July 8, 2012
By Jon Cooper
Getting to Omaha is the goal of every college baseball player.
Georgia Tech Sophomore Daniel Palka got a taste of what makes Omaha so special, when he participated in the 2012 TD Ameritrade College Home Run Derby, held on July 3rd at TD Ameritrade Park.
Palka, who blasted 12 homers in 2012, good for sixth in the ACC and second on the Yellow Jackets, was one of eight sluggers from around the nation to get an opportunity to take his best power swings at the home of the College World Series. Also invited were Derek Fisher of Virginia, Tyler Horan of Virginia Tech, Daniel Aldrich of the College of Charleston, Mason Katz of LSU, Aaron Judge of Fresno State and Zach Stephens of Tennessee Tech.
The experience did not disappoint.
“It was awesome,” said Palka. “Omaha is just a totally different environment than anything else I’ve ever played or been in. All the fans, everybody roots for you. They’re rooting for everybody. It was a lot of fun.”
Adding to the fun was the opportunity to use non-BBCore bats.
“They had a lot more pop,” he said. “They made the BBCore ones safer for pitchers. We got to use the old ones. We hadn’t used them since high school.”
The way things turned out, just getting to swing a bat was something of a victory.
While Palka had already learned in his two seasons at Georgia Tech that there is no easy way to get to Omaha, he had no idea that lesson even held true in exhibitions to which he was invited.
The invite proved of little help. His flight, which should have taken four hours and got him and teammate Zane Evans, who was Palka’s pitcher, in town at around 5:00 the night before the event, ended up taking 23 hours and resulted in their arrival only hours prior to the start.
“The computer system in our first flight was messed up so we had to wait three hours, then we ended up getting into Detroit at like 9 p.m. and missed our connecting flight by an hour,” he said. “By the time we got through customer service it was midnight and they put us in a hotel in Detroit. We left at 6 the next morning. That flight got delayed, too, because of weather. We didn’t get to Omaha until around 12. It was a long trip. That kind of threw us off a little bit.”
The exhausted Palka hit one home run and was eliminated after the first round. Aldrich, the 2011 winner, who was on the same flight as Palka and Evans, also was eliminated early, as he didn’t homer at all. Judge won the competition, hitting 16.
But the result of the competition could not put a damper on the experience. Palka didn’t know any of the participants beyond Aldrich, a high school teammate, and Horan, his teammate on the Cape, but said that by the end of the competition, everyone had grown closer.
“You got the feeling that we had all been good friends for a long time,” he said. “Everybody got kind of close. You came out like you’re best friends. So it was pretty cool to get to hang out with some new people.”
Palka, who participated in the Cape Cod League’s HR Derby last summer at Fenway Park, is looking forward to being in the C.C.L.’s event again this summer — even though it won’t be at Fenway — and is also looking forward to competing with some of his new friends, many of whom also are spending their summers playing on the Cape.
“Most all the guys are up on the Cape except for Fisher and Stephens,” he said. “We played Mason Katz’s team (the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox) last night and we were messing around laughing about [the Derby]. So when we all see each other we’ll talk about it.”
The new-found experience of playing at TD Ameritrade hopefully will pay off next May.
“Before, you’re just like, ‘Omaha, yeah,'” he said. “But after being there, the environment is so strong. It was sold out and that’s exactly how every game would be. It was just awesome.”