June 14, 2008
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OMAHA, Neb. - The Rice baseball team hasn't played a game yet at the 2008 College World Series, but the Owls showed why they are winners.
Less than 24 hours before meeting Fresno State in its opening game of the CWS Sunday afternoon at Rosenblatt Stadium, the Owls spent their Saturday visiting the young patients at Omaha Children's Hospital. The Rice players signed autographs, had their pictures taken with the youngsters and handed out some baseball memorabilia. The team also met and interacted with the young patient's families and hospital staff.
That would have been a busy-enough day for a group faced with the task of playing for another possible National Championship, but the Blue & Gray had even more item on its agenda for the afternoon. At the invitation of a local little league, the Owls also stopped off to catch part of a youth game not too far from the team hotel. Who knows? Their presence at the little league game might have even inspired a player or two to one day be a future star at the College World Series.
The visits happened only a short time-span from each other during the course of the day, but the Owls clearly saw two very different sides of the childhood experience. At the Omaha Children's Hospital, the team was given a special tour in order to lift the spirits of the young patients and their families. At the little league game, cheers erupted from the families and play on three adjacent fields came to a simultaneous halt when the team's official CWS bus pulled up at the facility.
In Omaha, the College World Series is the community event of the year. The entire city is fully behind the event to the point where the Omaha citizens treat all of the visiting teams like celebrities or foreign heads of state. As was the case in both visits, it turned out that the Owls were equally up-lifted by both experiences.
"If we brightened some of their day a little today that is great, because I know they brightened ours," said junior pitcher Bobby Bell about the team's hospital visit. "At first we didn't quite know what to expect going in (to the hospital), but the kids and the families are so genuinely appreciative, that it was special to be here. It makes you think just how fortunate we are to be playing baseball and going to school. We were in different groups on different floors, but we're all comparing how great a feeling we had interacting with the kids."
One member of the hospital staff noticed the impact of the Owls' visit immediately. "Being active is an important part of rehabilitation and the children were more active than usual," an on-duty nurse had commented during the Owls' visit. "The kids were really up and out of their rooms today. They had heard the team was here, and they didn't want to miss them."
"These kids are brave and inspirational," said senior first baseman J.P. Padron. "It was our honor to be here and hang out with them for a little while.Some of the guys were talking about coming back to make another visit while we're still here in Omaha. This was the best part so far."
The Little League game may have been in a far, far, different kind of setting, but there was a similar feel in terms of the good will and good vibes. The Owls are not exactly rain and lightning, but the Blue & Gray is apparently a force of nature big enough to stop a couple of games in progress.
Rice had come to The Memorial Little League of Omaha in order to see, of all things, "the Owls" play one of their games. Where else but Omaha would the local little leagues forgo the traditional use of major league nicknames like Astros, Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox, for names of the perennial College World Series teams like Hurricanes, Tar Heels, Tigers and yes.... Owls.
At an Omaha civic function two years ago when Rice was at the 2006 CWS, some of the little league Owls met and befriended second baseman Jimmy Comerota (then a Rice redshirt freshman) and kept in touch during each of Rice's next two trips in 2007 and now 2008. The kids asked if it would be possible for the "big Owls" to come to one of their games. The little league Owls asked politely and waited patiently (for two years). Lo and behold, look who showed up at the little league complex on Saturday.
"Yes, they were persistent about us coming out," Comerota explained with a laugh. "Hey, kids tell you what's on their mind and that's fine. Their enthusiasm comes from a good place. Every one of us on this team was a little leaguer at one point just like they are. We're not so important or big time that we've forgotten that. It actually turned out to be pretty easy to do and we we're happy we did it."
It's part of the routine in Omaha. The Owls, the "big Owls" that is, took pictures with all the different little league teams, signed autographs and spread some good will.
The 2008 College World Series began on Saturday (June 14). Rice's first game is set for Sunday against Fresno State at 1 pm. The game will be televised live across the nation on ESPN-HD.