As has been mentioned time and time again since the Bruins took down Cal St. Fullerton, this year's trip to the College World Series is the first time UCLA will be there since 1997. That team was led by a couple of future Major Leaguers in Troy Glaus, Jim Parque and Eric Byrnes, but there were also some other tremendous players on that team that were instrumental in the Bruins earning a trip to Omaha. One of those players is Jon Heinrichs.
In 1997, Heinrichs hit .358 with 92 runs, 79 RBI, 28 home runs and 16 stolen bases to play a big part in the Bruins' success. He got the chance to play in Omaha and live the dream of college ballplayers everywhere. Now, 13 years later with UCLA going to the College World Series again, Heinrichs took the time to answer a few questions. He delves into what it's like to be in Omaha, the pressure of the College World Series, some recollections on that 1997 team and what makes the college game so special.
1) Everyone talks about how the College World Series and Omaha are so special. The atmosphere and the way that the city embraces the event are the focus of every telecast so having played there, is it as great as everyone makes it out to be? Do you have any special memories of your time in Omaha?
The atmosphere is absolutely incredible. You have die hard baseball fans from Omaha coming to each game, you have people traveling from all over the country to watch their favorite team and everyone is excited anticipating who will be the next world series champion. It is more like a big league stadium atmosphere too because of the size of the stadium, the hype, all the people and media. During that time in Omaha the World Series is it and everyone is talking about it. The hospitality was amazing. The people really care about the teams coming in and making sure they are well taken care of.
Each team is assigned representatives from the College World Series that take you to different events. We were very well taken care of. I think a couple memories would be that each year apparently there is a group of local fans who adopt a team and when we were there, these fans adopted us. They were decked out in UCLA gear and were our biggest fans. We felt honored to be the team they chose. Another memory would be just walking on the field for the first time. I've seen it on TV for so many years dreaming of one day making it and to finally be there in person...in a UCLA uniform... living your dream is surreal.
More after the jump.
2) Over 300 teams start the season with the College World Series as the goal, but only eight teams get to go. At what point in 1997 did you think that your team could do it and that you had something special going?
Truthfully, before we started the season we knew we had a shot. Then as we started the year sweeping Hawaii and pounding our opponents, it was obvious to us and our coaching staff that we had something special.
3) Teams go to Omaha and everyone talks about the wins and the losses, but part of the college baseball experience is that the team is really a bunch of college kids. What is it like playing college ball, going to UCLA and being best friends with your teammates?
There really is nothing like it. Of course winning helps but the ‘97 team was so special because we truly were a team. We all hung out together, watched TV together, ate meals together went to parties together and really enjoyed each others company. There were some very talented guys on that teamm but everyone was about winning and about the team. We all had the same mission and knew we needed everyone to play together as a team to get there.
You don't get too many opportunities to be on a team like we had, we recognized it, and took advantage. College baseball was the most fun I ever had playing any sport because you are playing with your best friends in the world and it is fun to go to battle with you boys. Especially when you are one of the best teams in the country. UCLA was also a dream of mine since I was a kid so to be a bruin, living in Westwood, playing baseball with my buddies, going to basketball games, football games, traveling around the country...I mean there wasn't anywhere else I would have rather been.
Lastly, all our parents were very involved in our lives and 100% supportive of what we were doing. That team was more than a team, it was a family, coaches included.
4) This year's UCLA team came into the postseason rather inexperienced. They've won a high profile Regional and Super Regional, but they haven't played in front of the 20,000+ that they have at the College World Series. What was your experience like playing in front of that many people on such a big stage and is the jump from the Regional/Super Regional to the College World Series as big as it seems?
To be honest it was more nerve racking for me to think about the millions of people watching on TV than the 20,000+ fans at the games. Because the fans are so split as to which teams they are rooting for, the crowd factor is less than what you may imagine. We played Regionals at Texas and Oklahoma State while I was at UCLA and the fans there were much more hostile than at the world series. Although we didn't make it in to the latter part of the series so I don't know how it was when the final teams were playing.
5) Not since your team went to the College World Series has a UCLA team made it to Omaha. What advice would you give this year's team about being on the big stage and what stands in front of them or what they have accomplished to this point?
I would say go in with confidence. You made it there for a reason, and that is because you are one of the best teams in the nation. Just because UCLA hasn't been a regular in Omaha like some of the other teams means nothing unless you give it meaning. Do what you do and don't change. Don't change practice, don't change the way you prepare, nothing, do what you do. As far as what stands in front of them would be to keep mentally focused.
I think what can happen is that you concentrate and work so hard on getting to Omaha all year that when you finally do get there, you can sort of relax and lose your edge. Additionally there are a lot of distractions in Omaha with all the hype and that too can cause you to lose focus. It's not over yet and really you have to have the mentality that nothing has been accomplished yet. Being number 1 is the only thing that matters. Then once it's all over you can reflect on what a great year it was regardless of what happens.
Lastly, you have to make sure you enjoy your time there. It is a game and it is fun so keep focused on the goal but enjoy the ride. It is unforgettable.
Good Luck Fellas! Bruin Nation is watching!
A huge thanks to Jon for taking the time to answer these questions and give us some perspective about what this year's team has accomplished getting to Omaha. While we can speculate on what it's like to play in the College World Series and everything that goes along with being a college ballplayer, getting the perspective from someone who lived it is second to none. I'd also like to thank uclaves, who put me in touch with Jon and made this entire thing happen.