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June 18, 2011
Steve Phillips, Assistant Director of Communications for the Atlantic Coast Conference, takes you Beyond the ACCtion in Omaha for the 2011 College World Series. Check theACC.com daily for more entries.
OMAHA, Neb. - North Carolina's baseball team is spending the latter part of June in Omaha for the fifth time in sixth years. But the Tar Heels, who open play in the 65th College World Series against Vanderbilt this afternoon, can't really say they're in familiar surroundings.
"History Happens Here," reads the sign in the right field bullpen at the new TD Ameritrade Park. And UNC starter Patrick Johnson will make a bit of it happen today when he throws the first pitch of a CWS game at the stadium
Rosenblatt Stadium, which had been synonymous with this event since 1950, sits empty on the outskirts of town. But if the Tar Heels held any sentimental attachment to the old ballpark, the excitement of playing at the new venue kicked in when they arrived for practice on Friday morning.
"(NCAA official) Damani Leech said that North Carolina came into the clubhouse," reported Dennis Poppe, the NCAA Vice-President of Division I Baseball and Football. "And you always know when a young man is impressed because they pulled out their cell phones and started taking pictures of the clubhouse, and so forth.
"It's hard to impress a young man like that, so when we can do that, that's pretty cool."
UNC head coach Mike Fox echoed those sentiments. With a current seating capacity of 24,500, TD Ameritrade can accommodate only slightly more fans than Rosenblatt. But the stadium has a big-league feel, enhanced by its downtown location and completed by club seating, suites, fenced-in outfield bullpens, and a giant video board.
"I think our players, when they all saw it for the first time ... it is different, certainly," Fox said. "Pictures of this place sure don't do it justice. Just walking around the inside, you can tell there is a great deal of thought and detail put into this stadium. I can't imagine being a college player and getting to play in a stadium like this on this stage."
The strong first impressions continued into Friday evening's Opening Ceremonies, as North Carolina, Virginia and the six other teams participating in this World Series were introduced to a near-capacity crowd, accompanied by flame-shooters, fireworks and other assorted pyrotechnics.
Paratroopers touched down in center field, Hall of Famer Dave Winfield spoke briefly and Martina McBride closed the show with a soothing rendition of "God Bless America" before a more elaborate fireworks display brought an end to the day.
But for all the newness and accompanying hype, two things remain unchanged: This is still the College World Series, and it is still played in Omaha, Nebraska. That is something that will remains special, unique and cloaked in tradition, regardless of a ballpark's age or location.
"The neatest thing about Omaha is we stay in touch with a lot of these people," Fox said. "Our host, our bus driver ... we hear from a lot of them over the course of the year. We've actually had several of them visit Chapel Hill. They've just had family there and come by, and I think that's one of the neatest parts about this place ... you really can make friends here for life. I saw a lot of them today.
"More than anything else, they cheer for good baseball, and that's another neat thing about playing here."
WALTER, JORDAN TO BE HONORED
With third-seeded UNC facing sixth-seeded Vanderbilt on Saturday, followed by top-seeded Virginia's opening game against California on Sunday, Atlantic Coast Conference teams occupy center stage in both CWS afternoon games this weekend. But Wake Forest will also grab a bit of the spotlight Saturday evening, when the NCAA will recognize Demon Deacon coach Tom Walter's ultimate act of unselfishness.
Walter and freshman outfielder Kevin Jordan will be honored during the fifth inning of tonight's game between second-seeded Florida and seventh-seeded Texas A&M. Walter donated a kidney to Jordan last Feb. 7, after Jordan had been diagnosed with ANCA Vasculitis - a type of autoimmune swelling caused by auto antibodies. The disease was affecting Jordan's kidney function and forced him to undergo daily dialysis treatments.
Both men were released from the hospital on Feb. 10. Remarkably, Walter was able to make the road trip to LSU to coach his team on Feb. 18. Jordan continues to make solid progress in his recovery and is hopeful of returning for the 2012 season.
Jordan won't be in attendance tonight, but Walter will take the field and be recognized. Walter's Saturday plans also call for him to join Rich Marazzi, Bill Pucci and Joe McCoy as a guest on their radio show, Inside Yankee Baseball." The show will be broadcast on ESPN Radio 1300.