OMAHA — The party kept growing, as tailgates often do.
It all started in 2007, when Mississippi State beat Clemson in the super regionals. The Maloneys were coming to Omaha.
Paul Maloney and his wife, Traci, used travel points to book flights and a rental car, then purchased tickets and a parking pass outside of Rosenblatt Stadium to see their Bulldogs in the College World Series.
They never tailgated before.
After arriving late on a scalding day, the Maloneys found a spot at the bottom of a hill under the one shaded tree — next to the Gundersons.
The Maloneys brought only a Styrofoam ice chest while their new friends from Gretna had a grill, coolers and chairs. The Gundersons invited them back the next day.
“We got absolutely hooked, and so we’ve been every year since 2007,” Maloney said. “I mean, we knew nothing about tailgating.”
That was evident when Maloney saw a group of Michigan fans outside their bus — the Wolverines weren’t even in the CWS — and Maloney asked one man why they were there. The fan immediately sensed Maloney’s inexperience and replied: “You’ll figure it out.”
For the past 15 years, Maloney has.
In 2011, the Maloneys started renting a downtown Omaha storage unit for their tailgate equipment. By 2013, there were 30 members of their tailgate. Last year, Maloney adopted a “bring your own” policy with people bringing their own drinks, tents and chairs. “What we had in 2019, it really, truly got too big.”
Though some logistics have changed, traditions remain.
Maloney annually sees his regular CWS “tailgate family,” which includes fans of other teams and friends from Iowa and Nebraska. They try for the same location in Lot D every year, raising a Mississippi state flag and being a goodwill ambassador for the program.
The menu is also the same — duck poppers, pig wings, venison sausage balls, seafood boudin. The food was so good that one person suggested Maloney quit his job and sell duck poppers.
Maloney has become pretty well known, too, and he prioritizes serving food to law enforcement.
One time, a security guard recognized Maloney’s U-Haul as he waited to enter the lot. “Duck poppers here, be ready at 11,” the guard said into his walkie-talkie.
The Maloneys experienced the biggest evolution in CWS tailgating with the move to the downtown location. One of the major switches from Rosenblatt was that fans couldn’t leave their setups overnight.
It creates a competitive feel, said Kelli Anne Francis, who has been tailgated at the event since 2000. Francis said there was a change in ambience.
At first, “the parking lot looked like the Thanksgiving weekend sale at the mall,” Maloney said.
There were more grassy areas, and you saw the same people at Rosenblatt. The RV community known as “Dingerville” showed up every year. There was the eight-flamingo tribute, too, representing the eight teams. The self-proclaimed CWS Professional Tailgaters would hood each flamingo as a team was eliminated.
The flamingos made their way to Schwab Field, too, where tailgating is on the surrounding concrete parking lots and you’ll find pockets of tailgating groups with cars packed in.
“It went from a neighborhood feel to a corporate feel,” Francis said.
Some like the change, though.
Omaha resident Jake Williams has tailgated at the event since he was 6. He said though it has a “corporate feel,” he prefers tailgating at Schwab because of downtown proximity.
The 27-year-old tailgates with his childhood friends. His menu is much more traditional, too: hot dogs, hamburgers and Busch Light with a Spotify game day music mix.
“Rosenblatt in terms of watching baseball and all the history behind it, (it) was a much better venue for baseball,” Williams said. “It was historic and it was old school, but it didn’t allow itself to be really the party setup.”
Williams and his group have another tradition that is carried over from the old park: cheering for anyone besides Texas. The Nebraska grad will cheer for the Huskers first. Then it’s LSU or Mississippi State because of their fans.
And Francis did find a way to keep that neighborhood feel. It starts with the people.
Her tailgate consists of a core group coming from Texas, Colorado, Minnesota and Kansas City. It creates a family reunion sense.
She’ll serve meatball subs on Father’s Day because it’s her Minnesota friend’s favorite and he can’t stay the whole time. Boudin is a breakfast staple. Other days it could be a taco bar, gourmet burgers, Cajun food or barbecue. Francis, an LSU supporter, might have crawfish boils or jambalaya if the Tigers are in the field.
Some other traditions: They’ll start with mimosas in the morning and partake in “tailgate yoga” while they’re waiting to enter the lot, stretching their calves and doing other exercises. They’ll arrive early to enter Lot D, like Maloney.
“(Maloney’s) the king of Lot D,” Francis said. “They’ll call me the queen and I’ll call him the king.”
Preparation for Francis’ tailgate begins in February with equipment checks. March is dedicated to menu and recipe testing. Then on Memorial Day weekend, she’ll buy the beer — that’s when it’s on sale.
A newer option is Blur Parties, a Nebraska-based company that hosts “premier hospitality” tailgates. When the CWS moved, the company introduced the concept to Omaha after doing tailgates for Husker football games.
Buffet-style meals are prepared that consist of bratwursts, hamburgers and pizzas with a variety of sides. Fans have their choice of beer, liquor and wine. There’s a DJ, several flat-screen TVs and games such as foosball and jumbo Jenga. Guests can also visit the chill zone, a hot tub filled with iced water with a small deck.
The location is outside the Hilton Omaha, and the company might expect to see 4,000 people during the tournament, Blur co-owner Stacy Leners said. The location is near the stadium, but sometimes fans will just stay and watch games on TV.
The same goes for Maloney’s, Francis’ and Williams’ tailgates. Maloney and Williams have a TV set up.
And Maloney said there will be less stress this year. That happens when your team isn’t in it.
His Bulldogs also won their first national title last year, so there’s some consolation. And plenty to eat.
The College World Series through the years