“How far is it to Omaha?”
That was the question Brian Keegan posed to me during one of his cooking demonstrations at Chief Market on Cable Road.
“Seven hundred miles. Why do you ask?”
“Because I’ve always wanted to go to the Men’s College World Series.”
I began extolling the virtues of the largest city in my home state of Nebraska: food, culture and friendly people to name a few. That was the extent of our conversation several months prior to the CWS in June 2017.
When it comes to sports, I consider myself to be a casual observer, hewing more to the college than professional level. In recent years I, along with members of my family, have traveled to four venues to watch the Nebraska Cornhuskers play the home football team. It’s a great way to cheer on my alma mater and see a new city.
But the College World Series? I gave it some thought — the fact that it was in Omaha put it in the plus column — so sometime after that initial conversation I suggested to Brian that I would be interested in being his personal tour guide for such an adventure. I didn’t want to horn in on his plans, but the nature of our friendship suggested he might like the idea. And he did.
Let the planning begin. Other than procuring tickets well before we headed west, the weeklong adventure was pretty much a make-it-up-as-you-go type of deal. My sister Rita, who lives in Omaha, offered up her comfortable home as a place to bunk and hang out. That saved a chunk of change as commercial lodging would have been at a premium.
Before we left I researched the history of the NCAA Division 1 Championship Baseball College World Series and how it came to find a home in Omaha, aka River City — home to rodeos, Olympic swim trials, a world class zoo, the largest community playhouse in the country and Chip Davis’ Mannheim Steamroller. Not bad for a city in the Midwest which many see as flyover country. I would encourage them to stop by for a visit.
The series was first played in Omaha in 1950. It had its ups and downs early on but the faith and vision of major business leaders in Omaha made it possible for the series to survive. A foundation, College World Series of Omaha, Inc., is the local non-profit that functions as the organizing committee.
The early years of the CWS were played at Rosenblatt Stadium in south Omaha until the event moved in 2011 to the brand spanking new TD Ameritrade Omaha Park in downtown Omaha. It seats 24,000 fans. Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert Manfred Jr., called it “the best non-MLB facility in North America.” Brian and I were equally impressed.
We took in two night games under the roof: Louisville lost to Florida in the first game and in spite of our rooting for my wife Karen’s alma mater, the Cardinals were defeated by TCU in the second game. Maybe the two fans from Ohio jinxed Karen’s team but we sure enjoyed, as the NCAA calls it, The Greatest Show on Dirt.
With thanks to those visionaries one hopes that the sounds of bats and balls colliding in front of a catcher’s mitt and cheering fans will be part of Omaha’s summer scene for years to come.
In between games we wandered the brick streets of the Old Market area, just blocks from the ballpark, poking our heads into a store or two and checked out a gallery exhibit. The area was crawling with baseball fans, identified by their apparel, spending their money in stores and eateries. Brian and I chose to spend our money on food elsewhere in Omaha.
Before we even came close to heading west, Brian said, “I want to eat where the locals eat.” Being a nearly lifelong resident of Omaha, I knew Rita could direct our noses and tastebuds to the right places: no fancy decor, just good food. Breakfast in places like Lisa’s Radial Cafe, Leo’s Diner (voted by Series fans as the best place in Omaha for breakfast) and Joe’s Cafe. A pleasant lunch was had at Amatto’s, chatting with the owner and our choice for a pre-game dinner was the Crescent Moon billed as Omaha’s original ale house. It says so right there on the T-shirts we purchased.
We stopped in, not for the ale, but for a reuben sandwich, a staple on many deli menus. But this reuben would be different, even historic. You see, the Moon has the original recipe for said sandwich which was concocted in 1920 at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha by grocer Reuben Kulakofsky. It ended up on the menu of the Blackstone, which no longer serves as a hotel but still stands across the street from the Crescent Moon. The spirit of old Reuben had to know we enjoyed every bite.
Our final night in Omaha we met Rita and her daughter Aelea on the rooftop of 1912, a restaurant in the Benson area. Fresh air, good company and the hustle and bustle of a summer night in the city.
A fitting end to a wonderful week in Omaha. And it all started with a simple question: “How far is it to Omaha?”
Phil Hugo lives in Lima.