Hansen: For tailgater who's attended every year since '78, CWS is all about the connecting - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, June 22, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 10:19 am
Hansen: For tailgater who's attended every year since '78, CWS is all about the connecting

He stands in the middle of a massive parking lot, surrounded by strangers from across the United States who become friends for a week and a half every June.

It is pouring rain. Jeff Leach looks up at the dark sky and cracks a light beer.

It is 10 a.m. on a downtown Omaha weekday. Correction: It is 10 a.m. on a College World Series weekday. And during the College World Series, it doesn't much matter to Jeff whether it's 10 a.m. or 10 p.m. During the College World Series, it doesn't much matter whether it's 2013 or 1978.

“It will stop soon,” he says hopefully. “It will be fine by game time.”

Jeff Leach is a 49-year-old travel agent from Millard. He has attended the College World Series every year since he was 15. He has had CWS tickets longer than he has had a driver's license. He is here every single day, rain or shine.

He is not here for the baseball, not exactly.

“The first thing I remember is playing catch in the lot with my dad,” Jeff says. “And these LSU fans started coming up and talking to us, and they seemed so friendly.”

That happened when Jimmy Carter was president. It happened in 1978, when the College World Series seemed to Jeff to be a tiny, homey affair. It happened at Rosenblatt, obviously, long before anyone considered a downtown stadium or dreamt of an ESPN2.

It happened when Gene Leach, Jeff's dad, ran the tailgate.

Gene didn't miss a game, Jeff says. Heck, he didn't miss a single pitch.

Dad would be in his seat by the time the head coaches handed in their lineup cards. And if he wasn't, “he was not happy,” Jeff says.

So much has changed. The move downtown, which Jeff first hated but now admits he likes. Jeff's high school sweetheart, Jeri, started coming with him, and then they got married, and now they have been hitched for 27 years. She comes to the CWS every day, too.

Gene's last College World Series was 2010, the last year they played it at Rosenblatt.

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“Fitting,” Jeff says.

Longtime Nebraska baseball coach John Sanders attended the funeral.

“He just loved college baseball,” Jeff says of his father. “He loved it so much.”

So much has stayed the same. Jeff and Jeri staked out this spot in the parking lot north of the CenturyLink Center just after dawn on the first day of the first CWS held downtown.

They show up here early every day: 6:30 a.m. on the first weekend. By 8 a.m. or so on weekdays.

They cook eggs for breakfast and BBQ for lunch, and sometimes Jeff brings his margarita machine and creates frozen drinks for fans of the visiting teams.

This year: Tiger Blood, which Jeff decided was rum, spiced rum, sweet-and-sour, strawberry puree and cranberry juice.

It was good. Jeff had a few of those. But that's not why he is here, either, not exactly.

He is here because so is Billy from Texas, who has the parking spot next to his and shows up every year even if the Texas Longhorns don't. Because of June, the LSU Tiger fan from Baton Rouge. Because he gives her margaritas named in honor of her favorite team, and because she sneaks him shrimp from her friend's tailgate.

He is here because of an endless line of old friends: A high school buddy from Oregon. The BBQ chef, who drives up from Kansas City. Neighbors from Millard. Old co-workers from Blair.

They have all stopped by the tailgate at some point during this year's College World Series. Maybe 100 different people have already hung out here, Jeff thinks.

OWH Columnists
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

He is here because every College World Series he meets someone new. This year, it is the fans from Mississippi State, who brought their thick drawls and their loud and fervent love for the Bulldogs.

And he is here because of Jacob. Jacob is 19 now, and he is a history major at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and this year he showed up to the College World Series on Father's Day because he knew it would make his dad happy.

It did make Jeff happy.

The rain is ending now, and the skies are clearing.

Jeff might not be in his seats for the first pitch — he's not Gene, after all — but you better believe he will catch most of the LSU-North Carolina game this day, and then the North Carolina State-UCLA game after that.

Then he will head back to the tailgate spot, and then he will go home, and then tomorrow he will do it all over.

He will talk to the Louisianans and the Texans and the Oregonians. He will connect his father's generation to his son's.

And that is why he is here, every single day, just like his dad.

It is just before noon now, and the sun is peeking through the clouds.

“Gonna be a great day for baseball,” Jeff says, and he asks his wife for another light beer.

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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