It’s the story that never gets old, the season that never goes away. And why should it?
Three days before the 2016 season will begin, Creighton baseball coach Ed Servais sits in his office, looking for the hat.
He finds it, at the bottom of a stack of baseball hats. It’s dark navy, almost black, with the Cincinnati Reds “C” on the front. It’s the logo of another era, a standard, a memory.
The 1991 Creighton baseball hat.
Servais got it from his nephew, Scott, who played for CU from 1986-88 and now manages the Seattle Mariners. Because of Scott, Ed got to know former CU coach Jim Hendry, who invited Ed to see the Jays’ first game in the 1991 College World Series.
“That was my first Creighton game, against Clemson,” Servais said. “The crowd got into it like no other. It was a hot, miserable day. There was a tornado watch after the game. Just a wild day.”
It’s the start of a new season, but all signs eventually point back to 1991 around the CU complex. Especially this spring.
This is the 25th anniversary of that team, the first men on the moon. It will be a season of tributes. A throwback jersey. A team reunion during the April 16 Butler game. They moved the Creighton athletic hall of fame dinner to that night, so the team could be inducted together.
Of course, the ultimate tribute would be if Creighton could ...
That was the legacy of that 1991 team. But things happened. Hendry left. The school built a stadium for soccer, not baseball. Nebraska went to the CWS. CU still made occasional NCAA regionals, but then came the move to the Big East.
Now, the road back to Omaha looks longer than ever for the home team.
Servais has a good team this year, maybe really good. There’s experience and pitching and depth. What the Jays don’t have is a schedule with a lot of RPI-building games.
Even as they begin the season on Friday at Fresno State, you can make the case that the Jays will have to win the Big East tournament — three months from now — to make the regionals.
In some ways, things come full circle. Servais stands on the CU practice field selling a dream — the same place Hendry stood years ago selling his vision.
The challenges, well, are 25 years apart.
“I came here to visit Scott when he was a freshman and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these facilities aren’t what I expected,’ ” Servais said.
“Scott took me into where they had their hitting workouts, in a small room, not well lit. You didn’t know if you wanted to stand too close to the netting because it had a lot of holes in it.”
Now, Servais must contend with playing in TD Ameritrade Park, new remodeled locker rooms at the CU complex, the beautiful Rasmussen indoor complex and those darned apparel deals. Life is rough.
“As much as I love what’s happening here with the facilities,” Servais said, “I think we’ve lost a little bit of that edge.
“Creighton baseball was always known as a scrappy, hungry team, with a chip on their shoulder, trying to prove they belonged on the field with some of these big-name programs you hear more about. All of a sudden came the nice facilities, apparel deals we got with Rawlings and Nike. I want everything these players can get. But at the same time, I don’t want to lose that chip. I want us to play at the level when I first got the job. We were kind of ornery, a little nasty at times, played hard. I’d like to get back to that.
“It’s probably the biggest challenge I have.”
Unless, of course, that would be the cellphone. Servais says there are some meals on the road where eight players sit at a table “with their heads down” — on their phones.
Is it possible to text “I got it” in the outfield?
Another big challenge Servais has continues to be Big East baseball, which was ranked 18th among conferences last season. The highest RPI for a Big East team? St. John’s, checking in at 61. CU was second, at 69.
The good news for Midwest baseball fans is college baseball has improved in the Big Ten and Missouri Valley. The bad news is, Servais competes with those schools (and the Big 12) for players but must sell them on playing in a league with seven teams — four on the East Coast.
Servais is constantly selling the positive spin. He says the Big East has opened new recruiting doors for him on the East Coast. And he says an at-large bid is not as long a shot as you think.
“I think we’re getting closer,” Servais said. “We were in the low 40s (RPI) going into the last few weeks last year. We lost to Arkansas, Nebraska and Nevada. That’s probably a 10-15 point (RPI) swing. You win those, and you’re probably in.
“We don’t make excuses. Look at Stony Brook. They got (to the CWS). We played them last year and it was a good eye-opener for our guys. We sat in the hotel for two days and watched the snow melt, then we got out on Sunday and played in about 30 degrees. They have a new appreciation for Stony Brook getting here, with more weather issues and certainly not the facilities.”
But here’s what playing in 2016 gets you: a chance to host an NCAA regional. The NCAA would put one in TD Ameritrade Park if the home team — ahem — can have the kind of season to put it there.
Since TD Ameritrade opened in 2011, CU hasn’t ever bid on a regional — bids are due in midseason — because it hasn’t been good enough to think about doing it.
Could that change this year?
“All those years, Creighton had teams but never had a chance to host a regional,” Servais said. “Now we have the facility. And I think it’s our responsibility to put together a team that has the ability to host. That would move our program forward.”
Now that would be a tribute.
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