My buddy Al and I had a blast last week in Cary, NC attending the Division II College World Series (CWS). Held at the USA Baseball Complex, we found it to be just as enjoyable in its own way as the Division I CWS in Omaha, which we attended in 2016. The USA Baseball Complex is beautiful and comfortable, and there was no admission fee—always a plus. The quality of play was excellent and proved to be better than we expected, especially defensively. It was baseball and barbecue all week.
As well as we ate, and as good as the games were, the most memorable moments of the week consisted of getting to know the players’ relatives which was easy to do because the people in the stands pretty much consisted of relatives, girlfriends, and Al and me. The DII World Series is not nearly as well-publicized as the DI extravaganza in Omaha. That ballpark seats some 20,000 fans and is surrounded by a baseball circus with tents full of t-shirts, gloves, bats, souvenirs, and food. In Cary, there was one t-shirt tent, but that was the beauty of it. We weren’t watching some random and anonymous collection of players, we were watching the sons of those fans with whom we were sitting. Their joy became our joy.
There was Chris Sutton’s mom from Southern Arkansas University whose joy when Chris hit a line drive homerun over the left field wall was so great that I had to tell her to stop smiling so hard or her face would be hurting the rest of the day. She got that homer on video, too.
Third baseman Brandon Nicoll’s great-aunt, Sandy, flew in from Vancouver, B.C. to watch him play for Southern Arkansas. She was concerned about his recent slump and when he struck out in his first two plate appearances, her anxiety grew. Still, he settled down in his third at-bat and while it resulted in a fly out to right, he had stopped jumping at the ball. We all agreed that hitting the ball the other way was a good sign and it meant that he was letting the ball travel into the strike zone. Down 7-2 heading into the top of the 9th, Southern Arkansas rallied for a run, and with two out and the bases loaded, who should come up, but Brandon. Because, that’s baseball. The Rollins University pitcher got two quick strikes on him and now we really had to root hard because none of us would have been able to bear Aunt Sandy’s disappointment for her beloved great-nephew. Brandon got back in the count at 2-2 and then lined a ball into right, barely beating the throw to second base for a two-run double. The next batter struck out leaving the final score at Rollins 7—Southern Arkansas 5, but Aunt Sandy had a wonderful moment to take back to Canada with her.
The next day, it was a Rollins dad who was high-fiving Al and me when the Tars, as they are known, hit two, two-run homers in the first inning.
Still, it was the West Chester University Golden Rams who truly adopted us as fellow fans. Having met a WCU family at Danny’s Barbecue the night before, we ran into them again the next day at the game. Moving with the shade and the breeze, Al and I made our way from the University of Southern New Hampshire side of the ballpark to the West Chester side halfway through the game. The Golden Rams immediately scored a run, at which point our new friends informed us that we weren’t leaving. (Baseball fans understand how this mojo works.) After the Golden Rams scored a second run, I think their fans assigned someone to keep an eye on us to make sure that we didn’t wander off. Nevertheless, West Chester trailed 3-2 heading to the top of the 8th and they had already squandered a couple of opportunities to tie the game. Then, some baseball magic occurred in the form of five hit batters, a walk, a wild pitch, one base-hit, and a sacrifice fly that resulted in five runs and ultimately, a 7-3 Golden Rams victory. Naturally, though, there was one more half-inning of drama left when Southern New Hampshire loaded the bases with none out, but two strike outs and fly ball sealed the victory. Al and I were as thrilled as all those purple-clad parents. Well, maybe not quite that thrilled, but we were certainly sharing in the joy—the parents saw to that.
In the end, North Greenville State (SC) defeated Point Loma (CA), 5-3 for the DII Championship, a game that took place as Al was driving back to Florida and I was driving back to Virginia.
For the seniors, this tournament marked the end of their baseball careers. I think this realization hit the parents and grandparents and at least one great-aunt harder than it did the players. As they watched their boys walk of the field for the last time—and all in defeat except for North Greenville—I wondered how many of those parents were taken back to the first tee-ball practice or the Little League All-Star games or just playing catch in the back yard. . . .
To all those fans of the Angelo State Rams, Illinois Springfield Prairie Dogs, North Greenville Crusaders, Point Loma Sea Lions, Rollins Tars, Southern Arkansas Muleriders, Southern New Hampshire Penmen, and the West Chester Golden Rams, thanks for sharing your pride and your joy with us. It was a fantastic week.