Tusk to Tail goes to Omaha: Lawyers, Runs & Money

There was a moment after the Razorbacks lost to Virginia Saturday in the College World Series when half of Tusk to Tail’s trip to Omaha could have literally gone South. Malcolm Gladwell might refer to it as a tipping point if he were a Hog fan, or if I actually read Malcolm Gladwell, for that matter.

Dale Cullins, the hardest working man in tailgating, was heading back home to Fayetteville Sunday. If my son and I hopped in with Dale and his daughter, we could arrive in time to meet my wife before she returned to our Little Rock home.

Granted, I’m not one to jump off a bandwagon easily. Remember that 17-game Arkansas football losing streak that finally ended last year when our defense went medieval in shutouts against LSU and Ole Miss? From the Swamp at Gainesville, Fla., to the Rutgers mosh pit in New Jersey, Tusk to Tail was at every. Single. One of those losses.

Of course those trips are on weekends, whereas the College World Series stretches through the week. It certainly didn’t help that our schedule necessitated a 5 a.m. departure on the day of my wedding anniversary, and that Jack Clark would be missing his wedding anniversary for the Miami game Monday. (We love you Rebecca and Lauren!)

The Hogs may have gone “two and barbecue” in the double-elimination tournament, but my son and I will never regret our choice to stay with the Omahogs. The contagious comaraderie among the fans and Omaha locals creates a family friendly World Series environment. The memories we shared will last a lifetime.

Though reasonably close at five-and-a-half hours from Fayetteville, we learned early that it’s not necessarily a cheap trip. In a free market, pricing is set where supply meets demand. More than 350,000 fans attend the Series each year, forcing us across the Missouri River to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to find $160 rooms at the kind of Super 8 that does not require an elevator. Cullins was able to obtain four tickets at face value for each Arkansas game, a much better deal than the six upper deck seats for Game 1 bought at the peak of the market.

By the end of the trip, we had become much more savvy at spotting value, finding a cheaper room downtown by the stadium and scoring some game tickets for $10 each. But this was the first trip to Omaha for all the kids and two of the Dads, and we were not looking to cut corners, within reason. We may have left as boys, but we returned as boys with a lot less money.

The trip had a rougher start than one might expect from tailgating road warriors such as Cullins, Clark, and the Godfather of Tailgating, Craig May. Delays ranging from putting out fires at work to replacing the battery in May’s smoke alarm slowed us Friday, and Clark had to double back to get his phone before we pulled out the next morning before dawn. We were careening across the Show-Me State to our Nebraska destination before long, pausing only to shed our luggage and a car at the hotel.

The hottest pregame spot we found was the beer garden and rooftop patio at Blatt Beer and Table, right across from the ballpark. It’s where we ran into longtime tailgating friends Scott and Caryn Audrain and Brad and Kathy Workman, and it became our home base while the kids observed the Fan Fest in the streets below. We grabbed burgers, bratwursts, and beers before the game while meeting fans from Miami to Fullerton, Calif., plus scores of baseball-loving locals.

The College World Series moved across town from historic Rosenblatt Stadium to TD Ameritrade Park five years ago, and hasn’t looked back since. We sat in the upper decks, general admission outfield, and the lower level just off first base, and there is not a bad seat inside the new Midwestern gem.

One of the highlights of the trip was sitting in the non-reserved bleacher seats for Cal State-Fullerton’s game against Vanderbilt. The game featured a handful of first-rounders in last week’s MLB draft, including the number one overall pick, Vandy shortstop Dansby Swanson. Though his name sounds like a Nashville law firm, Swanson proved worthy of the pick, looking like Spiderman on a stretching catch and throw to first to get an early out.

The stars tend to shine bright in Omaha. All-everything Arkansas outfielder Andrew Benintendi knocked a homer and made the defensive stop of the day with a diving catch Saturday. The Hogs were finally vanquished Monday by a homerun and 3 RBIs from Miami Sophomore Jacob Heyward, St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Jason Heyward’s brother. The Razorback pitching staff was practically held together by duct tape and rubberbands by the time they reached the Series, but Trey Killian and Keaton McKinney threw long, productive starts.

Unfortunately Arkansas was done in by stranded baserunners, costly errors, and closer Zach Jackson’s fastball looking a little less nasty than it did during the Hogs’ hot streak. The glaring void at catcher should be addressed in the offseason, which may fulfill Carson Shaddy’s destiny to play centerfield before merging his firm with Dansby Swanson LLC.  “Dansby Swanson Carson and Shaddy. If we don’t win your case, you don’t owe us a dime.”

Tusk to Tail came to play like all stars, too. Cullins secured tickets and reservations for a hotel and dinner. Clark supplied a vehicle for yet another long trip, and secured resident raconteur status with his stories. His father Jungle would have been proud. The only ones who didn’t make it were conducting mission work in the Dominican Republic, audits in Guyana, or driving his son to a baseball tournament in Springfield, the local third-world equivalent.

But it was May who earned MVP, reminding us why we call him the Godfather. Monday’s game, originally slated for a 2 p.m. first pitch, was delayed more than two hours for the conclusion of Vandy’s rainout the night before. We were already committed to driving home at the conclusion, which of course led to a 70-minute seventh inning to clock the game over four hours.

It was after 8:30 p.m. before we even began what would be a 9-hour drive for most mortal men. Kansas City was too close, but where do you stop for the night? Joplin? Fayetteville?

Answer: None of the above.

Under a steady diet of Widespread Panic cds and dropping Spree candy like quarters into a slot machine, May drove straight through the night to his Little Rock driveway at 5 a.m., exactly 72 hours after our Fayetteville takeoff.

Despite the Omahogs early exit, it’s hard to get too bent out of shape over college baseball, especially when your team had been playing with house money for two months.

I found encouragement as were leaving lunch at Goodnights Pizza Bar + Patio across from the stadium before our final game. Goodnights was hosting the “College World Shot Series,” tracking whose fans slammed the most shots of liquor. Arkansas had a sizeable lead over the other seven schools to highlight one of Tusk to Tail’s core beliefs: We may not win every game, but we never lose a party.