I pulled into my driveway right as the clock in my 2012 Honda Civic flashed 1:00 p.m. Nearly nineteen hours after I drove out of Lot C at TD Ameritrade Park I was home. The exact time I saw Omaha from my rear-view mirror I forget, the numbers on the dashboard at 6:whatever time it was Central blur together, just as scenes of the rest areas along I-80 in Iowa to nap for a few minutes. Mentally and physically exhausted from the 66 or so hours spent at TD Ameritrade Park from Wednesday at 10 a.m. to whatever time it was Sunday evening I left, it’s hard to remember specifics of a whirlwind of a week.
But there is one.
Setting an NCAA record for single-game attendance in a conference tournament, a crowd 19,965 turned out to TD Ameritrade to watch Indiana and Nebraska square off for the Big Ten Tournament championship.
I don’t know what to say about.
It’s not due to tiredness from a lack of sleep, a total of 17 hours over five nights spent sleeping in my car -don’t worry, friends allowed me to use their shower- that leaves me with a loss of words, an inability to speak on what was witnessed Sunday. No. It’s a complete sense of astonishment that remains 24 hours later.
My trip to Omaha was a third in less than a year. First was Indiana’s trip to the 2013 College World Series, experiencing the Mecca of college baseball. Second was a trip to Lincoln, that included a run up to Omaha for a Creighton game, breaking away from an Ohio State and Nebraska series as the two met April 11-13.
With both trips in my back pocket I had a sense of what to expect in heading to Omaha, resuming my annual buffet of late-May Big Ten baseball. Yes driving I-74 through Illinois would be relentless, it is still cool Iowa rest areas provide wi-fi. But more importantly, I knew how special of a week it was going to be. Omaha embraces college baseball and Nebraska athletics have a passionate fan base few can rival.
And when it comes to unrivaled, there is myself and a care, joy and knowledge of Big Ten baseball. The 2014 tournament would be the eighth conference postseason I witnessed, fifth as credential media. Taking to the road for the conference’s tournament for the first time since traveling to Ann Arbor in 2008, a lot had changed in the Big Ten.
To start, the Big Ten moved away from awarding the tournament to the conference championship. The decision was made by the conference the same fall I started regularly writing on Ohio State baseball. The two decision came together perfectly, my hometown of Columbus playing host to the tournament in downtown’s Huntington Park, a spectacular venue that put on a first-class event. After a friends and family environment the prior three seasons, unless Ohio State and Michigan squared off to attract 2,000 or so fans, the four-day tournament attracted 12,219 fans, including 4,575 for a meeting between conference champion Ohio State and Illinois.
A taste of what big-time college baseball could be, or what I thought it was, Indiana captured the tournament title, advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996, giving the Big Ten three teams in a regional for the second time in three years.
Though the Big Ten would fall to one-bid status in 2010 and 2011, I knew what the conference could be, experienced first-hand its highs. Relative to the quality of baseball, the Big Ten and SEC none would put the two in the same sentence. The salaries of Big Ten coaches was dwarfed by those in the power conferences and whenever one spoke of a Big Ten program it was in novelty, a good Northern program perhaps, but little more, and certainly not a conference home to palaces such as Alex Box or Dick Howser stadiums.
I refused to believe what was represented in the media, held in the minds of fans south and west was all the conference could and would be. There were coaches invested just as much as any in the country, players playing as hard and the best just as talented as any in the nation, earning places on all-american teams.
When opportunities provided, the nation should see that the conference does care about its baseball programs. The wave of facility enhancements to squash questions on commitment, the run of new hires set to reverse downward trends programs faced. If only there was a driving force to capture the attention of the collective audience of college baseball to see it.
Then there is Nebraska.
The Huskers didn’t exactly win me over with their entrance into the Big Ten. With a belief held that Husker Nation looked down upon the Big Ten, they expected their former Big XII program to waltz in and dominate the Big Ten, I wasn’t too keen on Nebraska. To one day read remarks of head coach Darin Erstad stating the Big Ten needed a change of culture and they hoped to be the catalyst in that, I was waiting for the fall to follow such pride. Nebraska finished fourth in the Big Ten in 2012, behind Purdue, Indiana and Penn State, equally close to the top as eighth. Regardless of prior program success or what conference they came from, Nebraska discovered the brand of baseball isn’t too bad in the Big Ten, a rebuilding program wouldn’t walk straight to the thrown.
But they had every right to believe they could do so.
After a week of full immersion in Husker baseball in its home state I get it.
Baseball, and seemingly every sport at Nebraska isn’t the school’s sport, it’s their sport, a product spurred collective by university and community. By it being their sport, it is their interest that generates a pressbox full of beat writers. With their passion it was a turnout of 81, 044 to the 25 games at Hawks Field, an average of 3,241, 16th in the nation. With their support it is what made Erstad, a 14-year MLB vet to return to his alma mater, the one he was drafted first overall out of in 1995. Their program is operated, managed and supported in a first-class rate, it is their expectation to win conference champions end seasons in Omaha.
For that I thank them.
Beyond the offers for adult beverages as Nebraska piled up win after win with I in attendance, and unfortunately all good things most come to an end, I truly appreciate the passion exhibited through interaction of the Nebraska fans. There is a desire to know what is in the arsenal of an opposing pitcher. There is genuine appreciate of one who spends time on the road after conference games away from Lincoln. There is rally-inspiring angst when a conference network does not televise a game. There is a want for baseball in the Big Ten to be great across the board, and they showed that Sunday.
A big crowd was expected for Sunday. As the tournament progressed each day’s attendance when Nebraska played, steadily climbing from 10,424 to 11,756 to 12,011 on Saturday when Nebraska played at 9 a.m. locally. To steal the words from Erstad, are you kidding me? How does one college baseball team, one community send that many through the turnstiles that early? Day by day topping the prior’s effort, I should have known to not expect something spectacular when Indiana and Nebraska played, a pair of nationally-ranked 40 wins teams.
Even if I removed all expectation, I could not fathom a crowd 35 shy of 20,000. There would be no way to understand how deafening a Go Big Red chant could be reverberating around the ballpark. Never in my dreams, as much as I hoped one day it would come true, could a Big Ten baseball game be the envy of the nation, a standard by way of record set that has never been done.
I thank you.
For all of the efforts put into providing for coverage for baseball in the Big Ten, giving insight and trying to interest, what has been a five-year effort, you helped changed the conversation in one day. It was college baseball at its best and it was in the Big Ten.
Weeks, months, years from now, maybe one day I can find better words to express the sights and sounds, the emotions and sentiment yesterday produce.
But thank you, that’s all I really know how to say right now.