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|| News Item: Posted 2012-08-02

Beach balls, baseball and the College World Series
By Francis Gardler

Photo by FRANCIS GARDLER / Lincoln Journal Star

Photo by FRANCIS GARDLER / Lincoln Journal Star

UCLA center fielder Beau Amaral (25) leaps onto the outfield wall to return an errant beach ball to a fan prior to the bottom of the second inning against Florida State at the NCAA College World Series on Tuesday, June 19, 2012, at TD Ameritrade Park.
In the middle of the fourth inning, during a tight encounter between South Carolina, the defending national championship and Arizona, who had a one-game edge in the best-of-three championship finals, the balls descended from the general admission bleachers and onto the field. Not baseballs, mind you, rather dozens and dozens of beach balls.

That’s right, beach balls! Welcome to the NCAA Men’s Baseball College World Series!

Those who inhabit the general admission bleachers set the tone for the spirit of the crowd. The 5,550 seats of the outfield bleachers attract those who might like baseball, but they truly love a good time.

Arriving for the first-come, first-served seats, the patrons who scamper up the steps of TD Ameritrade Park for those choice seats often look like refugees from a Jimmy Buffett concert. Dressed for the beach and carrying inflatable balls of all sizes, the denizens of the sun-drenched bleachers lead chants and often determine the pace of the wave that circles the two-year-old ball park.

TD Ameritrade Park replaced the legendary Rosenblatt Stadium in 2011. Rosenblatt Stadium, which had been the home of the College World Series since 1950, had the mystique of Fenway Park and Wrigley Field for those long-time visitors to the College World Series.

I never got the chance to shoot at Rosenblatt Stadium having joined the Lincoln Journal Star months after the final game, but beginning in 2011 with the first college game at TD Ameritrade Park between the University of Nebraska and Creighton University I made the one hour drive north from Lincoln to Omaha to fulfill my obligations to baseball love.

Baseball has always been my first love as a sport to watch or photograph. I still remember my first baseball game as a six-year-old when my dad took me to see Steve Carlton of the Phillies take on Tom Seaver of the New York Mets on May 21, 1972. The first batter Carlton faced was Willie Mays en route to a 4-3 loss during his Cy Young-winning 27-10 season. I’ve gotten to see the Phillies in Clearwater, Florida for spring training a few times and at a few ballparks around the country. I love the spirit of minor league baseball and have seen games in Triple A and Rookie Appalachian League, so a chance to photograph the pinnacle of college baseball was a no-brainer for me.

In general, my newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star, doesn’t usually cover the CWS unless there is a local angle. And since the University of Nebraska hasn’t been there since 2005 we’ll typically cover the opening game and leave the remaining coverage for the paper to the Associated Press.

In 2011 I went to a few games including the deciding game between South Carolina and Florida, which was won by the Gamecocks, leaving them be known as the team that won the last championship at Rosenblatt and the first at TD Ameritrade Park.

For the 2012 games I proposed doing a project that could either be a photo page or an online gallery of the moments and sights of the College World Series. The main challenge was to schedule the CWS games around my daily schedule. I shot most of the games on my days off. I love to shoot personal assignments on my own time. This leads to a relaxed environment where I can have fun and make pictures that typically wouldn’t appear in our photo report.

Photo by FRANCIS GARDLER / Lincoln Journal Star

Photo by FRANCIS GARDLER / Lincoln Journal Star

Florida State batter James Ramsey (23) grimaces as he foul tips a pitch off his face during the Stony Brook game at the NCAA College World Series on Sunday, June 17, 2012 at TD Ameritrade Park.
When shooting baseball (or most sports) I like to go exploring different angles. For just like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society - standing on the top of a desk in a classroom - baseball looks a lot different from a place other than ground level. During the final game in 2011 I noticed how a patch of light would move along the field around 7 p.m. illuminating the just the pitcher’s mound and leaving a path towards the outfield. I couldn’t get to higher perspective in time to capture the moment. But with the first game I shot in 2012 between Stony Brook and UCLA I found a place on the third base side in the second level and waited for the light to find its’ mark. The resulting photo of Stony Brook relief pitcher Joshua Mason was one of several I sent to Sports Illustrated photo editor Jennifer Grad and she used it in the magazine’s iPad version of Leading Off under the title of Moment In The Sun.

One of the things really sweet about the College World Series was the casual nature of the event. Fans could interact with the players on a level I usually don’t see on the professional level. Arriving early, one could line the fences surrounding the perimeter of the field during batting practice and banter with the players and try to get a ball or an autograph. Even the coaches got into the spirit of the experience. Andy Lopez, the head coach of the University of Arizona, spent time during batting practice prior to the start of the final championship game signing autographs and tossing a ball to a child who didn’t have one.

After their win over South Carolina to win the title he threw dozens of balls to the Wildcats fans. Another great example was Florida State center fielder James Ramsey, who, when asked for a spare baseball, apologized for not having any, but tossed his wristbands to fans, then went through his equipment bag to find more wristbands. He then went onto sign dozens of autographs for anyone who asked. Ramsey and UCLA center fielder Beau Amaral were also amenable to returning beach balls to fans after they landed on the field.

The best thing about the CWS is the moments of light, composition and emotion – both on the field and off. They are a true gift when you can capture them. All those who come to the tournament share in that gift - a true spectacle of drama and mirth.

The second best thing are the chocolate-covered pretzels in the press box. Yummy.

Francis Gardler is a staff photographer at the Lincoln Journal Star. You can see sample of his work on his Sports Shooter member page:

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