Fewer bells, whistles, but Omaha embraces CWS return

The city relishes its role in welcoming back college baseball

NC State players return to the dugout after closing the fourth inning in their game Monday against Vanderbilt at TD Ameritrade Park in the College World Series. Omaha has hosted the NCAA's baseball championship tournament since 1950. (Rebecca S. Gratz / AP Photo)

OMAHA, Neb. — Like most of us, the College World Series was forced to take 2020 off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event was canceled, along with all college spring sports, marking the first time since 1949 that the city of Omaha didn’t host the championship of college baseball.

“This time last year, we were not sure when we’d gather again to watch baseball in downtown Omaha,” said Diane Duren, the chair of the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority (MECA), which plays a major role in the planning involved for Omaha’s hosting of the College World Series each year. “The ballpark sat empty, and summertime in our city felt a little unusual.”

Jack Diesing Jr., the chairman and president of the College World Series of Omaha, felt the absence of the event his father, Jack Sr., helped make famous over the past half-century more than anyone.

“It gave me time to play more golf,” he joked. “It shows you never take anything for granted. Nothing goes on forever. You have to be prepared for all the alternatives.”

This year, however, the event is back, hosting NC State and the other top teams in college baseball.

“The pandemic certainly did throw us a curveball last year,” said Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, “but we’re back in the game! The College World Series has always been a big win for Omaha, and especially this year, as we reopen the great tradition.”

“We couldn’t be happier,” Diesing said. “While not everything is exactly the same as we hope it to be, we’re glad to be at the forefront of getting back to some sense of normalcy.”

Some of the lingering effects of the pandemic are visible at this year’s event. The national anthem for each game is done virtually, with singers appearing on the video board with prerecorded renditions.

The opening and closing ceremonies were canceled, and the city’s CWS Fan Fest, featuring exhibits, autograph sessions and other fun activities for fans around the stadium grounds, is drastically scaled back.

“But tailgating goes on,” Diesing pointed out.

There are also fewer volunteers and staffers working the event, which, for a city that prides itself on its hospitality at the College World Series, could be a problem.

“We are not immune to the labor shortage that is taking place,” Duren said. “But we do have staff that has been here for many years. They’re used to staffing this event, working long hours. Certainly, we would take more people if anyone wants a job.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a beer shortage,” she added.

Indeed, the stadium has been at full capacity, hosting more than 20,000 fans at each game. Fans of teams not even playing that day, and many who didn’t even advance to Omaha, are also packing the parking lots and flying flags of Oregon State, Marshall and even the Chicago Cubs at their tailgate parties.

It’s an odd scene to put up against the safety precautions and canceled events, one that was created by the relatively recent signs of progress against the coronavirus.

“In terms of the Fan Fest, opening ceremonies and even the practice days (which were closed to the public and media for the first time in recent memory), those decisions around planning have to be made quite a bit in advance of the event itself,” said NCAA Director of Championships Anthony Holman. “Not at the point we are today, where we are able to have 100% capacity at the venue. Vaccine levels and infection rates were not where they are today. Most of that was due to timing.”

Despite the missing bells and whistles, the city is embracing its visitors from around the country as it has done for the last seven decades.

“Omaha loves being the host for the CWS,” said Mayor Stothert. “So many people work so hard to make this a great experience. We are ready for the fans and our fans’ favorite teams.”

From fans offering to share their Ubers to the stadium with a stranger to elevator operators reminding guests on their way to the suites to “be sure and go down to the concourse and look at the photos of all the past winners on the walls,” the city’s hospitality is evident to even the surliest visitor.

“The No. 1 word used by College World Series fans to describe Omaha is ‘friendly,’” Stothert said. “What a great reputation to have, and we will work hard to keep that. We are very, very proud to be home to the greatest show on dirt, and this year the show will go on.”