OMAHA, Neb. — The tickets were bought, the rooms reserved, the tailgate planned.
All the preparations had been made months in advance as Jim Keith and Johnny Loper planned to make their 19th consecutive trip to Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series.
There was just one thing missing: the CWS itself.
On March 12, 2020, the event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving Keith and Loper — and their best-laid plans — in the lurch.
“It was awful,” said Loper, a Forest native who has spent the past three decades as an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina.
After attending every CWS since 2002, he and Keith, an attorney at Adams and Reese LLP in Ridgeland, planned to make their 19th straight appearance in Omaha last June. Instead, Loper was left working from home, walking his dog around the neighborhood and “sitting around wishing that they were playing baseball somewhere.”
But now, the two Mississippi State fans are back for more, continuing the tradition by taking in the first three days of the 2021 event — including a 2-1 Bulldogs win over No. 2 Texas on Sunday night.
And even if MSU has long since been out of contention, they’ll be in their usual seats along the first-base line.
“We come regardless of who’s here,” Keith said.
‘Here we all are’
The story of how Keith and Loper became CWS devotees starts with a tragedy.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, government employees all over the country were pressed into service as air marshals. Loper’s brother-in-law, Kip Hamby — a member of the State Department — was paired with Omahan John Nunez, an agent in the IRS Critical Investigation Division.
Nunez invited Hamby to the 2002 College World Series. Hamby invited Loper. Loper invited Keith, who worked with him at AT&T and with whom he attended Mississippi State and the University of Mississippi School of Law. Soon, they brought more friends.
“Here we all are,” Loper said.
The duo was welcomed with open arms into the famed Nunez family tailgate, which found a new location seemingly every year in the Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium parking lot. They sat in the stands as a stealth bomber performed a ceremonial flyover during the national anthem, shocking the fans who never heard the smooth silver plane approaching.
But the next year, they chose not to attend the tailgate, not meaning to impose. The hospitable Nunez family was almost insulted, and Keith and Loper have been back every year since. The Nunezes pick them up at the airport every year; once, the Nunez family flew to Hattiesburg when Nebraska played football at Southern Miss.
At the outset were other cultural differences. Nunez and his wife Jody balked at the jumbo peanuts Keith boiled and brought with him to Omaha.
“They looked at them and went, ‘Do you have something wrong with these peanuts? They’re wet,’” Keith recalled.
He invited his hosts to try some, and the rest was history. Now, Nunez freezes the peanuts Keith brings to town, saving them to lug to Husker football games an hour southwest in Lincoln.
Over the years, Keith and Loper made Rosenblatt memories before the stadium hosted its last CWS in 2010. They mingled with the Cajuns in the lot who stirred a gargantuan gumbo pot with a boat oar and served fans repping any Southeastern Conference team. In the southeast corner of the parking lot, they watched the “hooding ceremony” — eight plastic pink flamingos, laden down with Mardi Gras-style beads in each school’s colors, were covered with a black hood as each team was eliminated. “Taps” was played on kazoos during the funereal formalities.
They met legendary coaches Paul Maineiri and Rod Dedeaux. They fed peanuts to Steve Garvey in exchange for nine innings of baseball banter. When Cal State Fullerton came to town, they sat two rows in front of Kevin Costner.
When TD Ameritrade Park became the new home of the CWS starting with the 2011 event, Keith and Loper took their keepsakes. They both have bricks from the old park, which was torn down between 2012 and 2013, and Keith has dirt from the infield. Their friend T. Calvin Wells, a Jackson-based attorney and Vanderbilt fan who came with them to watch Sunday’s MSU-Texas contest, even bought two yellow seats from the group’s favorite section at the old park.
Keith said the commercialization of the CWS and the history of Rosenblatt mean it can never be matched by TD Ameritrade.
“For the not-avid fan, this is probably a great environment,” Keith said. “But for the avid baseball traditionalist, Rosenblatt was it.”
‘We’ll do it every year’
Now it’s the other side of the highway where Keith, Loper and their group spend their summer nights. This go-around, they occupy seats 1-9 in Section 104, Row 10, moving closer and closer to the field year after year without really trying.
But it hasn’t come without significant loss. In the past year, three members of the group have died, including Hamby and Robert Nunez, the patriarch of the Omaha family. Loper and Keith lamented not getting to share the 2020 event with their friends and family members.
“Those are three people we could have done this with one more time,” Loper said.
Still, there are new people to meet and new stories to tell. In one of the souvenir shops at the park, a mother with her young son in tow sought Keith and Loper out upon seeing Mississippi State gear. A native Omahan, she was buying Bulldogs swag as well, telling the duo every Southerner she’d met had been nice.
“We’ve never had a harsh word spoken to us,” Keith said.
And after accidentally purchasing a couple Virginia shirts that were mistakenly included with some MSU merchandise, Loper wandered the street outside the park looking for a Cavaliers fan to give it to. He handed a large T-shirt off to an orange and blue-clad man who turned out to be Garett Teel, an 11th-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1989 and the father of Hoos star outfielder Kyle Teel. Kyle’s closest friend, it turned out, was Mississippi State reliever KC Hunt.
It’s those kinds of coincidences, those fortunate interactions that keep Keith and Loper coming back every year. Both men said they plan to make the trip summer after summer, meeting new friends and making new memories.
“As long as the cholesterol count stays low and I can walk, no question about it,” Loper said.
“We’ll do it every year,” he added, “until we can’t.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.