OMAHA, Neb. — Over the past 26 years, Joy and Bruce Hammatt are among the few people from Baton Rouge who have been to Omaha more times than the LSU baseball team.
Just about every year for the last quarter-century or so, the Hammatt family packs up the car each summer and makes the nearly 1,000-mile trip to America’s heartland to watch the College World Series.
Sometimes they take a detour through St. Louis. Sometimes they go through southwest Arkansas. But whenever the Tigers make the trip — and three times when they didn’t — the Hammatts are right there with them. Seventeen times now, Joy has been to Omaha.
It’s like a family reunion — or a cult following, as her sister calls it. Whenever the Hammatts make the 17-hour drive, they see the same faces they met on their first trip.
The Hammatts aren’t alone in their tradition. LSU fans are known to flock to Omaha whenever their team has a chance at another national championship.
For many, it’s a chance to reconnect with the family they’ve made at “LSU North.”
“The people (of Omaha) are so nice. They remind me of Louisiana people,” Joy said. “They embrace baseball. They’re great baseball fans. And they love LSU because we bring so many people, we spend so much money, we party, we feed them.
"There’s just a huge love affair between the city of Omaha and LSU. When we came up here on years when the team wasn’t here, we’d wear our LSU stuff and they’d still say, ‘We love LSU. We wish your team was here.’ ”
The big draw to the Hammatts' tailgate is their fried fish, which is caught right out of their boat in Bayou du Large. Over the years, they’ve expanded the menu to include shrimp, crawfish étouffée, hush puppies and shrimp and grits — all prepared right outside TD Ameritrade Park.
And anyone who wants a taste is free to ask. The Hammatts hand out plates and Mardi Gras beads to fans, police officers and even a few lucky ushers. Back at Rosenblatt Stadium, Joy used to send plates of food up the elevators to the TV crews in the press box. In 2015, she said, ESPN sent a golf cart for a pickup.
This year’s new addition has nothing to do with food or fans, though.
Joy, also known as the “sign lady” around Alex Box Stadium, made a special banner for Saturday’s opener against Florida State to honor Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., who was shot in Virginia on Wednesday while practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game later that week.
“Get well Steve Scalise #ForeverLSU!” the sign reads, wishing the best for the longtime baseball fan still recovering in the hospital.
“He’s an LSU grad,” Joy said. “I just wanted to let him know, in case he’s well enough in his room somewhere watching the game, I’m going to hold the sign up and hope it gets on TV and hope he sees it and let him know Tiger Nation is pulling for him.”
Once Wayne Vollman, an Alexandria native, saw the Tigers clinched a trip to Nebraska, he took it as a golden opportunity to see friends he made two years ago.
It’s the story many LSU fans tell of their trips to Omaha: meeting local converts to the program after years of seeing Louisiana natives bring so much passion to Omaha.
“We’re LSU fans. Wherever LSU goes, we go,” Vollman said. “Plus, these very nice people I met here two years ago in Omaha — we tailgated with them and they’ve become great friends of ours. So we wanted to visit some good friends and go to the ballgame. That’s why we drove 14 hours, to see them.”
On Saturday, Vollman was tailgating with Teresa Vogel and her husband, local Omahans, who have cheered for the Tigers for a decade after a close friend and LSU fan died. Since then, Vogel said, she remembers her friend through the Tigers.
The love affair isn’t only within the confines of Omaha, either.
When the Vogels were driving through Baton Rouge a few years back, they stopped by an LSU baseball game at Alex Box Stadium. They weren’t looking for anyone in particular and only had general admission seats, but once locals found out they were from Omaha, they became instant royalty, given passes to a suite.
“(LSU fans) are unbelievable,” Vogel said. “I said in my next life, I’m going to live in Louisiana. It’s just wonderful.”
At 950 miles, LSU is the fourth-closest of the eight teams playing in Omaha this weekend, but not every LSU fan is coming from Louisiana.
Coosh Willis drove 22 hours from Tallahassee, Florida, to be with the Tigers this weekend and doesn’t plan to leave until the team does.
Willis, originally from Gonzales, made his second trip to Omaha this year, meeting up with his actual family from all over the Southeast for a baseball-centric reunion.
You may notice Willis’ adopted hometown is also the home of LSU’s opponent on Saturday, but the Cajun restaurant owner’s alliances are not in question as he hands out bowls of jambalaya to random passersby.
“Everybody here loves LSU,” Willis said. “It’s just great to come up here and get the warm hospitality you’d expect at LSU, but up north in Omaha.”