By Patrick Cooley
I took a trip recently. And while it wasn’t your typical trip, I’m sure many of you made a similar journey. I found myself taking a stroll down “memory lane,” a frequented corridor which just happened to take me to the corner of 13th and Bert Murphy Avenue, a.k.a. Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium. My trip took me back to the summer of 1996, when yours truly was a 9-year-old with high hopes of rounding up plenty of autographs and maybe a wristband or two at Autograph Day at the College World Series.
While I did not know any of the players myself, I had been briefed beforehand by my older brothers as to which autographs were most important to get. To say my brothers and I were sports fans would be like saying Zesto’s ice cream is just “OK.”
For instance, my oldest brother has always had the strange gift of being able to memorize the stat lines of obscure baseball players from the 1980s and 1990s without looking at the back of the player’s baseball card, while my other brother spent his childhood collecting every Sports Illustrated magazine from 1993-2003 and sending numerous letters to famous athletes shamelessly asking for their signatures (did I mention he cried when Bo Jackson was traded from the Royals?).
Needless to say, I come from a sports family and was well prepared for Autograph Day. That day I received many autographs and saw many players; David Eckstein, Joey Cora, Pat Burrell and even LSU’s Chad Cooley, who my brothers and I all would have liked to claim as a cousin. While these names filled me with excitement, it is the autograph of an obscure 9-hole hitter from LSU named Warren Morris which now overshadows the pennings of these future major leaguers.
Morris was a pre-med student on a full-ride academic scholarship. He had battled a wrist injury all season keeping him out of 39 games. He was an unlikely candidate for late-game heroics, especially given Miami’s All-American reliever Robbie Morrison. It was fitting though that this inspirational leader who had battled through so much adversity would come to the plate with 2 outs in the bottom of the ninth inning with a runner on third and his team trailing 7-6 in the 1996 Championship game.
The tension was high and Morris wasted no time belting a first pitch curveball over the right field bleachers, forever immortalizing himself in the hearts of the crowd. It was so improbable that, prior to the blast as Morris walked to the plate, someone from the Tiger dugout exclaimed, “Warren hasn’t hit a homerun all season.”
In fact only a week earlier he had difficulties even swinging a bat. Even Morris exclaimed that it had been so long since his last home run that he had forgotten what it felt like. It was the best finish in CWS history and one few will ever forget. It is memories like these that I cherish as I say goodbye to Rosenblatt.
Our six-decade “summer home” was laid to rest last week with the South Carolina Gamecocks winning in dramatic fashion over the UCLA Bruins. It was the first ever national championship for the Gamecocks in any male sport, but the moment was so much bigger than just one team.
While the fans appeared to be present in their seats for the postgame celebration, I imagine each was taking their own “stroll.” The College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium was more than just baseball, it was an experience. It was ice cream and burgers at Zesto’s, exploring the tents and beer gardens along 13th Street, beach balls, tailgating in Dingerville, the Opening Ceremonies, finding $10 parking in the neighborhood alleys, and over-crowded concourses.
It wasn’t extravagant, but it was home. Rosenblatt has been good to us over the years and we all have memories that we will never forget.
It will be strange watching the series in the new north downtown stadium, because the College World Series and Rosenblatt Stadium have been synonymous for so long. While it may seem to outsiders that we are getting an upgrade (bigger concourses, bigger parking lot, new shiny seats) if we had it our way we would never leave South Omaha.
Though it will take time, we will come to love our new stadium. New memories will be formed and before long TD Ameritrade Park will feel like home. The experience will undoubtedly be new, but as long as players like Warren Morris keep coming and the new Zesto’s doesn’t lose their ice cream recipe, the next six decades of the College World Series will be as memorable as the first six.