On a bluff overlooking miles of green, gently rolling plain, sits Rosenblatt Stadium, home for the last 33 years of the college baseball World Series.
To the north lie the lights of Omaha, a little big town twinkling in the sunset; to the south, rich farmlands and forest stretch to the horizon. This is the fruited plain of which "America the Beautiful" speaks.
On this remote stage, future stars such as Sal Bando, Dave Winfield and Bob Horner--all College World Series MVPs--as well as dozens of other future major leaguers, have shown themselves clear and sharp against the Nebraska night.
Usually, the only non-Midwesterns who've found their way to this feast have been are a box-seat section full of major league scouts. This has been one of baseball's secret places, known to insiders, but a mystery to the public.
Baseball here is different, and in a sense, better, than anywhere else.
Last year, PA man Jack Payne told the record crowd of 15,333: "Let's give the umpires a surprise. Let's give 'em a standing ovation."
And the fans obliged, their cheers bringing two of the umpires to tears.
When this year's miracle team, Maine, hits a homer, the Black Bears form a greeting line of high fives from third base to home plate. "We're not bad," Maine's coach, Dr. John Winkin, says, "for a bunch of snowbirds and potato pickers."
After games, both teams shake hands. When Miami wins, it calls a team meeting in left field. "Heck, we've got no locker room," Coach Ron Fraser says, shrugging.
Little of the ugliness that fouls big-time college football and basketball has gotten here yet. The national champion, for example, gets only $15,000 above expenses for its victory. Not a single Division I school is on probation because of baseball.
Here, finally, is amateur sport with little cheating or twisting of values.
"When I was hired," says Miami's Fraser, "I was told, 'Do the best you can, but don't spend any money.' That's typical of college baseball."
Before one game this week, Coach Cliff Gustafson of Texas had a problem: one of his practice balls was stuck in the top of the batting cage. He wrestled for five minutes until the horsehide was salvaged.
For once, teams actually draw their players from within their state, and coaches have the look of their locale. Texas' leather-skinned Gustafson could have come in from branding cattle; he says dryly of his club's 59-4 record: "We hit a slump in midseason." Maine's Winkin could be an honest-John lobsterman.
The mood here is defiantly old-fashioned. One of the dozens of billboard signs on the fences reads: "Somebody Still Cares About Quality."
"The game's still something you can be proud of," says Dick Bergquist, the NCAA baseball committee chairman who coaches at Massachussetts. "Most of the college baseball coaches aren't drawn to the pros. They enjoy it right where they are."
In the box next to Bergquist's are four elderly women. "They come every year, arrive an hour before the games and keep a box score of every play," he says. "One of them is a Texas fan and she's converted all the rest."
This College World Series drips with human interest.
Take Miami's Mickey Williams. Two years ago, he heard a neighbor scream for help; the man had been robbed, beaten, tied and his house set afire. Williams jumped a fence and saved the man's life. But, he slipped a disk and ended any big-league chances. He has warmed the bench since. Finally, on Thursday, he got to play because of a star's injury; he got a hit and scored the winning run as Miami beat Texas, 2-1. "Been waiting a long time," said Williams. "Now, it's worth it."
Last year, the Omaha beauty queen assigned to the Michigan team married the Wolverine center fielder. This year, the world series' "princess" is having a storybook romance with the Maine shortstop.
"Those Maine guys must not get out of the woods too much," quips Miami's Fraser. "When they came down to play at our place last year, one of their players ended up marrying our ball girl."
History says that, from these eight teams, perhaps three or four players will become national names, another couple of dozen will play pro ball.
So, they play till they drop. Miami shortstop Bill Wrona claims to have two impacted wisdom teeth, tonsillitis and canker sores in his mouth; he's been living on soup, milkshakes and penicillin. Hurricane fans say, "From the neck down, Wrona's perfect." He's lost eight pounds, but he's playing.
Omaha loves all this. As in '81, the 15-game series will probably draw more than 120,000 fans. Some cities buzz about world affairs. Here, talk is about two aluminum bats riding alone in a taxi. You see, Miami's star Sam Sorce left two favorite bats in Florida. The bats were put on a jet, lost for a day in St. Louis, rediscovered and put on another plane, put in a taxi and sent to the park. A Miami coach grabbed the bats just minutes before the game. Naturally, the Hurricanes won, 4-3, as Sorce homered.
In all Omaha's years as host, there has perhaps never been one play that capsulized this event's clean amateur ambiance, its charm and saucy spirit as well as Miami's marvelous "Grand Illusion" this week.
On Sunday, Miami's Fraser put in a farfetched trick play. "We only practiced it twice because everybody was laughing too hard."
But it worked. With Wichita State star Phil Stephenson (86 steals) on first, Miami's pitcher stepped off the rubber and faked a throw to first. As Stephenson dived back, the first baseman dived over him, pretending to leap for a bad throw. A dozen Miami players screamed and pointed, telling their teammate where to retrieve the ball. The Miami bullpen scattered to elude the wild throw.
Stephenson headed for second base, where the pitcher's lob throw had him out by 20 feet.
Wichita State's coach, Gene Stephenson, was livid, possibly because he was the tricked player's older brother. He complained that Miami had broken the rules because their bat girl had been pointing toward the imaginary ball, too. "She was in on the play," said the coach, "and that makes it against the rules."
Said Fraser: "I've always said the bat girl was the key to that play. We always tell our runners, 'Never go for the extra base until you've checked to see what the bat girl does.' "