The Oregon State baseball team is headed to Omaha for the College World Series for the fourth time in nine seasons. That's a remarkable accomplishment for a school in the cold, rainy Pacific Northwest.
The Beavers will open this year's CWS against Mississippi State in the first game Saturday.
The last time Mississippi State played at the CWS was in 2007, the year Oregon State completed its amazing feat of back-to-back national championships. The Beavers defeated North Carolina (which is also in this year's CWS field) for the title in 2006 and '07.
Until you spend a winter and spring in Oregon and watch some youth league, high school and college baseball, it's hard to comprehend what an achievement Oregon State's rise in NCAA Division I baseball says about the program in Corvallis, Ore. There is a reason people up here say summer starts on July 5. The rainy season starts while Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations are the color schemes in stores, and it often doesn't end until deep into what people in the South call "summer." Sometimes a full week goes by without high school teams being able to play games, and it's an accomplishment in itself to play something close to a full schedule.
There are teams with synthetic playing surfaces, and that helps. Such is the case at Oregon State. But that doesn't solve the problem of wet baseballs, slippery bats and soaked outfields.
When Oregon State played in Omaha in 2005, it was the first CWS appearance by the Beavers since 1952. Standing near home plate during batting practice a day or two before the Series, I spoke briefly with Harold Reynolds, a Corvallis native and former major league ballplayer. He didn't play at Oregon State, but having lived near the school he could appreciate the odds overcome by the Beavers to reach the final eight in Division I.
A few years ago, I again spoke with Reynolds, this time for a story about three pitchers from McMinnville (not far from Corvallis) who were in minor league baseball. All three had pitched at Oregon State. One, Joe Paterson, was on the verge of making his major league debut with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Reynolds said some surprising things during the interview about players from cold, rainy parts of the country. He said it's actually an advantage in some ways, because you're forced indoors quite a bit -- and forced to work more on the fundamentals than simply playing games every day. He said some players from sunny parts of the country don't spend as much time on the fundamentals because they're playing games all the time.
It was an interesting take, and one I ran past Scott Brosius, the head coach at Linfield College. Brosius, a former All-Star and World Series MVP with the New York Yankees, agreed with Reynolds about how living in the Pacific Northwest can help rather than hinder a player's development. Brosius also grew up in Oregon and made it to the big leagues, and wouldn't you know it? His Linfield College team won the NCAA Division III national championship a few weeks ago.
I saw Oregon State's first College World Series game in 2005 while in Omaha covering the Tulane baseball team's appearance there. The Green Wave defeated the Beavers before eventually losing to Texas and Baylor. I watched Oregon State practice on synthetic turf on a really hot day in Omaha, but I really couldn't understand where the Beavers were coming from. Having lived in the Pacific Northwest for almost three years now, I can see it so much better in hindsight. The natives see it even better than I do. Sure, there are some advantages to their situation, as Reynolds and Brosius pointed out, but there's no denying the odds are against a program in the North or Pacific Northwest winning the Division I college baseball championship.
A look at past winners of the College World Series clearly shows that.
Just look at the champions from the past 15 years: Arizona, South Carolina (back-to-back), LSU, Fresno State, Oregon State (back-to-back), Texas, Cal State Fullerton, Rice, Texas, Miami, LSU, Miami and USC.
Then, check the list of all-time winners and see how few champions there are from outside the South, Southwest or southern California. Not many.
Oregon State's success in the past nine seasons is one of the best stories in college sports, and if you don't believe me, come and visit in March and April one year and catch as many baseball games as you can. You'll see what I mean.
But bring your wet-weather gear, and something dry to sit on.