Sacrifices made, but fans persevere

Ever since he was a little boy, Dallas Keuchel always knew where his dad was sitting in the stands. The hard-throwing lefty from the University of Arkansas started a ritual in which he'd walk to the dugout, after warm-ups, and tip his hat as his dad tipped back.

When Keuchel went to college, finding his parents in the stands wasn't always as easy. His father, Dennis, lost his full-time job at a nursery, and the family has been scraping by in their hometown of Tulsa, Okla. But the Keuchels vowed that the economy wouldn't stop them from seeing their son's junior season.

They tapped their credit cards -- along with a little creativity -- and followed Dallas all the way to the College World Series last month in Omaha.

"We started in debt up to our eyeballs. Now we're right here," Dennis Keuchel said as he raised his hand above his head. "But it's OK, because, I mean, this is his last year and we're not going to be able to enjoy this anymore at the college level.

"I missed his first start and then that's when I decided, 'To hell with it. When he plays, I'm taking off.'"

There is a recession gripping the country, but it was hard to notice it during the NCAA's final championship of the 2008-09 academic year. The CWS broke its attendance record, drawing 336,076 fans for the 10-day event. Like every other year, fans traveled thousands of miles to Omaha, dined at fancy steakhouses and played the slot machines at the casinos across the Missouri River.

Some of them, like the regulars from Louisiana who have kept their well-paying jobs in the oil industry, are unaffected by the economy. Others have become more coupon-conscious and resourceful.

Betty Hewell, a longtime Longhorns fan, used frequent-flyer miles, found a $20-a-day rental car and planned a shorter trip so she could cross off one of her dream vacations by seeing Texas play at Rosenblatt Stadium before the CWS moved to a downtown stadium in 2011.

She ate grocery-store food instead of spending money at restaurants. Hewell's bargain hunting was almost a complete success, until she walked into the hotel she booked online.

I was expecting the [CWS] attendance to be less. But I tell you, I don't see a difference.

-- LSU fan Doug Guidry

"It was just the nastiest hotel," Hewell said. "It was so bad it didn't even have the sample shampoo and conditioner. I slept on top of the sheets. I wanted to sleep in the rental car.

"But [the CWS] was so good. It was great to see the atmosphere. I only went for two days. That's all I could really afford."

The sagging economy has actually meant bigger bargains for some sports travelers. Gas prices are nearly $2 a gallon cheaper than last summer, allowing LSU fan Doug Guidry and his buddies to save money on their 950-mile drive from their homes near Lafayette, La., to Omaha.

Like most other years, Guidry and his five buddies still packed about $2,500 worth of food, lugging crawfish, chicken sausage and all the fixings to make jambalaya. Only this year, they put up a tip jar to curb a high volume of mooching. Guidry and his friends are keeping their travel plans, and they wouldn't dream of giving up their LSU football season tickets, either. If they did that, Guidry says, they know they'd have to get on a waiting list and wait years to get them back.

"I was expecting the [CWS] attendance to be less," said Guidry, a Halliburton employee who has been relatively unaffected by the economy. "But I tell you, I don't see a difference."

But in some corners, there is a difference. Across the street, Subby Anzalone grilled hamburgers at another LSU tailgate and worried about the future. Though he has a rather "recession-proof" job in the health care industry, he lost money in the stock market this past year and has made some sacrifices.

His family doesn't eat out as much and plans more activities at home. He started getting e-mails over the winter from his Louisiana friends, asking if he'd still have the tailgate even in these tough times.

Anzalone, an Omaha native, couldn't cut the CWS out of his life. So he and his friends still plunked down the $5,000 or so to rent a patch of RV space across the street from the stadium. This year, he bought most of his supplies months in advance, watching the ads for sales on meat and alcohol.

Sometimes, hard times lead to better bonding. The Keuchels saved money on their trip to Omaha by staying at a relative's house along with 10 other people. They ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and camped out on couches and in spare rooms. They saw Dallas lead the Razorbacks to two wins in Omaha.

Dennis has a part-time job, but wasn't getting paid while the family was in Omaha. Neither was Teresa Keuchel, who burned all her vacation time watching her son play earlier in the year.

But they say it was worth it. Things will be different now, as Dallas, a seventh-round pick by the Houston Astros, will start over in the minor leagues. Baseball is a business now, says Dennis, who is known as "Big D" while his son has gone by "Little D." It's about money, something the family didn't have a lot of in 2009, but they still managed to have a lot of fun.

"We sucked it up and went," Teresa said. "You just do what you have to do.

"And the plastic is wonderful. Because you can always pay it off."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.