NCAA championships have become a moveable feast, hopping from city to city to the highest bidders.
The college football championship used to rotate among the major bowl games but now pro cities are getting involved. The College Football Playoff championship will be played at brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta in 2018 and Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., in 2019.
The NCAA Men’s Final Four is already booked through 2021 with upcoming dates in San Antonio, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Indianapolis.
But you don’t have to glance at a calendar to know where the NCAA baseball and softball championships will be played in upcoming years.
The College Baseball World Series has been played in Omaha since 1950. The Women’s College World Series has resided in Oklahoma City in every year but one since 1990.
There are no plans to move either the baseball or softball championships to other cities, nor should there be.
Allowing fans from different areas of the country the opportunity to attend major NCAA championships like football and basketball near home is a great way to expand the footprint of both sports.
But it’s also hard to beat tradition, and Omaha and Oklahoma City have cornered that market.
Ask any college baseball player his goal for the season and the answer is always “Omaha.” He doesn’t even have to say the College World Series. Omaha is the universal password.
For any college softball player, Oklahoma City’s ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in the first week of June is the ultimate destination. It’s an annual vacation spot for thousands of young softball players who come dressed in their youth league uniforms with dreams of playing there someday.
It’s fast-paced, intense and fun. Hitting a 72-mph pitch from Oklahoma’s Paige Lowary is like facing a 100-mph Nolan Ryan fastball. It takes a lot of nerve just to stand in the batter’s box.
I’ve had the privilege of covering both events during my tenure at the Tribune-Herald, and they’ve been unforgettable experiences. Watching teams battle for national championships is great but the atmosphere surrounding them takes the games to another level.
After 23 years of covering Baylor baseball, I finally got my first chance to go to Omaha in 2005.
Back then, the World Series was held at Rosenblatt Stadium which had hosted the event since 1950. I’ll never forget the acres of tailgaters outside the stadium, the souvenir tents and vendors. You could tell a lot of people made the World Series an annual pilgrimage regardless of who was playing.
It was like going to the state fair with a college baseball theme.
Baylor played one of the most memorable baseball games I’ve ever seen, rallying from a 7-0 deficit against No. 1 Tulane for an 8-7 win to reach the semifinals. The Bears scored three runs in the seventh, two in the eighth and three more in the ninth to pull off the unlikely comeback.
I thought of Rosenblatt Stadium like Wrigley Field as one of those must-visit ballparks for any baseball fan. But the aging stadium was torn down to make way for $128 million TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha, which has become the new home of the College World Series since 2011.
People rave about the new ballpark and fans are still flocking to the World Series. It starts Saturday and I’ll be watching as many games as I can. But I’d rather be there soaking in the atmosphere and the drama.
Two weeks ago, I covered the Women’s College World Series for the fourth time in the last 11 seasons.
An overachieving Baylor team beat No. 2 Arizona in Tucson to reach Oklahoma City. The Lady Bears were thrilled to be there but went two-and-out as they lost to national champion Oklahoma and a powerful Oregon squad.
Ironically, the 2014 Baylor softball squad pulled off a win over Kentucky that was equal to the stunning comeback the baseball team made against Tulane nine years earlier.
Trailing 7-0, the Lady Bears scored three runs in the sixth and four in the seventh to force extra innings. They scored the winning run in the eighth when Kaitlyn Thumann raced home on Ari Hawkins’ bunt for an 8-7 win to advance to the semifinals.
Both games went deep into the night which left me scrambling to hit my newspaper deadline. I had to totally rewrite my game stories both times but it was worth it to witness history.
It’s not unusual for more than 8,000 fans to pack ASA Hall of Fame Stadium and more than 20,000 to cram into TD Ameritrade Park. They’re the grand stages for softball and baseball, and the good news is they’re not moving anywhere.