Jonah Nickerson had a very short night Monday at the Hilton Omaha. Maybe two, two and a half hours of sleep, max, before a 7:30 a.m. wake-up call.
The Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series wasn't out partying. He was in his hotel room with close pal Kevin Gunderson, watching ESPN's replay of Oregon State's victory over North Carolina for the national championship.
'I wanted to see the end of the game, because I didn't get a chance to think about it while it happened,' Nickerson says. 'I mean, things happened so fast. So it was cool to sit back and watch it on TV and find out what really happened.'
When Nickerson woke up, he was glad it wasn't all a dream. What happened really happened. The junior right-hander from Oregon City, who had always played in the shadows of somebody, was finally the man - the guy who rubber-armed his way to CWS history, winning two games and putting his team in position to win the biggest game in the school's long athletic history.
Nickerson had spent an hour or two after the game celebrating with his mother, Denise Harp; his brother, Tim Nickerson; his girlfriend, Angie Orns; and his grandfather, who had driven from Minnesota to be in Omaha, Neb.
'It was difficult to soak it all in,' he says. 'I guess I was kind of in shock. I wasn't shocked that we won, but that it actually happened.'
Then came Tuesday, and the flight home, and the civic celebrations in Portland and Corvallis after the jet landed in Oregon in late morning. The coaches and players loaded into two Hummers, two Hummer limousines and two Cadillac Escalades, with police escorts from the airport to Pioneer Courthouse Square.
Plaza scene mimics square's
'When we saw all the people screaming for us at the airport, we had a pretty good idea it might be crazy at Pioneer Square,' he says. 'And it was. It was a gamelike atmosphere, with everybody cheering for us.'
Then the hour and a half trip to Corvallis, where a crowd estimated at 5,000 greeted the team in the plaza between Reser Stadium and Gill Coliseum.
'Wow, it was rowdy,' Nickerson says, laughing. 'I can't imagine how excited all the people must have been, watching the championship game. We played not only for ourselves, but for everyone who supported us and embraced us. It's rewarding to know we put Northwest baseball on the map.'
After arriving at the Southtown Corvallis apartment he shares with Gunderson, Nickerson sat down to reflect on what had happened the past 10 days. He thought about the coaches who had helped him climb the mountain and put his name on the CWS most outstanding trophy along with the likes of Sal Bando, Dave Winfield, Bob Horner, Phil Nevin, Mark Kotsay and Huston Street.
There was high school coach J.J. Winkle. And Tom Niebergall, former coach of the Oregon City Pioneers who, as a former pitching instructor in the Philadelphia Phillies' organization, had served as a guru of sorts for Nickerson.
'They both helped me a lot,' Nickerson says. 'When I got to high school, I wasn't sure if I was going to pitch, play third base, catcher or outfield. I started taking up pitching after my freshman year. I learned a lot from coach Winkle, but (Niebergall) played a pretty big part, too. It was a good combination.'
Promise shows in high school
Winkle has stayed close to Nickerson. The two talked nearly every day during the CWS.
'To see Jonah perform like he did, on that national stage, take the ball and keep on going out there … I can't tell you how proud I am of him,' Winkle says. 'We talked before the game Monday, and I said, 'You're pitching for the national championship.' And he said, 'Yeah, so what? It's just another game.' That's the kind of kid he is. He handles everything in stride.
'He was our best catcher, our best pitcher, our best shortstop, our best outfielder, our best hitter. His senior year, he was our team. The kid always had talent. I never doubted he could perform at whatever level he was competing at. And I have no doubt Jonah is going to make it to the major leagues.'
Niebergall taught weight lifting when Nickerson was at Oregon City. The day after pitching outings, Nickerson would stop by to get Niebergall's evaluation of his performance.
'He's such a willing learner,' Niebergall says. 'We would sit and talk about pitch development, setting up hitters, the mental part of pitching. He always had that internal fire to succeed.
'He's going to make it at the big-league level. He has the ability to use four pitches and locate that drives hitters up the wall. People have sold him short at times, but you can't do that with a kid like Jonah. He has such a passion to succeed.'
'It's beyond phenomenal'
Oregon State coach Pat Casey admits he couldn't have foreseen Nickerson's level of achievement when he recruited him out of Oregon City in 2003.
'I signed a kid who threw 90, 91 miles per hour with a great breaking ball, and I loved the guy,' Casey says. 'Dallas Buck had dominant stuff, but Jonah was such a pitcher. I envisioned him being a starter in the Pac-10 and an efficient one. But to do what he did at the College World Series - it's beyond phenomenal.'
Nickerson, a seventh-round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers, hasn't hired an agent but is consulting with adviser Joe Urbon, whose clients include ex-OSU great Jacoby Ellsbury. Nickerson intends to sign and move onto pro ball this summer.
'There is nothing more for me to accomplish at the college level, not after winning a national championship,' he says. 'I'm going to enjoy this moment for the rest of my life. From now until forever, I'll always remember this. It sure feels good to go out on top.'