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Bohls: I'm in a love affair with Omaha and its baseball, charm and, oh yeah, Oscar's Wings

Kirk Bohls
Austin American-Statesman

I love Omaha.

Love every square inch of it.

Love the friendliness. Love the old-school charm. Love the Old Market. Love the new stadium. Well, kinda. Really love Oscar’s Wings, which is to die for even if it is a 25-minute drive from the ballpark.

And double-love the baseball.

I just love Omaha.

Maybe not as much as Peyton Manning. But then, he’s had a much bigger national platform, and he used to be the city’s unofficial spokesman. But quite frankly it got a little tiresome with his constant crowing about Nebraska’s largest city. Kind of over the top, if you ask me.

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So it is with a not small degree of envy that I learned Peyton had been awarded the key to the city in 2014. What’s up with that? Has he been to Omaha 22 times since 1975? I think not.

This will be my 22nd time there covering the College World Series. I was chatting with Joe Cook of "Inside Texas" on Wednesday about all the times I've been there, and he figured out I've been there one more time than Arizona State. Sorry, Sun Devils; get it together.

Arizona State, of course, was old-school baseball. You know, Jim Brock and Barry Bonds and Oddibe McDowell. They’ve kind of gone away.

Texas, not so much.

This is the view from the center field stands at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, Neb., home of the College World Series. It also might be the place to be to catch one of Texas slugger Ivan Melendez's home runs over the next two weeks. The stadium's name has been changed from TD Ameritrade Park.

Oh, the Longhorns go away, but they come back almost every June. This will be the 75th anniversary of the CWS, and Texas is making its 38th trip. The Longhorns are obscenely successful. No one else comes close.

Not Manning, for sure.

And I can darn near guarantee that Peyton won’t be at Charles Schwab when Texas A&M opens the CWS against Oklahoma on Friday. Or probably any other day between now and the potential CWS championship game June 28, but the press credentials are "hovering around 1,000," the NCAA's Jeff Williams said.

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But Peyton's beloved Tennessee Vols, uh, well, they didn’t get there. And he has Notre Dame to thank since those Fighting Irish — who will face Texas on Friday night — knocked off his No. 1-seeded Volunteers, who rival last year’s Arkansas team or the 1989 Aggies as the best team in college baseball not to end the season in Omaha.

Sorry, P.

I’ve had a love affair since almost the minute I got there.

Texas players celebrate with their fans after beating Virginia during last year's College World Series. The Longhorns are making their 38th trip to Omaha this week and open their CWS on Friday against Notre Dame.

I’ve driven there so many times, my Lexus automatically veers that way every June. On four different occasions, I took my kids with me to Omaha, the first two with Ryan and the second two with John Tyler and Zach and their best friend, Jonathan. We’d wake up at 4 in the morning, pile into the Honda and drive straight through to Omaha in about 14 hours, give or take. 

Those were great bonding experiences or maybe scarred them for life. I do know they’d skip a CWS game here and there, and my wife, Vicki, was none too happy when they called home and asked her to order them a pizza and send it to their hotel room. I'm sure they'd enjoy the new 1-pound Colossal Tot at the concession stand.

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The CWS is just such a special event, kind of drawn out, which is why they’ve compressed the schedule some to get two championship series games on the weekend, which they should have been doing all along. They’re starting the CWS on Friday instead of the traditional Saturday most years.

Eight teams with identical dreams and dissimilar backgrounds converge on Omaha every year, eager to dogpile on the sport’s grandest stage. Fifteen different teams have done it since 1999. Texas, as you know, only dogpiles in Omaha. Never before.

Not after winning a regional.

Not after winning a super regional.

To dogpile anywhere else is heresy. 

That’s the standard at Texas, a standard Omaha can appreciate because it has lovingly embraced the sport like no other. Oh, Minneapolis tried to lure it away. And Rod Dedeaux of USC stature wanted it in L.A., where it would have been swallowed up like a budding actress on her last dime.

In front of a backdrop of Tennessee, Texas and Vanderbilt banners, Mississippi State outfielder Brad Cumbest leaps against the fence to reach for a Vandy home run during last year's College World Series. Mississippi State went on to win the national championship.

That’s why the CWS has remained in the heartland of America, because it resides in the hearts of the nation’s 39th-largest city as much as it does 216 players from eight teams. They don’t talk about going to the CWS. They crave going to Omaha as if it’s the mecca. Thankfully, they're in the early stages of a 25-year contract locking them in to Omaha through 2036.

I do miss Rosenblatt Stadium and the Henry Doorly Zoo beyond the right field fence and the spectacle that was on the hill overlooking Interstate 80.

