1. The College World Series
I have never been to Omaha, but I imagine a baseball utopia smack in the heartland where for two weeks every June teams from the South and West Coast gather to eat grade-A steak and settle the one major college championship that is still relatively pure. I watch at least half-a-dozen games on television every year, and for some reason, it seems like the sun is always shining, the crowd is always tanned and the ninth inning goes on forever. Where else do aces who are future first-round draft picks beg their coaches for the chance to throw 100 pitches one day, another 100 two days later, and then close a game two days after that? Only in Omaha.
2. Saturday night football at LSU
My ears have rung at Florida, Alabama, Notre Dame, USC, and Oregon, where I was once unable to hear the man who was sitting next to me and screaming in my ear. But from what I am told by connoisseurs of college football and crowd noise, you would think those famous gridirons are libraries compared to the madhouse appropriately known as Death Valley, where a Cajun roar comes off the bayou on Saturday nights in the fall that literally registers on the Richter scale. Whether it is the night sky, the white uniforms, or the potent concoctions served at tailgate parties, something makes LSU the loudest place in American sports.
3. Oklahoma State basketball
Gallagher-Iba Arena hosted its first game in 1938, when Henry Iba's Cowboys beat Phog Allen's Kansas Jayhawks, 21-15. Since then, I have wanted to go. That's not true, but Gallagher-Iba Arena is everything college hoops is supposed to be about -- an old barn in the Midwest with history, character and students in orange sport-coats making it impossible to concentrate at the free-throw line. The arena has been expanded, but it remains the Madison Square Garden of the plains, intimate and important at the same time. I don't care what the Cowboys are ranked or who they are playing the night I'm there. But it would be nice if the Jayhawks were back in town.
4. Pickup basketball at UCLA's Men's Gym
They play every summer: Kobe, Baron, Garnett, Pierce and dozens of others, choosing sides at the rickety little gym that John Wooden's Bruins called home before there was a Pauley Pavilion. The problem with attending L.A.'s legendary summer pickup games is that there are no tickets, no schedules, no start times. Wander into the Men's Gym and you might catch NBA All-Stars. Or you might get stuck with UCLA frat boys. I have glimpsed great local college players going at each other in their spare time. But I have yet to see Kobe and Garnett, sparring and jawing on their summer vacations, just for the fun of it.
5. Spring training in Bradenton
The notion that spring training is a retreat back in time, to an era when tickets were cheap, ballparks were cozy, and players mingled with fans, is a lie. I reached this conclusion by spending March in places like Peoria, Ariz., and Lake Buena Vista, Fla. But I have not been to McKechnie Field, a Spanish-style gem in Bradenton that was built in 1923. It has hosted the Pirates for 40 years, and just put in lights last season. McKechnie is famous for its affordable tickets, friendly ushers and access to players. While other franchises hopscotch spring sites, it's no wonder the Pirates signed a contract to stick around Bradenton through 2037.
My Favorite: Football at Ole MissI declared it the best game I had ever seen before I even stepped inside the stadium. Much has been written and said about The Grove, the grassy plot outside of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium where students and alumni throw their legendary pre-game parties, but words do not do it justice. If The Grove does not have the best food, the strongest drinks and the prettiest co-eds on the sports landscape, I would be nervous to see the place that does. Nowadays, Ole Miss also has a strong team, making Vaught-Hemingway an even more attractive draw than usual. Go for a game, any game, so long as it doesn't kick off too early and interrupt the real festivities. It will be the best game ever, even if the final score is 56-0.