A week and a year ago, I jumped in my car on a Friday afternoon for my dream trip to Austin, Texas for the SXSW EDU Conference and seven college baseball games, three on the way down, one in Austin, and three on the way back. The three on the way back were going to be Cornhusker games at Wichita State. I hadn’t seen them yet in 2020, and I was very excited, as I was very positive about Will Bolt becoming the new head Nebraska baseball coach.
Years back when my kids were small, Will was my daughter’s favorite player. Willie B!
I cannot tell you how many of his autographs she had, and once he was named head coach, I spent a while going back through pictures to find a few she had taken with him. She caught baseball fever watching those Cornhusker teams and finished a good college softball career at Loras College three seasons ago.
Needless to say, I was pumped up for this trip!
I was two hours down the road when my good friend Jon Johnston texted me “SXSW cancelled.” I almost drove off the road and felt this weird, instant rush of disbelief. About three minutes later I pulled over in Traer, Iowa and called Jon. He didn’t answer so I called another good friend I was staying with in Austin, Kirk Funkhouser. Kirk had been out doing some volunteer work and had not heard anything, but then checking with other people he was working with, he said that one of them heard that the entire three-week event had been cancelled.
I needed more confirmation, so I called my wife, who went on the Internet and found that it in fact that SXSW had been cancelled. While I was on the phone I got a notification from SXSW that due to Covid-19, the mayor of Austin had shut it down. Reality about this nasty, deadly virus set in with me at that moment. I turned around and drove home, incredibly disappointed. I drank a lot when I got home.
I realized I still had the NCAA wrestling tournament in Minneapolis coming up in two weeks. Hopefully that would still happen and my March would not be a total bust. Well, we know how that worked out! [Jon - I was so disappointed in missing the chance to shoot the NCAA Wrestling Nationals I went into my bathroom and cried with a towel in my mouth.]
Five days short of a year after I would have driven up Highway 150/52 to U.S. Bank Stadium to cover the NCAA Wrestling Tournament for Corn Nation, I made that drive last Friday to cover Nebraska’s baseball games.
I cannot describe what a great feeling I had behind the wheel, finally making that drive!
The first game that I attended was the 9:00 a.m. tilt against Iowa on Saturday morning. Morning baseball! That was fine with me, having been a club softball coach for a number of years, I was very accustomed to Saturday morning games on the diamond. At least this one was inside, so there was no fog or heavy dew on the grass! At about 7:30 I caught the light rail at the Mall of America and took the half-hour ride to U.S. Bank. The station was right at the stadium so that worked out really slick.
Jon was coming in from his home in Chaska to photograph the game and had arranged for media credentials for me. This was my first foray into being a sports journalist, after having my previous maiden voyage wiped out by coronavirus a year ago. It wasn’t that I was nervous about the whole thing, I just did not know what was going on! It could not have been any easier, and the University of Minnesota and U.S. Bank Stadium staff could not have been more accommodating. Getting into the stadium was very similar to getting through airport security, but once in, it was an incredible feeling being in the press box looking out over a baseball field. Well, a baseball field marked out on top of a football field. It did not matter to me that it was inside, that there was no dirt, and that I could not smell fresh cut grass . . . it was baseball. Live baseball. Baseball featuring my Nebraska Cornhuskers!
No doubt that the whole atmosphere was different. The field was laid out in somewhat of a haphazard manner on the floor of the stadium, and was no where close to being symmetrical. The outfield fence was this jagged wall of purple padding and what looked like the infamous Metrodome garbage bag in right field with a yellow line about forty feet up to indicate the top of the fence. The dugouts appeared to be those metal shipping containers that were dropped down along each baseline with a forklift, the front cut out and replaced with fencing.
It looked like they took some black paint to the numbers and hashmarks on the football field so as not to confuse or distract players, at least in the infield. A red dirt colored pitching mound and home plate area has been laid on top of the field turf, an interesting contrast to the chocolate brown mounds in the bullpens.
The sound system was great, the PA announcer was in midseason form, and baseball was being played!
It has been a very long time since I have sat as high up in a stadium as I was in the press box, and never this high behind home plate. The whole field was right in front of me, and from the first pitch I was almost like that second grader that saw his first big time game years ago, actually in this same city, when my grandparents took me to watch the Twins play the Orioles back in old Metropolitan Stadium. Heck, I got on the train to come downtown in what would have been left field in that old ballpark, now home of the Mall of America. As a kid over 50 years ago, I could not sleep the night before because I was so excited about seeing big leaguers play, including Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Boog Powell, and both Brooks and Frank Robinson.
I still have the program and my scorecard from that game. Sleep was not a problem the two nights I was here, but I was still excited riding the train downtown for the games. I would like to think having seen hundreds of baseball games over my lifetime that I am beyond that child-like wonder, but having not been to a game since the 2019 season, there was a lot of anticipation. Watching on television is not the same.
What made this weekend even better for me is that Nebraska was playing a couple of games against Iowa. I was raised to hate the Hawkeyes, being a Cyclone from birth and a Cornhusker since I went to Nebraska in 1981. On the drive up I listened to Nebraska take Ohio State to the woodshed in their first game and then Saturday morning watching our boys shut out the Hawkeyes was a heck of a way to start the day.
It was a great game, with both starting pitchers tough on the mound, and both teams making plays in the field. It got exciting when freshman Bryce Matthews took one of the easiest swings I have even seen that ended up with the ball going out of the park for a home run. Listening to all of the games last week, these three freshmen — Matthews, Anderson, and Steil — are players. To see them play live reinforced my opinion that there are very good days ahead for Cornhusker baseball, especially if we can catch lightening and uncover a couple of pitchers like Shane Komine and Joba Chamberlain.
It is very obvious that Will Bolt is the right guy for the job. No disrespect to Darin Erstad, but there is an incredible difference in the way this team plays compared to the ones Erstad coached. Erstad is one of my favorite players of all time, and honestly, he was put in an incredibly difficult place when Tom Osborne named him head coach. He was basically helping out the program as a volunteer and then was thrust into a position that I cannot imagine he thought he would be in.
In essence, for his entire career as head coach, he was learning on the job. Will Bolt had head coaching experience at the college level, and was an assistant at one of the top programs in the country before he was named head coach of Nebraska. Being a head coach was something he had planned on for years, and he was ready to take over a D1 program. He is bringing in outstanding players, as is evident by the additions to this year’s team, and along with his assistants, doing a heck of a job coaching them up. There is a sense of confidence that I have not seen for a few years, and you can tell that the players are all pulling on the same rope. There is a purpose, and it is fun to watch them play.
Who knows if the B1G is going to let fans in to watch games this season.
People I have talked to in the press box are doubtful, but hopefully someone can get through those thick heads that make the decisions for the conference. There are ways to make the environment safer and knowing a number of Nebraska baseball fans who have not seen the team play live almost as long as it had been for me, they need to be in Haymarket Park this spring.
2020 was incredibly rough on people, and while we are not through it, people need to be able to get out to watch some baseball.
Yeah, the games on Sunday were not what we wanted. The bats went cold and our boys simply could not put the ball in play. Going 2-2 on the weekend leaves them at 5-3 on the season. But even with that, this Nebraska baseball team needs to be seen.