Love the people, the great food, Oscar's, the ambiance, the intimacy of the town, the way it supports college baseball.

Don’t take my word for it.

“Oscar’s is recommended by most everyone,” cashier Kennedy Kilgore told me. 

Try the Kujo sauce if you’re into spicy, she says.

Well, supports isn’t the right word. That doesn’t begin to describe the love affair Omaha has with the College World Series.

It’s quintessentially middle America, and I fell in love with the Midwestern city and how passionately it flooded the gates to welcome the eight teams that have been making the pilgrimage there since 1950. Omaha is hot dogs and apple pie. It’s Fourth of July crammed into two glorious weeks. It’s a carnival and spectacle.

Omaha always meant rain delays and Rosenblatt, the creaky ballpark that eventually gave way to a corporate, glitzy stadium downtown that has already changed names twice since 2010. It’s about the big cats at the Henry Doorly Zoo and the hospitality of Mister C’s. It’s about burgers and frosties at Zesto’s. It’s about the kid "Chopper" who caught the foul balls off the back screen and is probably 65 with grandkids now. It was about Lambert Barteck, the organist at Rosenblatt who gave it an old-time feel.

“The whole experience was exhilarating,” fellow columnist Cedric Golden said. “I had the most fun hanging out with Kirk and his sons, John Tyler and Zachary at the Courtyard in 2014, playing nickel poker in my room and then driving around town in a futile search for a bowling alley.”

Texas' Ivan Melendez celebrates with teammates after hitting a dramatic three-run homer in the ninth inning in last year's CWS against Mississippi State. It was a precursor of 2022; Melendez has hit 32 home runs this season to lead the country.

OK, so no bowling alley. I didn’t say Omaha was perfect.

“I remember how important it was for Texas to get that first win on the weekend to guarantee the Horns would be playing at least three games,” Golden said. “Not because I was any kind of homer, but I wanted to make sure we were in Omaha for more than three days.”

More often than not, those grew to 14 days.

Back at Rosenblatt, we’d walk out of the press box, which was on the roof of the ballpark and offered such a panoramic vista that you'd swear you could spot Lincoln on the horizon. Or maybe Wichita. 

The memories wash over me like water through floodgates. 

I can remember interviewing Will Clark, still in eye black and showing angry frustration, as winds whipped a makeshift tent on the roof. I can remember visiting Barry Larkin and Chris Sabo in the Michigan stars’ hotel room. I can remember going to the horse races at Ak-sar-ben (yes, Nebraska spelled backward). I’ll never forget the incredible meals at Mister C’s, whose owner adopted all things Longhorns and graciously offered free appetizers of minestrone soup and Italian sausage and cheese sticks and God knows what else until we were about to burst.

During my adventures in Omaha, I’ve covered 93 Longhorns games, 56 of them victories over 28 teams, and probably seen 200 games or more in all. Of those 21 previous CWS forays, Texas went two-and-que just three times.

I was privileged to recount for American-Statesman readers four national championships there and five more runner-up finishes, none more painful for Longhorn Nation than in 1989, when Cliff Gustafson magically produced a No. 2 team out of a less than gifted squad outside of Kirk Dressendorfer and Scott Bryant. That was the same year when the NCAA switched the format to single-elimination in the final and an undefeated Texas lost to once-beaten Wichita State.

I can still recall some epic matchups between Texas and Gary Ward’s Oklahoma State teams. I’ll never forget Stanford’s Jack McDowell snapping Robin Ventura’s 58-game hitting streak. My favorite moment ever was Miami’s hidden-ball trick in 1982, when the Hurricanes pretended there was an errant throw past first base on a fake pickoff attempt — even the ball girls in the Miami bullpen were in on the charade and scattered for cover — and easily tagged out Wichita State’s Phil Stephenson at second. 

So many memories. So many cool reminisces.

Like the one time Ward tried to one-up Gus by showing off his new cowboy boots. Gus responded by smiling, hiking his boots up on the table and asking, “But yeah, do you have your name etched on them?”

Gus almost always got the last word. And often the last win with two titles and three runner-up finishes.

And I got the distinct honor to chronicle them all.

I love Omaha.

Did I mention Oscar’s?

Covering the CWS

Texas has made it a tradition to reach the College World Series, which means the American-Statesman calls Omaha, Neb., its home away from home, too.

We will have two pairs of boots on the ground at Charles Schwab Field this year; UT beat writer Danny Davis will be making his third CWS trip while columnist Kirk Bohls will cover the Longhorns in Omaha for the 22nd time out of Texas' 38 all-time trips. Follow our complete CWS coverage at statesman.com, as we'll be there from the first UT pitch to the final out, including full game coverage, analysis and live blogs.