For all but one team at the NCAA College World Series, the week begins with a parade and fireworks, but ends with moist eyes and disappointment.
The team bus parked alongside TD Ameritrade Park is loading. Players with eye black-stained faces are hugging parents. Senior teammates are hugging teammates.
Their six-month college baseball season is over, and the void seems profound. The TCU Horned Frogs should have known that feeling as well as any team at this year’s College World Series.
For four seasons in a row and five of the past eight, the Frogs reached Omaha but failed to reach the series finals—a heartless measure, but there are no bowl trophies or bronze medals in college baseball.
TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle was asked after Saturday night’s 3-0 loss to Florida about the realities of falling one step short, and he said, “Oregon State — are you kidding me? That’s crazy that they had the great season they had, but that’s the dumb sport of baseball.”
The Oregon State Beavers were 56-4 before Friday but they, too, fell one victory short of the Omaha finals.
“I love our team,” Schlossnagle said, “but you have to play better than the other team. Oregon State got outplayed the last couple of days and TCU got outplayed today.”
The bittersweet reality of college athletics is that even as they celebrate their most memorable triumphs, they must begin their goodbyes. Teams are seldom the same. In baseball, juniors get drafted. The seniors graduate.
And the head coach and his staff are left, staring up at the daunting mountain of next season yet again.
Four consecutive trips to Omaha? There is no trademarked final four in college baseball, but TCU has now been among the last four teams standing four times in eight seasons.
From 2007 through 2009, Schlossnagle had to say goodbye to MLB draftees Jake Arrieta, Andrew Cashner and Matt Carpenter. Yet, it was the 2010 Frogs who made it to the College World Series for the first time.
The 2010 and 2011 TCU rosters had a combined 14 players drafted, yet three seasons later the run of four consecutive Omaha teams started.
“You never know if you’ll get to be back because it’s that hard,” Schlossnagle said. “To have been here four years in a row is an incredible accomplishment, but we truly never take it for granted.
“I hope that our Fort Worth community and fans don’t take it for granted. It’s really tough.”
Schlossnagle shouldn’t have to remind anyone here of that, not as long as the Cowboys and Rangers are around.
Conspicuous by its omission was any mention by Schlossnagle of the giant blonde elephant in the dugout. First baseman Luken Baker, among the very best hitters in college baseball, was injured May 12, underwent surgery and missed the remaining 21 games.
Baker might not have been enough to overcome the dominating pitching of Florida’s Alex Faedo, but there’s no question he would have bolstered the TCU lineup.
After last year’s elimination, Schlossnagle’s recruiting class was heavy on pitching, and pitching carried the Frogs to Omaha. He should lose only two, Brian Howard and Mitchell Traver, from this year’s staff.
But six lineup regulars are likely to be lost, including high draft picks Austen Wade and Evan Skoug. Schlossnagle will have to hope that incoming shortstop Tyler Freeman of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., drafted 71st overall, will decide to come to TCU.
“It’s not like you plug and play,” Schlossnagle said. “We have work to do.”
It’s a job that he’s done before. Jim Schlossnagle, of all people, knows the climb that lies ahead.
The work, he said, starts Sunday.
Gil LeBreton: @gilebreton