Faithful arrive early to set atmosphere
OMAHA, Neb. — The LSU baseball team’s first game in the College World Series was still more than 24 hours away, but the party already had begun on Leavenworth Street.
The rooftop of Barrett’s Barleycorn Pub & Grill served as radar for Tigers fans with a series of LSU flags having replaced the traditional set featuring all eight CWS teams.
Inside, the wait staff was wearing Tigers T-shirts and purple and gold Mardi Gras beads as the complete LSU playlist was blaring — “Hey Fighting Tiger”, “Chinese Bandits”, “The Drum Cadences”, “Tiger Rag”, etc.
Seated at the corner of the bar, Rachel Welch was wearing an LSU visor and sporting an LSU tattoo on her right shoulder.
She and her husband Darrel had arrived about 9 a.m. Saturday in search of the place that Internet research had told them was the center of the universe for Tigers fans in Omaha.
“When we pulled up and saw all the flags,” Rachel said, “I knew I was home.”
A trip to the CWS, which required a 10-hour drive from their real home in Mansfield, Texas, had been on their bucket list. It shot to the top of it after LSU had taken a 1-0 lead against Oklahoma last weekend in the best-of-three Baton Rouge Regional behind All-America right-hander Aaron Nola.
“After the way Nola pitched against Oklahoma,” Rachel said, “we knew we had it made. That made it our ultimate bucket list because we get to see my Tigers.”
They’re her Tigers because her father graduated from LSU in 1956.
“It’s bred in me,” she said.
This trip also serves as the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary celebration. The Tigers begin play against UCLA at 7 p.m. Sunday and the anniversary arrives Tuesday, when LSU plays its second game.
Seated just a few feet away at a series of tables was a large contingent of LSU fans, featuring New Orleans restaurateur Mike Serio, who is making his 19th consecutive trip to the CWS.
This is the third CWS since the event was moved from venerable Rosenblatt Stadium to pristine TD Ameritrade Park and the first involving LSU. Serio and his group were about to head to the ballpark for the opener between Mississippi State and Oregon State.
He said he’s still searching for the ideal tailgating spot to replace the one he staked out annually behind the right-field fence at Rosenblatt.
“We’re trying to find a beachhead,” Serio said, “because we’re storming Omaha Beach.”
One of Serio’s eight “hard-core regulars” was Jimmy Scanlan, of Colorado Springs, Colo., who first stumbled upon Serio’s group amid the CWS during a stop he made in Omaha as part of a motorcycle trip through the Midwest 12 years ago.
“I’m a wrestler and I played football, and I don’t know much about baseball,” Scanlan said. “But I hooked into these LSU fans and now I’m coming down to Baton Rouge for LSU football games and staying down there and I come back for this all the time. I just love it.”
This isn’t just a passing acquaintance between Scanlan and the group he was drawn to in Omaha.
“During Hurricane Katrina in (2005), I was calling the Red Cross trying to find out if these guys were OK,” Scanlan said. “Then I had a stroke in 2008 and they were worried about me and kept checking on me.
“That made me a lot closer to this whole crew here. We went through different crises together and now we’re all better.”
With that, the group was off to TD Ameritrade, but another party was starting in the downstairs room at Barrett’s.
The 11-year-old Carrollton Boosters Select team from New Orleans, which completed its play in a tournament here Friday, was having lunch before heading to LSU practice at Bellevue East High School.
They had been invited to practice by Tigers first baseman Mason Katz, an alumnus of the team along with pitcher Nate Fury and equipment manager Matt Fury.
Coach Jeremy Mancheski and assistant Bill Valigoski had arranged for their team to greet the Tigers upon their arrival at their hotel Thursday.
“It was really a great experience for the boys,” Mancheski said. “They were right there when the bus pulled up. The boys came out and Mason was very gracious, signed balls for the boys and took photos and spent some time with them.”
After finishing lunch, the Boosters were off to watch LSU as another wave of Tigers fans invaded Barrett’s.
Karen Barrett-Jeffery, manager and co-owner of Barrett’s, took a short break from waiting on the large crowd to reflect on the relationship between her pub and fans from a school located nearly 1,000 miles away.
Her family bought the business in 1987, one year after LSU made its first trip to Omaha. Four years later, one of her bartenders was also working at a downtown hotel and invited a group of Tigers fans to Barrett’s.
They happily accepted and when LSU won its first national championship in that series, the team dropped in to celebrate.
Barrett-Jeffrey recalled how Tigers fans had to adjust to life in what became known as “Baton Rouge North.”
“The law used to be that we had to close at 1 a.m. and they didn’t like that,” she said. “So they’d unscrew the light bulbs and when it came time for last call the lights would never go on.”
Since then the law has changed the mandatory closing time to 2 a.m.
Barrett-Jeffrey was asked if the change was in deference to her favorite out-of-town customers.
“I’d like to believe that,” she said with a laugh.
Another manager was feverishly keeping the burgers flying off the grill as the orders stacked up.
His name, he swore, is “Tiger Buchholz”.
Asked if that was because of LSU, he replied, “No, but I wish it was.”
Barrett-Jeffrey said several of her employees have reciprocated and visited customers in Baton Rouge, though she never has.
“To be honest,” she said, “I’m scared to.”
“Because I might never leave.”