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Anteaters attract admirers

Embraced as underdogs, the scrappy UC Irvine baseball team becomes the darling of Omaha at the College World Series.

June 21, 2007|Dave McKibben and Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writers

OMAHA — For a college more renowned for its Nobel Prizes than championship rings, it was a spectacular run of luck and national attention for the UC Irvine Anteaters.

As the school's baseball team rang up a series of improbable College World Series wins here -- which, alas, ended Wednesday with a loss to defending champion Oregon State -- the university's equally improbable anteater mascot became the symbol of the underdog.

"Eater Nation" ball caps and "Fear the Snout" T-shirts became overnight collectors' items as the UC Irvine team marched into Omaha, toppling such powerhouses as Texas and Cal State Fullerton along the way. By Wednesday evening, the stands in Rosenblatt Stadium were filled with Anteater converts as the team took on the Beavers of Oregon State.

In early June, there might have been only a handful of people outside Southern California who knew UC Irvine even had a baseball team. Most students at the university seemed too preoccupied with finals to notice when their team won its first postseason game and began its advance to college baseball's promised land.

But a few weeks and several thrilling victories later, the scrappy Anteaters became the darlings of Omaha, embraced by fans enchanted by the school's underdog status and its decidedly meek-looking mascot. There was plenty of media attention too, from five-minute segments on ESPN's signature show, SportsCenter, to stories in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and USA Today.

The team's fan base even spread 100 miles north of Omaha to Sioux City, Iowa, where 16-year-old Christian Friend lives. Christian, who has been going to the College World Series since he was 11, rooted last year for Oregon State, which also enjoyed underdog status when it won the 2006 championship. But like many in Nebraska, he was won over by the Anteaters.

"It's a unique animal," Christian said, wearing a UC Irvine hat and T-shirt. "Everyone likes the Anteaters this year because they are the underdog. They aren't some big school that everyone has heard of. People around here like that."

Vendors all over Omaha have been cashing in on Anteater hype. Ashley Grover was at a merchandise stand near the stadium selling hats, shirts and other memorabilia Wednesday afternoon. One shirt had pictures of an anteater and a beaver. Written on it was "BEAVER or EATER, who's going down?"

"These will go pretty darn fast," she predicted.

"The locals have basically adopted UC Irvine," said one vendor near the picturesque ballpark where the games are played. "It's basically been the whole week, but it's growing more and more each day. Their hats and shirts are hot items."

A lot of Anteater garb, however, was late in reaching the streets of Omaha because of a delay in getting licensing approvals from the NCAA and poor communication between the athletic department and the campus bookstore, university officials said.

"We got a late start on a lot of things," said Phil Wang, associate athletic director for business and finance. "We'll be better prepared the next time we make it to Omaha."

Early in Tuesday night's upset over perennial powerhouse Arizona State, most of the nearly 30,000 fans were politely neutral. But after Irvine rallied from a 7-3 deficit and was poised to win the game in 10 innings, nearly everyone was on his feet chanting, "Ollie, Ollie," in hopes that Irvine center fielder Ollie Linton would come through with a game-winning hit.

"I was getting goose bumps," said Bob Olson, Irvine's longtime sports information director. "It was phenomenal."

It was even better Wednesday when Olson saw Linton's face plastered all over newspapers and sports websites. One headline read, "Still eating." Another read, "President Linton."

As Irvine's victories piled up to a school record 47, folks in Orange County were swept up as well. The campus bookstore, normally quiet the week after finals, was having a hard time keeping Anteater T-shirts, sweatshirts and ball caps in stock.

"If we got 20 orders a week on our website, we'd be doing great," said Michael Smith, director of the campus bookstore. "Now we're getting 70 to 80 a day, and we're selling another 70 to 80 a day in our store. It's thrilling."

Irvine Co. Chief Executive Donald Bren didn't make it to the bookstore, but he did request a UC Irvine ball cap Wednesday for the opening of the Donald Bren Hall on campus. During the ceremony, he complained that he had strained his voice while cheering for the Anteaters.

Across the street from the Omaha stadium, Anteater fans set up shop in a rented residence, dubbing the house Eater Nation. Picnic tables, a large grill, a 50-inch flat screen television and cases of sodas and beer filled the yard.

Even though 200 or so faithful Irvine boosters trekked to Omaha for the games, Mike Orloff -- father of Irvine shortstop Ben Orloff -- said the yard became more packed with converted Anteater fans each day.

"Some people just thought, 'Hey, the Anteaters are charming and I'm just gonna go with that,' " Orloff said. "But there has been a wave, a shift of perception of who this team is, and a lot of people have come on board. It's like a wave of support that's building and building, and it's moving toward shore."

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david.mckibben@latimes.com

peter.yoon@latimes.com

Yoon reported from Omaha; McKibben from Orange County.

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