OMAHA, NE (WVLA) — National Freshman of the Year Alex Bregman stepped onto the field at TD Ameritrade Park on Friday and had one word to best sum up his experience -- “awesome.”
He and the rest of the Tigers got their first look at the three-year-old $128 million exclusive home of the NCAA Men’s College World Series with a practice day, autograph session and opening ceremonies to officially kickoff the 67th year of college baseball’s main event.
LSU head coach Paul Mainieri participated in a press conference earlier in the day with the three other coaches who will play on Sunday. Three seasons removed from a 2009 national championship in historic Rosenblatt Stadium, Mainieri soaked in the sights of the new ballpark, walked through the concourse and greeted the hundreds of LSU fans seeking autographs.
“This is the mecca,” he said. “This is the pinnacle of college baseball to be in Omaha now and to be in this beautiful new ballpark.”
No. 4 national seed LSU (57-9) plays its first ever game in TD Ameritrade Park at 7 p.m. CT Sunday against UCLA (44-17) in a nationally televised game on ESPN2. The Bruins are the only team in the field who experienced the ballpark last season.
Upon arrival on Friday, the Tigers drew a crowd to take a team portrait and individual photos in front of the famed “Road to Omaha” statue. What once was a monument for fans at old Rosenblatt Stadium now stands proudly at the corner of Cuming and North 13th Streets. The statue made its move to the new park in April 2011.
LSU then made its way through the bowels of the stadium, touring the new locker room before meeting with ESPN and NCAA.com reporters at the expansive club level, which features a pavilion with a panoramic view of the stadium.
The ballpark has a Major League like feel to it. Batting cages are just steps away from each dugout, enabling teams to hit in inclement conditions or allowing a pinch hitter to get ready with some swings before he is called upon. The old organ, playing the notes of Lambert Bartak at Rosenblatt, even made its way over to the new venue.
Of the 24,000 seats, none of them feature a bad view. The concourse is twice the size of the old Rosenblatt concourse, and best of all it allows fans a view of the field even when in line for refreshments. Much of the concourse is decorated with classic CWS memorabilia and displays, including one of legendary former LSU coach Skip Bertman.
The Tigers took batting practice for an hour to get a feel for the field’s conditions. It plays similar to Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, though is five feet shorter down the lines at 335 feet. The turf is thick and made of Kentucky Blue Grass.
“This is where you need to be,” said Bregman. “The playing surface is beautiful and it was great to see a lot of LSU fans here. It does play like Hoover – it’s big. This is the kind of grass I play on back home, a little slower, so I have to come get the ball at shortstop.”
LSU drew the most media coverage and autograph seekers of the eight teams on Friday as Omaha’s fan favorite makes a return for the first time in three seasons. Mainieri told reporters he was relieved that this team could experience this event following an unprecedented regular season in the program’s history.
“The great thing about our team this year is it’s just one of those teams that the chemistry is so outstanding,” he said. “It’s been a great group of kids to work with. I’m so thrilled for our seniors that they had the opportunity to get here before their careers ended.”
UCLA head coach John Savage, a former Southern Cal assistant who coached against the Tigers in the 1998 and 2000 College World Series, praised LSU fans for their support in helping grow the game of baseball.
“They have got the best fans in college baseball,” said Savage. “They’ve got the biggest support and one of the most beautiful stadiums in the country. There are no other fans like LSU fans. I’ve been on the other side when Brad Hawpe hit the home run against Mark Prior in Rosenblatt. They (fans) travel anywhere, anytime. It’s a privilege to play against them. It’s great for college baseball that they support their program as well as they do.”
The 2013 College World Series gets underway Saturday when Oregon State and Mississippi State face off in Game 1 at 2 p.m. CT on ESPN2. LSU has one final practice at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Bellevue East High School before taking the field Sunday night.