OMAHA, Neb. — It was a few minutes past 4 p.m. in Omaha, and Game 3 of the College World Series was in the books. The scoreboard read “Virginia 6, Tennessee 0.” The TD Ameritrade Park grounds crew was watering down the field. The massive, dark-blue grandstand seating bowl was devoid of people, except for two locations.
On the edge of the field, along the green railing just past the first base dugout, was Virginia catcher Logan Michaels. The righty-hitting grad student, having just played the game of his life — three hits, a homer, two RBI, three runs scored — was being enveloped by his orange-clad teammates. A soft toss away, Row 16 of Section 108, an equally large cluster of Hoos supporters were wiping away tears as they gave a standing ovation to Logan’s father, Jeff Michaels. In April 2018, the elder Michaels was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, given a five percent chance of survival just as his son had made the decision to leave Wisconsin for Charlottesville and a coveted spot on the Virginia baseball roster, more than 1,000 miles from home.
In the three years since, Jeff Michaels’ condition, chemotherapy and surgeries often made him too weak to travel. He only made it to a few games during his son’s first two seasons and finally made to Charlottesville in April, almost exactly three years to the day of his diagnosis. The dream was to get to Omaha, but as a No. 3 seed in the Columbia Regional two weeks ago, that dream felt a bit impossible. Almost as impossible as Logan hitting a home run, something he hadn’t done all season.
All the dreams came true on Sunday.
In Section 108, the catcher’s dad thanked them for their recognition and craned his neck to see if he might catch the eye of his kid on the field. When he did, he pointed down to Logan, his finger extended off the ball he held in his right hand. It was the same ball his boy had blasted 350 feet into the left-field seats a couple of hours earlier. He pointed to the heavens and another parent grabbed his hand and shouted. “Happy Father’s Day, Jeff!”
The happiest Father’s Day.
The opening weekend of the College World Series has long had an argument as America’s single greatest Father’s Day celebration. To those who have been fortunate enough to spend time in Omaha during the third Sunday in June, there is no argument at all. It’s baseball, after all. It’s the sport played by millions of American kids every summer, so many of whom are coached by their fathers. Dozens of those teams come to Omaha each summer to play in massive youth tournaments held in conjunction with the College World Series. They are easily spotted throughout TD Ameritrade Park in their matching jerseys and caps. Every corner of the College World Series is draped in imagery of paternal relationships, whether it be selfies with one’s pops taken in front of stadium landmarks or the “Awkward Dad Dance Cam” scoreboard feature that had Sunday afternoon’s crowd of 22,130 in stitches. That same crowd was hugging it out when that video board showed the “Hey Dad, you want to have a catch?” clip from Field of Dreams, complete with a real-life view of Iowa off in the distance.
Call it corny, sappy, sentimental, whatever you want. Those who have experienced Father’s Day at the College World Series know better.
“I’m not sure where else anyone would want to be,” Vandy ace Jack Leiter said Friday, knowing he would be spending his Father’s Day with dad Al in Omaha, after so many years when his Dad was on the road with a big league club, either playing or broadcasting. “I knew this would have a family feel to it, but it’s even more than I expected.”
The Series is operated locally by CWS of Omaha, Inc. That organization is led by Jack Deising Jr., who spent his Sunday watching baseball with his children and grandchildren. Jack Jr. took over the job when his father retired in 1997. It was Jack Sr. who founded the non-profit with the help of his friend Johnny Rosenblatt, the man who brought the College World Series to Omaha in 1950 and had his name on the event’s original home stadium. Johnny’s son, Steve, was a bat boy at the old ballpark and still pops in from time to time to keep his father’s memory alive. And in the offices of that old ballpark the tickets were managed by D-Day veteran Eddie Sobczyk, who shuffled, sorted and sold tickets for more than five decades, joined initially by his son and eventually by his grandson.
“I have never seen anything like it, whether it’s our fans who came here and are telling me they are here with their fathers and father figures, or local Omaha families who have been coming to these games together for generations,” Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello explained Sunday evening.
His team had just suffered a brutal upset loss to Virginia, but he still couldn’t help but smile when asked about Father’s Day in Omaha. Last week, Vitello and his father, Greg — a Missouri Sports Hall of Fame coach — told stories to the Knoxville News Sentinel about six-year-old Tony hiding beneath the scorer’s table at the high school gym, learn about coaching at the literal feet of the father. Tony became choked up when he thought about the countless hours of his life spent with his Dad either on a diamond, in a dugout, or in the car between a ballpark and home.
“I needed for him to see me be a head coach in Omaha,” Tony said. “That’s what we have always dreamed of.”
