Covered In Red writer Ryan Hammel is back with another piece, this time hyping the College World Series. Enjoy the read, and enjoy the game tonight. Go Cards!
Bo Way stepped into the right-side batter’s box with two strikes and stared down Nick Burdi; the highest draft selection in Louisville Baseball history. Nick Burdi stepped to the Jim Patterson Stadium rubber and stared down Bo Way; the last Kennesaw State batter standing between Louisville and a second-Consecutive visit to the Mecca of college baseball. Six-thousand-and-seven people rose to their feet and chanted ‘O-ma-ha, O-ma-ha’ in unison as a couple hundred more stood just outside the stadium confines on rooftops, RVs, and atop the cabooses that sit in the shadow of Papa John’s Stadium. Every eye was on Burdi, the triple-digit velocity closer for the team that until 2007 had only been to one NCAA baseball tournament. That team went two-and-out. History was a pitch away. Jim Patterson Stadium was electric. Burdi took the pitch signal from Kyle Gibson and came set at the mound. Bo Way dug his left foot in and took his stance.
I had a close friend with whom I had played baseball from little league until our New Albany High School team lost in the 2003 sectional round to Floyd Central and most of us hung up our baseball cleats for good, or traded them for softball turf shoes. Daniel Burton wasn’t finished playing the game though. He’d pledged to play baseball in Conference USA for The Louisville a Cardinals and head coach Lelo Prado. He was part of an incoming class that was very talented, and looked to keep Louisville on an upward trend. That class consisted of Chris Cates, Pete Rodruigez, Isaiah Howes, BJ Rosenberg, Logan Johnson, Trystan Magnuson, Blake Williams, Kyle Hollander and Scott Jenkins. The year before those guys arrived on campus, Louisville had gone to the Atlanta Regional as the three-seed and fallen out without a regional victory. 2003-2006 saw the Cards lose conference championship games, suffer late-season collapses, and lose their coach to South Florida. Despite thirty-win seasons and several near-misses…Louisville Baseball had no tournament success and no skipper.
Enter Dan McDonnell.
I remember vividly the day that Louisville announced ‘expanded’ seating at Jim Patterson Stadium for the Super Regional against Oklahoma State. A city mad with basketball passion and newfound football glory was expanding its brand new baseball stadium. Dan McDonnell was navigating uncharted water like a guy in a speedo wearing a captain’s hat and puffing a cigar while driving a speedboat full of Hawaiian Tropic models. That third game of the first-ever Louisville Super Regional ended with me on one side of the backstop net, and Burton on the other; two former teammates now on opposite sides of the fence with just enough space to high-five, grasp hands, and yell at the top of our lungs over the sounds of Adam Duritz singing ‘Omaha…somewhere in middle-America. Get right to the heart of matters…it’s the heart that matters more.’ That was, of course, after the first-ever Louisville Baseball College World Series dogpile.
It is the heart that matters more. The Counting Crows may not have realized it at the time, but that lyric encompasses the very spirit of amateur sports and what the College World Series is about. Just try and look at pictures of Old Rosenblatt, or the statue that stands outside of TD Ameritrade, and not get chills. The non-revenue/Olympic/not-football-or-basketball sports are often overlooked but are the epitome of why we go insane for college athletics. Louisville has embraced the success of its athletic program like few other places. The fans have as much heart and desire for success as the teams, and the two feed off of each other. Baseball is a prime example of the fan/team relationship. I used to go to baseball games at Old Cardinal Stadium and prop my feet up along the First Base dugout side to watch Conference USA games, often with no one within a hundred seats of me in any direction. Times sure have changed.
Since that 2007 team went 1-2 at Rosenblatt, Jim Patterson Stadium has undergone a beautiful expansion, the Cardinals have only missed one NCAA tournament, they’ve forged fantastic rivalries with both Indiana and Vanderbilt, both losing to Vandy in a Regional and sweeping the Vandy squad in a Super Regional in Nashville, and reached another Super Regional in Fullerton. Late-May and early-June baseball was becoming a spring bonus for a fan base that was growing to love what Dan McDonnell and his players were building at the corner of 3rd and Central. Louisville Baseball was making its mark. The nation was watching. The Cards were now fighting on a yearly basis to stake their claim among the who’s-who of college baseball. They were determined to belong.
Bo Way stepped out of the right-side batter’s box and started down the baseline; his bat having swung over the top of Nick Burdi’s breaking ball that dove off the table so hard that Gibson had to pick the third
strike up and throw Way out as he ran toward First Base. The Third Base dugout emptied as gloves, hats, and mostly anything not nailed to the floor was hurled into the Louisville night air. Six-thousand-and-seven people, plus those watching just beyond the fence lines, watched the dogpile and watched history unfold at the same time. Back-to-back trips to the College World Series were a pipe dream in 2003. It became a beautiful reality on June 7, 2014.
Louisville will join Texas Tech, Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, California-Irvine, Texas Christian, and that familiar foe Vanderbilt. After Regional and Super Regional meetings, how poetic would it be to watch Louisville and Vanderbilt work across opposite brackets to meet in the College World Series finale? Too poetic, apparently…as they’ll square off against one another in the first game for each squad. There are teams with better averages, fewer errors, and lower earned run averages, but there is no team which stands out as a clear favorite. Louisville, 1-4 in CWS games, has as good a chance as any to not only
advance, but to leap into a dogpile one last time this season. Kyle Funkhouser has pitched as well as anyone this postseason, and Anthony Kidston and Josh Rogers are a more-than formidable two-three punch. If the bullpen holds, and Burdi does what Burdi does…teams will find scoring runs on Louisville’s pitching staff to be a tall task. The Cardinal offense plays small ball like a team who would rather drop a
bunt that rolls a hair width from the baseline than hit a moonshot homerun. If you’ve followed the ‘new’ College World Series, that’s a good thing. Due to wind and size of TD Ameritrade Park, homeruns are
hard to come by. Louisville sets up well to make a lot of noise, and it all starts Saturday at 8pm.
The heart, sacrifice, and hard work of players like J.T. LaFountain and Mark Jurich, Zach Jackson and Grant Williams set the NCAA tournament foundation for the success we’ve seen with the Dan McDonnell-led Baseball Cardinals. Those former players helped to create the culture which has provided us fans and these current players with three trips to amateur baseball’s brightest lit stage. As the song goes, ‘start turnin’ the grain into the ground. Roll a new leaf over.’ The glass ceiling broke for that 2007 team. The grain had been sewn by coach Prado, the new leaf rolled by Coach McDonnell, and a bountiful harvest has come about ever since.
The glass ceiling broke in 2007, but as Louisville athletics is wont to do, the baseball team built itself another one. This one is above the city of Omaha; sitting right above TD Ameritrade Park. Louisville is making a home in college baseball’s Elite Eight; somewhere in middle-America. Louisville Baseball belongs. The glass ceiling will break again, and there is no better time to start cracking it than
Go Cards; win the College World Series.