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MLB set to connect with 'legendary' Omaha

Royals, Tigers will play at site of College World Series on Thursday
@castrovince
June 10, 2019

It is more than merely “somewhere in middle America,” as Adam Duritz of Counting Crows once sang. It is more than just a former audible call by Peyton Manning. In the baseball world, Omaha, Neb., is a distinctive destination. And for college players, in particular, it is the physical representation

It is more than merely “somewhere in middle America,” as Adam Duritz of Counting Crows once sang. It is more than just a former audible call by Peyton Manning.

In the baseball world, Omaha, Neb., is a distinctive destination. And for college players, in particular, it is the physical representation of their athletic ambition.

So, when Major League Baseball began its efforts to unify the baseball universe by taking the game to places it had never previously been, Omaha carried obvious attraction. That’s why, on Thursday, we’ll have MLB in Omaha presented by Geico -- a regular-season game between the Royals and Tigers at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, home of the College World Series. The game will be televised nationally by ESPN at 8:05 p.m. ET.

“It’s tying the amateur experience to the professional game,” said Chris Marinak, MLB’s executive vice president of strategy, technology and innovation. “Omaha is a connecting vehicle. It’s legendary.”

There are many other settings for neutral-site championship games in the major college and professional sports. But none carry quite the constancy of the College World Series and its association with Omaha.

Though the words might appear apocryphal now, the College World Series was played in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1947 and '48 and in Wichita, Kan., in 1949. When the event moved to Omaha in 1950, there wasn’t much reason to believe the Nebraska city -- which, for the record, is the birthplace of Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Wade Boggs -- would be much more than another stop on the line.

But the people of Omaha turned out in droves for that 1950 College World Series, some local leaders invested their money and energy into keeping it in town and, nearly 70 years later, here we are.

“It’s really a great city,” said Royals third-base coach Mike Jirschele, who spent 14 years in Omaha as the manager of Kansas City's Triple-A club. “It’s a very Midwestern city, which appealed to me, because the people are very down to earth. And they’re good baseball fans.”

MLB had already brought its product to an iconic amateur setting with the 2017 launch of the MLB Little League Classic presented by Geico, a now annual event in which two Major League clubs play a game at Historic Bowman Field, just up the road from the Little League World Series site in Williamsport, Pa. That game has become a touching reminder of how big league dreams are birthed at the youth level, and how the inner child never really leaves even the most successful Major League player.

The connection between the collegiate game and the professional one is also distinct. In last week’s Draft, for example, 22 of the 32 players selected in the first round were chosen from college -- the most ever for an opening round.

Those college players all have a goal of reaching the bigs, but their more pressing intent was to be on one of the eight participating teams that advanced to the final stage of the College World Series, which for decades was held at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium before moving to TD Ameritrade Park Omaha in 2011.

“In terms of the pinnacles of your career as a baseball player, getting to Omaha is one of the top couple on the list, outside of making it to the big leagues and playing in the World Series,” said Marinak, who played college ball at the University of Virginia. “Those are the handful of achievements you have in your head. We’re trying to bring together the professional and amateur game and celebrate the sport. It’s not about what the team is or what the league is; it’s about the game.”

When MLB decided to bring a game to Omaha, it was a no-brainer to ask the Royals to participate. The relationship between the Royals and their Triple-A affiliate in Omaha, which dates back to the franchise’s 1969 inception, is the longest in the sport.

The answer was not an optimistic, “Let us get back to you.” It was an immediate, 'Yes.'

“We were all for it,” said Kevin Uhlich, the Royals' senior vice president of business operations. “We were pretty pumped, and we’re excited for this game.”

It will be a home game for the Royals and the conclusion of a three-game set against their American League Central rivals that begins Tuesday in Kansas City. Among Royals players, the game will have particular meaning for Alex Gordon, a native of Lincoln, Neb.; Whit Merrifield, who hit the game-winning RBI single to give South Carolina the 2010 College World Series championship; and Nicky Lopez, whose Creighton Bluejays play their home games at TD Ameritrade Park.

But the game will also be significant for the members of the current College World Series participants, all of whom will be invited to scope out pregame batting practice and interact with the Major Leaguers.

“They’ll get to share that Omaha experience,” Marinak said. “It will be a special thing.”

Whether this is a one-time thing or a tradition in the making remains to be seen. But Omaha is a natural fit for a league expanding its reach by connecting itself to the sport’s other institutions. Omaha is the ultimate destination for college players, and that made it a perfect destination for MLB.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.