Around the Cage: College memories
Campus days hold special place in hearts of players
Major League players can have all the fame, money, hype and success they want, but the memories of playing in college never leave them. It was perhaps the last time baseball was just a game for them, when teammates were tightly bonded and contracts weren't a factor.
Just ask Giants outfielder Aaron Rowand, who has a tattoo representing his treasured days of playing for Cal State Fullerton (1996-98) on his ankle.
Rowand is one of many big leaguers who will look for time away from their busy schedules these next couple of weeks to try to tune in to the College World Series, which kicks off from Omaha, Neb., on Saturday, as Arkansas, Cal State Fullerton, Virginia, Louisiana State, Arizona State, North Carolina, Southern Mississippi and Texas all look to hoist the national championship trophy.
"I'll watch all the games that I can," Rowand said. "I always have since I left."
He's not alone.
In fact, there are several who never seem to let go of their collegiate days, no matter how far removed from them they are.
That's because, for many, arriving in Omaha gave them the experience of playing on a big stage for the first time and prepared them for the big leagues like nothing else -- perhaps not even the Minor Leagues -- can.
"What I remember most is going on the field the first time," said Astros first baseman Lance Berkman, who led Rice to its first College World Series in '97. "We had the Friday night game against LSU, and there were 25,000 people in the stands. The most I'd ever played in front of was 5,000-6,000. I remember walking out there thinking, 'My goodness, there are a lot of people here.'"
In terms of nationwide popularity, college baseball has paled in comparison to NCAA basketball and football in the past.
But not in Omaha.
"As far as college baseball goes, it was as good as it gets," said Marlins left-hander Andrew Miller, who was part of the UNC team that reached the championship game in 2006 but lost to Oregon State.
"The popularity, it's gaining more. The people out there know a lot about college baseball. You don't find that in too many places. College baseball is just not the greatest in popularity. There are very few places, maybe LSU or Ole Miss, some places in the SEC, you had some crowds. But it was just a lot of fun for us that year."
Here's what more of Miller's baseball colleagues had to say Around the Cage:
They Said It ...
Willie Bloomquist, INF/OF, Royals (Arizona State): "That's what you play for. That's the whole season. That's why you strap it on, that's why you go through all the conditioning in the offseason that's why you do all those things -- so you can get a chance to play for all the marbles. In a sense, it's kind of like what we do. You go through all the offseason work in hopes that you get to the playoffs, and you get a chance to play for the World Series."
Rick Horton, broadcaster, Cardinals (Virginia): "On the performance side, there was a game where I had 10-plus strikeouts against N.C .State at Virginia. And it was one of those days where everything was right, and there were some scouts there, so I would say that's one of the great memories. But when I think back to college, the memories, so much of them are just about having fun."
Mark Reynolds, 3B, Diamondbacks (Virginia): "It was hosting the Regionals in 2004 [that was the best memory]. It was the first time in school history and the first time in Virginia. Nobody expected us to do anything that year, and we ended up hosting, so that was cool. We lost to [Vanderbilt] in the championship. It was a stepping stone for us getting to Omaha."
Ricky Romero, LHP, Blue Jays (Cal State Fullerton): "We always had great coaches, and the guys that they brought in were awesome guys -- a lot of blue-collar-type guys, a lot of guys that were willing to sacrifice and do anything for the team. We were never a big type of school that would recruit big-time, high-name players."
Kurt Suzuki, C, Athletics (Cal State Fullerton): "It's an amazing environment. They make you feel like you're playing in the most important games in the world. ... We had such a close team, and we were kind of the underdogs. We were only playing about .500 ball before conference play, but we got hot right when we needed to, and we stayed hot all the way through the tournament."
Chase Headley, OF, Padres (Tennessee): "I would say winning the Super Regional and knowing you were going to Omaha was the biggest thing. That's everyone's goal at the beginning of the year. Then, to realize that's where you're going is really exciting. The atmosphere there is tremendous. There's so much stuff going on --concerts, so much stuff going on. It was just a blast. Playing in front of 30,000 people for the first time was great."
Aaron Rowand, OF, Giants (Cal State Fullerton): "I have a lot of memories from [college]. Playing in the Regionals, more than anything, the guys that I got to play with there. [Coaches] George Horton and Rick Vanderhook were very inspirational. Those two people are probably the biggest reason I'm standing here right now. I think if you [asked] any guy that played here, they would tell you the same thing. It's almost like a father-figure-type thing. They have given me so much knowledge about the game."
Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals (Virginia): "College baseball was a lot of fun. It's a totally different animal from pro ball. I think it's that last level where you're obviously not playing for money. It's just more of guys hanging out -- you hang out off the field more than you do here. I guess [the favorite memory is] that first year that we hosted Regionals my sophomore year, and I think that's the first time the program had ever done that."
J.P. Howell, LHP, Rays (Texas): "I think [the College World Series is] a great event. I think it just raises the expectations for the young players. They don't get that much exposure. With 36,000 fans in Omaha -- the most we were used to playing in front of was 15,000 or 12,000 -- that 36,000 is a good prepping for guys that want to move on to the next level."
Don Wakamatsu, manager, Mariners (Arizona State): "I guess the aura and the facility [in Omaha] are special. It's so much different than going there to watch a Triple-A game. The way the town embraces it, the amount of fans that go to the World Series. I don't know about the final, but all of the best baseball teams in the country go there for that week and, to me, it was exciting, and that's where you wanted to be."
Nick Stavinoha, OF, Cardinals (LSU): "I was pretty fortunate in my college career. I went to Grand Junction and went to the JUCO World Series two years. We finished second and third there. And then my LSU junior year, we went to the World Series. I don't know if I can pick out just one. Being able to make the World Series in college baseball, it's so competitive now. Before I went to LSU, in the '90s, LSU was a complete powerhouse. They won so many titles. But I don't know that I could pick one out, because when I got there, it was a little bit more even."
Eric Hinske, INF/OF, Pirates (University of Arkansas): "I don't think there's just one [memory]. Probably my first at-bat. I hit a home run my first at-bat, I remember that, when I was a freshman. But just playing in the [Southeastern Conference] was great."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.