On Sunday, Greg Vitello was sitting in the Omaha sun right behind Tennessee’s third base dugout. A few hours later, that same dugout was occupied by the Texas Longhorns, including freshman right fielder Douglas Hodo III. Sitting almost exactly where Greg had been for Game 3, was Douglas Hodo II. In 1983, he was the designated hitter for one of the greatest teams to ever win the College World Series, a Horns squad that was powered by Roger Clemens on the mound and Bill Bates at the plate. Hodo hit .345 in the first of his three trips to Omaha. The last time Texas won the CWS was in 2005. Douglas III was only four years old, but he made a Father’s Day trip to Rosenblatt Stadium with his family and told his dad that one day he wanted to follow in his cleats and play in Omaha as a Longhorn. He did just that on Father’s Day 2021.
Zach and Jake Gelor shared a similar moment of prescience with their father, Adam, as they sat in the left-field stands of TD Ameritrade Park during the 2014 College World Series. They were in town for one of those big Omaha youth baseball tournaments and older brother Zach fell in love with the team that went on to be that year’s runner-up, the Virginia Cavaliers. Now he is UVA’s junior third baseman and leadoff hitter. Jake joined the team this season as a first baseman and on Sunday they became the first brothers to start a College World Series game together since 2009, and they did it on Father’s Day with Adam watching from the first base stands, Section 108, watching Zach bang out three hits with an RBI and a run scored.
On the top row of that same section sat John and Barb O’Connor, the parents of Virginia head coach Brian O’Connor. John, 91, was born, raised and still lives across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he ran a cemetery and monument company. He also coached his three sons in baseball and basketball, using a tractor to carve a diamond out of the family land. In Iowa, just like Field of Dreams. Brian became a ballplayer at local Creighton University and was a star of the Bluejays’ legendary 1991 College World Series run. When an associate of John’s was commissioned to sculpt a College World Series statue to be placed outside the stadium, he was discussing it in John’s office and spotted a photo of Brian celebrating a Creighton win. He asked if he could use it for inspiration. Now Brian O’Connor is one of the four players of “The Road To Omaha” statue where CWS fans spend their Father’s Days lined up to take photos.
Logan Michaels belts a home run to left field to give Virginia the 1-0 lead over Tennessee at the College World Series.
On Sunday, sharp-eyed UVA fans also took photos of John O’Connor in Section 108. Or they gave a shoutout to the father of the Gelor boys. But by Game 3’s end, their focus had shifted to another dad, a gray-haired man in a blue-and-orange Cavaliers golf shirt. It was Jeff Michaels.
“That term ‘family,’ that’s what this really is,” Michaels said, looking around at the other UVA fathers, mothers, siblings and friends. “I wasn’t able to be with them really at all while Logan has been at Virginia, but they have always done everything they could to keep me included. They have treated me as if I have been here with them all along. Like family does.”
During the eighth inning of the game, that family suddenly cleared a path to his seat. They ushered in a grinning man, an 11-year-old girl and a baseball. Roger Sinclair grew up in Omaha attending the College World Series. He moved away several years ago, but always comes back for a few games, especially opening weekend because he likes to take his granddaughter, Kamryn Cotton, to the games on Father’s Day. They were sitting in the left-field bleachers, almost the exact same spot where the Gelof brothers took their prophetic Father’s Day photo in 2014, when the baseball that Logan Michaels blasted in the third inning was coming in hot. It landed on the bench seats, Sinclair scooped it up and handed it to his granddaughter.
Then the people in Section 127 who were watching the game on their phones started telling Sinclair about Logan Michaels and his father. Then a contingent of Virginia parents came into the section to see if they could talk Sinclair into giving Jeff the ball. “I was like, ‘No way, man,'” Sinclair recalled. “I’ve been waiting to catch a ball at the College World Series my whole life, and I just gave it to my granddaughter. If he hits another one, y’all can have that one.”
But as the innings moved forward, Virginia extended its lead, Logan kept getting hits and Jeff’s location became the focal point of the stadium. Sinclair and his granddaughter knew what they had to do.
“I told (my grandfather) that ball means so much more to that man and his son that it does to me,” the wise eleven-year-old said after spending a half-inning sitting with the Michaels family. “I will never forget this happening. He was so happy and so we were we. I think his son will be so happy when he sees that his dad has the ball, too.”
The girl smiled at her grandfather and took his hand. They accepted a thank you from John O’Connor and then walked off together through the concourse of TD Ameritrade Park amid the sounds of “U-V-A!” chants and organ music. The sun was out, and baseball was being played in Omaha.
Happy Father’s Day.