It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. But it was close.
My affection for the Division II College World Series was kindled on a steamy Saturday night a dozen years ago when after an extended rain delay, with the clock having long since passed the stroke of midnight, I witnessed the family of Southern Indiana shortstop/closer Wandy Rosario dancing and singing in the stands as his team closed out an opening round victory.
I was immediately smitten by their enthusiasm and the joy for the game of baseball displayed by the players on the field. My affection for the event has only grown stronger each time it has returned to the USA Baseball National Training Complex.
Full disclosure: The tournament, which has been held in Cary since 2009, is a lucrative endeavor for me.
I began covering teams for their local newspapers when I was between full-time jobs and continue to do so. To date, I’ve written about the D2 World Series for 27 publications in 20 different states, including five this year.
But finances are only part of the reason why it is by far my favorite week of the year.
There’s also the venue, an immaculately manicured field built to major league specifications, surrounded by a cozy grandstand, an outfield wall adorned with the names of the participating schools and plenty of space for kids to retrieve foul balls to be returned to the concession stand for free ice cream sandwiches.
Most of all, though, it’s the intense passion the event seems to bring out in everyone involved — a sentiment exemplified by Rollins University pitching ace Jaylyn Whitehead after throwing his 153-pitch complete game victory against Point Loma last Thursday.
As he walked off the field toward his dugout, the graduate student stopped, turned back and took one final nostalgic glance at the mound, knowing that it was likely the final time he’d get to play the game he loves.
“College baseball has given me a lot more than I’ve ever asked for,” he said. “I think looking back at the mound and everything I’ve done, it was special to finish out that way. (The game has) taught me so much about being a man, about being a baseball player, and it’s taught me so much about the people in my life. It was just kind of a way for me to say thank you and tip my cap.”
Members of the North Greenville University baseball team celebrate their Division 2 national championship (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)Unlike the Division I World Series, which will start this week in Omaha, only a few of the players in the D2 version of the championship will get drafted later this month, and even fewer will ever make it to the majors.
For most, this is the biggest stage on which they will ever play. And the folks at host school Mount Olive, USA Baseball and the Town of Cary treat them — and members of the media like myself — like royalty.
This year’s tournament featured teams from North Greenville, Point Loma, Southern Arkansas, Southern New Hampshire, Angelo State, Rollins, Illinois-Springfield and West Chester, all but three of which were making their first trip to Cary.
The newness of the experience and the excitement exhibited by their players and fans for things we here in the Triangle take for granted — including the realization that you can get a tray at Cook Out, complete with a quesadilla and a corn dog as sides with a large sweet team for only $4.99 — was contagious.
Two of the newcomers, North Greenville and Point Loma, made it all the way to the championship game with NC State transfer Marek Chlup and the top-seeded Crusaders from South Carolina taking home the trophy.
The details of that 5-3 victory will live on for the 3,000 or so family members and friends that made the trip to Cary to tailgate, pack the stands at Coleman Field and celebrate the first national championship of any kind in school history.
For me, though, the lasting memories of another D2 World Series are the old friendships that were renewed and the new ones that were made along with images such as the one that took place in the moments immediately following West Chester’s semifinal loss to North Greenville.
Realizing how despondent batboy Timmy Hoge was over his team’s elimination, senior outfielder Luke Cantwell put aside his own disappointment to comfort the team’s popular spirit leader with a long, emotional hug. He then led Hoge, a young man with Down syndrome, to a group of other players so that they could console him as well.
It was a reminder that there are more important things than the results on a scoreboard, and yet another reason why I consider World Series week at the USA Baseball National Training Complex to be my “happy place.”
I can’t wait to go back again next year.