Omaha never gets old for FSU's Martin

Mike Martin isn't a big believer in do-overs. Over the course of his amazing record-setting career at Florida State, he hasn't needed many.

But if it's OK with you, he would like just one.

Since taking the helm of the Seminoles baseball program in 1980, Martin has won more than 1,600 games and 16 conference championships. He's coached nearly 80 All-Americans and dozens of big leaguers from Buster Posey to J.D. Drew to Deion Sanders.

This year marks Martin's 14th trip to the College World Series as FSU's head coach and the school's 20th overall. It's no secret that the Seminoles have never won a CWS championship, certainly not this week in Omaha, when reporters keep asking Martin about it. And it's certainly no secret in Tallahassee, where the Noles hardball faithful refer to the frustration as simply "The Zero."

FSU has reached the championship game three times and lost all three. Martin was on the bench for them all, the first time as an assistant coach. The last loss was particularly painful, coming in 1999 at the hands of archrival Miami, coached by Martin's onetime good friend and assistant but now bitter enemy, Jim Morris.

The last time the Seminoles were in Omaha was 2008, riding the bat of Posey, the national player of the year. They were once again eliminated, again by Miami.

Still, no one enjoys Omaha more than Martin. And no one is happier to be on the field and in the dugout for Rosenblatt Stadium's final College World Series than Martin. "When I go to Omaha, everyone wants to know if I feel the pain and disappointment of some of those hard losses over the years," said the man they simply call "11," for his jersey number, during the 2009 ACC tournament in Durham, N.C. "Not a chance. Not even close. What hurts is when we don't make it back. I can't even hardly watch it on television during the years when we aren't there. Going to Omaha for me is like a family reunion. I get to do things and see people that have been a part of my life since I was just a kid."

One of those people is Marilyn Ralston, better known as the Gatorade Lady. For at least twenty years now Ralston has greeted teams at one of the College World Series' official off-day practice facilities, the sparkling ballpark of Bellevue East High School in Bellevue, Neb., about fifteen minutes south of Rosenblatt. She rolls her cooler down the hill, flips it open and greets visiting teams with a smile and a selection of cold drinks.

Miss Marilyn used to carry out the task alongside her husband, Gene. Over the years the Ralstons befriended the teams that made nearly annual visits to Omaha each June, particularly Martin's FSU squads and Morris' Miami teams. But in 2000, Martin was disappointed when Miss Marilyn arrived to greet his team on her own, without Mr. Gene. Over the winter her husband had been sacked by a long list of medical problems and simply didn't have the strength to make the one-mile trip from their home to the practice field.

So Miss Marilyn and 11 formulated a plan.

That afternoon, Ralston returned home and gave her ailing husband a full report on the day. As she talked, the doorbell rang. Feigning surprise -- "I wonder who that could be?" -- she went to answer it. When she threw open the front door, Gene Ralston could see the Florida State team bus sitting in his driveway. Then one by one, the Seminoles walked into his house, led by Martin, to offer their get-wells and thank-yous in person.

"You want to know what Omaha is all about?" Martin said, choking up as he told the story. "That's what it's all about. Not wins and losses. It's the people and the experience."

And that brings us back to that one do-over.

The year was 1965. Martin was an infielder for the Seminoles team that made it to Omaha, but broke his arm before the Series and was relegated to the job of reluctant first-base coach. Instead of pausing to take in the Rosenblatt experience, he sulked.

"I was a kid and I was mad. I didn't know any better, and I still regret it. So every trip I have made back I have made sure that I didn't make that mistake again. And I make sure that my players don't make that mistake, even if we've lost a game. Enjoy it. You may never get to experience anything like this again."

In the Seminoles' locker room back in Tallahassee there is a wall mural that includes a photo of their home park, Mike Martin Field, with the words "It begins here … " and a photo of Rosenblatt with the second half of the sentence, "… it ends here." And as the FSU bus rolls down 12th Street to the ballpark each June, Martin still loves seeing the reactions of his players the first time they see the big blue Blatt sitting atop the hill ahead.

Some FSU fans will always look at the old stadium and immediately think of "The Zero." Not 11. As far as he's concerned, Rosenblatt isn't a house of horrors. It's home away from home.

Ryan McGee is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Road To Omaha: Hits, Hopes and History at the College World Series," which chronicles the excitement and passion of the CWS, is now available on paperback.