The Albuquerque Isotopes may have had a hard time of late against the Omaha Royals, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t those in the clubhouse with fond memories of days past at Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium.
The College World Series begins its final year at Rosenblatt on Saturday before the event moves to a new stadium next season.
For Isotopes manager Tim Wallach and pitchers Seth Etherton and Scott Dohmann, the annual event brings back plenty of stories from their respective trips there as college players.
“We won it there, I have great memories,” Wallach said. “From when I was there to what it is now is night and day. But still it was a great thing to be a part of. Now with the TV and the fans it’s incredible. It’s a great time for those eight teams that make it there, because the people of Omaha really go out of their way to make everyone feel welcome.”
Wallach helped Cal State Fullerton win its first national championship in 1979. The Titans’ route to the title game took them through hitting coach John Moses’ Arizona Wildcats, who would go on to win the trophy the following season behind players such as current Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona and Houston Astros manager Brad Mills.
Etherton can sympathize with Moses when it comes to taking a tough loss in Omaha. Etherton’s USC Trojans squad lost in the championship game to Fullerton, 11-5, in 1995.
“It’s definitely eye-opening,” Etherton said. “We had a pretty good squad in ’95, guys like Geoff Jenkins, Jacque Jones, Chad Moeller. We fell a game short. We fell to a team that was very well-coached in Cal State Fullerton.”
As he was just a freshman at the time, Etherton said the entire time he spent in Omaha served as both an important lesson and helped him and his teammates set a goal to return.
“The experience itself pitching in the atmosphere of 25,000 people, I’d never been in that before,” Etherton said. “It was a great experience. As a freshman I think the guys we had that year moved on the next few years and we knew what we were working so hard to achieve and what we had to look forward to.”
It took until 1998, but Etherton and USC returned to Omaha as one of the favorites to take home a national championship.
That’s exactly what the Trojans did, defeating rival Arizona State, 21-14, in the title game. It was a College World Series dominated by hitters, but that didn’t keep pitchers like Etherton from enjoying themselves.
“You go back now to Omaha, they’ve changed the field quite a bit,” he said. “They’ve pushed the fences back and raised them, things like that.
“Back then it was tough. You were playing in the elements where the wind was blowing out on a daily basis at 20 to 30 miles per hour. You’d give up jam-shot home runs to guys swinging aluminum bats. That’s just what the game was back then.”
Beating a fellow Pacific-10 Conference team in the final made the victory extra special, Etherton said.
“It’s always a little sweeter when you beat someone out of your own conference that you play against throughout the year and have a pretty bitter rivalry against,” he said. “Two years prior we’d had a big brawl at USC against them. So, being able to go in there and knock them around a little bit (was good), but they knocked us around, too.
“But it was good to beat them. They had a great squad and they still do have a great squad. We were fortunate but I think I can also say we had the best team that year.”
While Etherton’s Trojans were winning their NCAA-record 12th championship, Dohmann and his teammates at Louisiana-Lafayette could only dream of reaching the first College World Series in school history.
Dohmann and the Ragin’ Cajuns made that dream a reality in 2000.
As Lafayette’s ace that season, Dohmann won 13 games and got the call in the Cajuns’ second game with the team facing elimination. He said he refused to look up and see the words “Rosenblatt Stadium, Home of the College World Series” above the stadium so he could just treat it like any other game.
“It was amazing,” Dohmann said. “It was the first time in school history that we’d gone. That being said, you watch it growing up as a kid and that’s all you ever want to do.”
Dohmann got to live that childhood dream by pitching Lafayette to its first CWS victory by a 6-3 margin over San Jose State.
The Cajuns would go as far as a semifinal game, where they lost to eventual national runner-up Stanford, 19-9. The team’s two CWS victories were the most by a club in its first trip to Omaha in CWS history.
“I wouldn’t say we weren’t nervous but at the same time very excited,” Dohmann said. “We’d had a very good year, so we were pretty confident with our team. We carried that on in. We put on a fairly good showing for being the first time in there. I think we tied for third, if there is such a thing.”
Both Etherton and Dohmann agreed that their CWS experiences rank among the highlights of their respective baseball careers.
“Obviously getting to the major leagues was number one, but college-wise that was by far number one,” Etherton said. “If I had to prioritize (one or the other), I couldn’t tell you, but it’s something I’ll never forget.”
“It’s definitely something I like to have back in the repertoire — the first victory for the school at the College World Series,” Dohmann said. “But that whole year was just great to talk about, great to remember.”
Wallach also had the unique experience of returning to Omaha in 2007 to watch his son, Matt, play there with Cal State Fullerton.
“It was amazing,” Wallach said. “I hadn’t been back there since so it was great to be back.”
Wallach said that moving the event to the new downtown stadium will only help the College World Series continue to grow.
“I think the new stadium is going to be incredible,” Wallach said. “They’ve kind of grown out of (Rosenblatt). It’s packed and they can get more people. I think it’s a great thing.”
The 2010 College World Series kicks off with Mountain West champion TCU (51-12) facing Florida State (47-18) at noon on Saturday. Florida (47-15) and UCLA (48-14) will follow at 5 p.m.
Sunday’s matchups will pit Oklahoma (49-16) versus South Carolina (48-15) at noon and Arizona State (52-8) against Clemson (43-23) at 5 p.m.
All four games will be shown live on ESPN.