It had to be a little painful for Tim Esmay, Arizona State’s head baseball coach, as he sat in there in TD Ameritrade Park just a few weeks ago watching the College World Series unfold on the field below.
Not because the seats were uncomfortable; the new ball park in Omaha is a major improvement over Rosenblatt Stadium, the long-time home for the biggest stage in college baseball.
And not even because he had to watch his biggest rival, the University of Arizona, roll undefeated through the event to win the national title.
The painful part of the experience had to be when those nagging thoughts crept into his subconscious, telling him his Sun Devils could have been there, too.
A couple of Pac-12 foes did make it to the 2012 CWS, Arizona and UCLA. Arizona State beat both of them during the regular season.
The Devils won one of three in their series with the Bruins, but the two games they dropped were by one run and two runs. Against the new national champions, they won two of the five meetings – and two of those they lost were also by one and two runs. In their two victories over the Wildcats, they pounded out a combined 21 runs.
ASU finished the season 36-20 overall and 18-12 in conference play, the third-best record in the Pac-12, giving them a tie for fourth place.
That’s not as good as Esmay’s first year at the helm, in 2010, when the team won 52 games, the Pac-10 crown, and set a school record for most consecutive victories (24) to open a season. And not as good as 2011, when the team went 43-18 and made it to the Super Regionals.
But this year’s edition had enough horses to make a run in the post-season, and maybe even play its way to Omaha. But the Devils were ineligible for post-season play, so it didn’t matter.
And, perhaps even more frustrating for Esmay and his players, was the fact that the NCAA sanctions that kept them out of the post-season this year were handed down because of violations that took place under the previous head coach, Pat Murphy.
So Esmay’s trip to Omaha this year was kind of like “playing through the pain.” He has been there seven times before, either as a player, assistant coach, or head coach.
But this time was different. This time, it was about future trips.
Esmay wanted to get a feel for the new stadium and get a good look at some of the teams that will probably be there next year, when he plans to bring his team with him – to play, not sit in the stands.
He saw the event from a totally different perspective as a fan. “People make it their whole day,” he realized. “When you’re playing, you don’t see all that stuff. We could look across our hotel and see them setting up for a tailgate at 9 a.m. for a 7 p.m. game.
“Seeing that gave me a better appreciation of what the CWS is all about.”
But the chance to scout the new ball park was an important aspect to his visit.
“I really wanted to go back and see what the difference in the two stadiums was. That was the biggest key for me,” he explained in an interview following his return to Tempe. “I’ve been fortunate to have been to Rosenblatt Stadium many times – as both a player and coach – so you get to know how the grass and dirt play, where the sun sits, how the wind blows, and now all of that is different because the new park sits differently.”
Esmay figures TD Ameritrade may prove to be to the Sun Devils’ advantage because it favors their gap-to-gap, contact-type offense. “The new ballpark will be a really good fit for us.”
But first, ASU has to get there. The fact that his 2013 recruiting class is seen by many observers as perhaps the No. 1 class in the country should be a big help.
“It was very tough to watch other teams play (at the CWS this year),” he admits. “But it served as a driving motivation.”
Talent and motivation. Sounds like the makings of a ticket to Omaha next year.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)