The Marlboro Man used to hang out in right field. The scoreboard was sponsored by a beer company. The outfield wall was metal.
One game, during Denny Poppe's first year at the CWS, an outfielder from Cal State Fullerton ran smack into that wall. Knocked himself out.
Poppe ran out to left field to help attend to the young man. An ambulance was called.
Then, someone called for Poppe to come to the seats behind one of the dugouts. Someone passed out and landed on top of the pregnant wife of the Clemson coach. They thought she might go into labor.
All was well. But then came another call. Denny, please report to the restroom in the concourse. There's an illegal craps game going on.
The Marlboro Man and the craps game (presumably) are gone from the College World Series. But Poppe remains, for at least two more games, its caretaker and best friend.
For that, we should thank the man.
Since he took over the CWS in 1987, Poppe has served five NCAA executive directors — the only five the organization has ever had. In the meantime, college sports changed. Or, lost its mind.
The NCAA Final Four went from small arenas to domes to gargantuan NFL spaceships. Conference realignment hit like a tornado. The Ed O'Bannon suit threatens to open the bank vault for student-athletes.
And college football and basketball games start at all hours of the day and night, and sometimes on an aircraft carrier.
By comparison, the CWS has changed little. Of course, that would depend on your opinion and level of emotion concerning old ballparks, tickets and licensing.
The big thing is what hasn't changed. And that's Omaha.
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The former Missouri Tiger safety had a lot to do with that.
I visited with Poppe on a lazy Saturday off day at the CWS in the lobby of the Hilton by TD Ameritrade Park. He was not in the mood to take credit for anything. But he was in the mood to reflect.
“I'm proud that overall the College World Series is still in Omaha,” Poppe said. “The main reason for that is, the new stadium, the venue, the amenities that kids have.
“We have a new building, a new house, but we have the same family.”
And that's what I mean when I say the CWS hasn't changed drastically. Not really. There's no more Marlboro Man or Dingerville or Rosenblatt. But the basic fiber of the CWS is there. It's a friendliness. It's a vibe of hospitality. It's about the corny stuff.
Look around the world of NCAA events and tell me where that exists. The CWS has gone corporate in some ways. But compared to the outside world, it's lived in a bubble.
Poppe is a big reason that vibe has survived. While the NCAA has spent the past 25 years trying to run the once-charming Final Four into a corporate Super Bowl, it never tried to do the same with the CWS.
College baseball isn't college hoops. But I can't help but think — know — that if anyone else but the Midwestern kid had been in charge of this baby, things could be different. Much different.
What if a New York or West Coast native had been in charge all this time? Maybe the vision would have been to take this show on the road, like the Final Four, see what you can get.
The head honchos of the NCAA always had bigger fish to fry than Omaha. They would rely on Poppe's expertise, his word. His word always was, leave it alone, it's what it should be, where it should be.
“Midwesterners, we're kind of people of simple needs,” Poppe said. “We don't have to have a lot of flash or glitz. A day at the park is great. Sitting with family is great. It's a different lifestyle. And that's what Omaha is, a shining example of what that is.”
Poppe was never told to bid out the CWS. But he mentioned that at times it came up. There were discussions within the NCAA.
Sometimes, it was during an impasse in negotiations with CWS Inc. But Poppe's relationship with Jack Diesing Jr. always came to the rescue. The old friends knew how to settle things like grown men. That friendship was the best friend this event ever had.
But what if Omaha had said no new stadium?
“Thank God it never came to that,” Poppe said. “I think that would have been a crossroads.
“We were landlocked in so many ways. We knew the future of the event was not going to be contained within the walls of Rosenblatt. And I was worried with the amenities for the players and teams, there wasn't going to be much we could do there.”
Poppe on other topics:
His successor, Damani Leech: “He will be a great leader. He gets what this is about. When he's speaking to a group, they all look to see who is speaking. He has a great command.”
On whether Leech was the one who suggested looking at building a new stadium: “We were having a discussion and he said, 'Why don't we look at a new stadium?' You know, not a bad idea. It just wasn't going the way we wanted with renovations. To me, that's what we need, some innovative thinking.”
On the home run issue: “It's always been an issue. When we had a 21-14 game (1998), it was a softball game, not baseball. I'm not saying we should or shouldn't look at (change). We've only been in the stadium three years. You need to let things level out before you make any drastic change.”
The NCAA has never been under more fire publicly. Should Omaha be glad we have a 24-year contract left?
“Will there be an NCAA? I firmly believe there will be. When the University of Nebraska wants to play another school in football, they'll want someone to officiate the game, create rules, run the game. There is a need for an organization like this. There were 37 people on staff when I joined the NCAA. Now there are over 500. There might be more in the future, might be less. With regard to Omaha, I don't see anything changing. We have a strong partnership.”
Will you come back to the CWS?
“I will be back. I don't know where I'm going to sit. Damani said he'd save me a space in the GA line.”