded to fall through his folding chair to land butt-first onto the scorching 2 p.m. sun-cooked blacktop. He didn't care. He just laughed and smiled. Everyone in downtown Omaha was laughing and smiling. Finally.

Composite bats were tinging in the Easton try-before-you-buy tent. Balls were smacking against the vinyl back of the bouncy house-ish Rawlings fastpitch booth. A few blocks over, the Boudreaux Thibodeaux Boys, an annual gathering of Louisiana oil rig workers and Omaha drywall contractors who randomly met at the Series nearly 20 years ago, were sending up columns of smoke from slabs of beef and pots of gumbo. Over on 73rd Street retired college baseball coaches were eating Whiskey Filets at The Drover. Down on the banks of the Missouri River dozens of youth teams were squaring off in the Omaha Slumpbuster and Battle of Omaha baseball tournaments. At the Henry Doorly Zoo, Arizona fans were asking the zookeepers if they could borrow a wildcat or something a little more ursine because, you know, "Bear Down."

"This is how it's supposed to feel around here," said Tim Corbin, head coach of defending champion Vanderbilt, shortly before it began a Game 2 evening showdown with Arizona that became an 7-6, 12-inning instant classic win for his Commodores. "You can just stand here and soak up the energy in the air. You feel this place. That's why it's magic."

Yes, magic. That's exactly how it felt as the delayed 74th College World Series finally began on Saturday. It's the day that O Town finally felt normal again. Because for the first time in 724 days, a college baseball game was being played in Omaha in June, just as it had happened every summer for seven decades until one year ago, when the Road to Omaha was closed, covered in detour signs, road cones and antigen tests. TD Ameritrade Park was padlocked. The tents and roasted corn concession stands of the Baseball Village fan zone were never erected. The row of flagpoles that were moved downtown from Rosenblatt Stadium when it was razed in 2013 were naked, missing the flags of the eight participating teams. The wind was literally out of the city's sails.

"It sounds like an overstatement to say that none of us knew what to do with ourselves, but we really didn't," explained North Omaha resident Paul Terry, waiting for his teenage daughters to finish Instagramming beneath the Zesto ice cream sign. Terry said his family has attended the College World Series nearly nonstop since the event moved to Nebraska from Wichita in 1950. "But for everyone in this city, whether they even go to the Series or not, it being here is just part of the calendar. Like Christmas or the 4th of July. Imagine how much you would freak out if someone came in and erased one of those off your family calendar."

It was worse than that. When the NCAA announced the cancellation of its spring championships on March 13, 2020, it was like someone marched into downtown Omaha and all at once erased two dozen city blocks. That's how much space is taken up by the ballpark and the bars and businesses that have been built around it over the past decade. The size of the economic crater was even larger. In March 2021, Creighton University released a study commissioned by CWS of Omaha, Inc., the local operating arm of the Series. It estimated that the CWS generates $88.3 million annually, a cash flow fed by food bought, sales taxes paid and even tickets purchased by baseball fans visiting Boys Town and the Henry Doorly Zoo. It creates more than 1,000 full-time jobs and during opening weekend of the 2019 CWS a whopping 95% of the city's 15,000 hotel rooms were booked. Last year the owner of The Dugout, a souvenir store across the street from the ballpark that became the merchandise (and hide-in-the-air conditioning) hub of the downtown CWS experience, estimated that more than half his annual revenue came during the week and a half of the Series. The Dugout closed permanently over the pandemic winter.

The dollars that vanished and the businesses that vanished with them are overwhelming to sift through. But that math pales in comparison to the emotional subtraction. Jack Diesing Jr., second generation president of CWS of Omaha, Inc. was so unmoored that he left town, scheduling a golf trip with some friends because he couldn't fathom the idea of being in Omaha without the games. Corbin and his wife scheduled a lengthy summer road trip, a bucket list visit to Mount Rushmore. The route from Nashville took them through Omaha. They couldn't resist stopping by the ballpark. The coach recalled: "It was tough to see the city in the shape that it was in because of no one being in it, but we had to stop. That's just how we're built. It's instinctual."

Reporting to Omaha in June is an instinct. Like a bird migration. And no bird travels alone. On what should have been Opening Day of the 2020 College World Series, legendary Omaha World-Herald sportswriter Tom Shatel decided he would go to the ballpark anyway. He and ESPN college baseball analyst/Omaha native Kyle Peterson climbed the stairs of TD Ameritrade Park and longingly looked between the rails to catch a glimpse of the empty green infield. The only movement to be found in any parking lot was in Lot D. It was drive-through COVID testing. But soon they were joined by others, a steady trickle of lost CWS pilgrims, who showed up at the stadium because their DNA had directed them to do so. Shatel, Peterson and their new friends stood there quietly until a security guard told them they had to leave.

"I would do anything to have a College World Series," one friend said to Shatel, adding desperately: "I would do anything to be able to listen to the Vanderbilt Whistler. Heck, I'd let him sit behind me."

On Opening Day of the 2021 College World Series, those same stairs were covered in 46,063 fans, the Vandy Whistler among them, crawling through the security checkpoint and giddily taking selfies with the Road to Omaha statue. It was too hot. It was too crowded. Game time was moments away. But, as it was from Lot D to the Baseball Village to the Boudreaux Thibodeaux Classic, all one could see in any direction were smiles of summertime college baseball relief.

"This line is moving so slow, I feel like I should be pissed, but I'm really not. It doesn't look like anyone is, really," said Council Bluffs, Iowa, resident Regan Thomas, talking as she slathered sunscreen onto shoulders that were adorned with a sleeveless blue t-shirt featuring block white letters reading "OMAHA 2020" but with a tiny "1" hidden inside the final zero. "I'm so excited to be back I don't even need a seat. I'd just stand there all night."

"This feeling now is it's almost like we're reopening everything," said Tim Corbin, sounding all at once like a coach, a fan, and a true believer in spreading the gospel of that CWS magic. "We are helping rejuvenate the College World Series. And in some ways Omaha."

Not in some ways, coach. In all the ways.