Omaha stage resonates with current big leaguers
SAN DIEGO -- It's been more than 10 years now, but Huston Street's eyes light up as though the moment took place only yesterday.
It was Game 2 of the Tallahassee Super Regional between his Texas Longhorns and the Florida State Seminoles. The tying run was on second base for FSU with two outs, and a return trip to the College World Series was on the line for Texas. The batter chopped a ground ball back to the mound, and Street -- now the closer for the Padres -- turned to throw to his first baseman and close friend Curtis Thigpen.
"I can remember his face as I'm running toward him," Street said with a heavy air of nostalgia. "We're both smiling. That's the moment. I remember tossing him the ball. I don't even know if he looked at the ball. He caught it, of course, and we hugged. I just remember when I hugged him, he and I both said it to each other: 'We did it. We're going back. We're going to Omaha.'"
This past weekend, eight teams were lucky enough to enjoy that same special moment, and the 67th edition of the College World Series kicks off Saturday, when Mississippi State and Oregon State square off at 3 p.m. ET. It's a sporting event loaded with history, and much of that recent history features current Major Leaguers who shined on college baseball's biggest stage.
The list of All-Stars who played in Omaha includes Miami's Ryan Braun, now with the Brewers; Oregon State's Jacoby Ellsbury, now with the Red Sox; Auburn's Tim Hudson, now with the Braves; Rice's Lance Berkman, now with the Rangers; Long Beach State's Jason Giambi, now with the Indians; and Tennessee's Todd Helton, now with the Rockies.
Also on that list is Street, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2002 event, which the Longhorns won, 12-6, over South Carolina. He also advanced to Omaha in '03 and '04. And when the NCAA released its CWS Legends Team in 2010, Street was listed as one of the five all-time pitchers.
But to Street and to many others, the trips to Omaha were about more than wins and losses. They were about the relationships built with their college teammates.
"That nucleus -- we're all still friends, we're all still bonded," Street said. "You can name all of them. I've played on 10 more teams since then and played with 50 teammates a year. To be able to distinctly remember who played what position and when they got big hits -- that's how much it meant."
There's still plenty of pride among current Major Leaguers in relation to their alma maters. When Street begins to talk about "bleeding orange," current teammate Mark Kotsay playfully shouts across the room, reminding Street that his Cal-State Fullerton squad won the title in 1995.
That year, Kotsay went on to win the tournament's MOP as both an outfielder and a closer, recording the final five outs of the title game against USC. But for Kotsay, like Street, it's the memories of his time spent with his teammates that ring truest.
"The group of guys that I played with in college were phenomenal, outstanding," Kotsay said. "What I miss the most is just the close bond that you get when you spend time together when you're 18, 19, 20, with a group of guys who you set out to accomplish a goal with."
White Sox manager Robin Ventura is a bit of a College World Series legend. After all, it was in Omaha in 1987 where he extended his record hitting streak to 58 games and later helped his Oklahoma State Cowboys advance to the finals. He was also named to the All-Tournament team in 1986 as a freshman.
"It was a great event. I loved going to that place," Ventura recalled. "It's one of those ... hidden gem of tournaments. People talk about Final Fours and bowl games. But if you like baseball, it's a great event to go to."
Hudson agreed with Ventura, noting he'll find time to watch the tournament during his down time over the next couple weeks, saying, "I'm a baseball fan at heart, and that's some great baseball."
In 1997, Hudson led the Auburn Tigers to their fourth -- and most recent -- CWS appearance, going 15-2 with a 2.97 ERA, while pitching in a tough Southeastern Conference.
"Your season's not really ending in too much disappointment when you get to go to Omaha," Hudson said. "Obviously, you'd love to win it, but if you don't win it, there's still a sense of success there for the year. It's cool. Honestly, that was my best baseball experience up until I got to the big leagues."
For Street, the College World Series is one of the purest forms of team baseball on the planet. As much as he loves playing pro ball, he's quick to note that successes and failures in college aren't quite as tied into one's livelihood. The victories are purely about the team and the university.
So where does advancing to Omaha and eventually winning a title rank on Street's list of accomplishments?
"I haven't been to the World Series, but I've been to an All-Star Game," Street said. "It's every bit as exciting as the All-Star Game. The All-Star Game is more of an individual achievement.
"In Omaha, you go as a team, you celebrate as a team, you enjoy it with your team. Those teams, those moments are always special."