Bruce Chubick cuts a John Wayne-like figure with his tall frame, square jaw and plain-spoken, don’t-mince-words ways. He is, for sure, a throwback to an earlier era and in fact at age 65 he represents a distant generation and hard-to-imagine time to the players he coaches at Omaha South High. But the well-traveled Chubick, who is nothing if not adaptable, has found a way to reach kids young enough to be his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and gotten them to play hard for him. The South High boys basketball program was down when he took it over about a dozen years ago. It was the latest rebuilding job he took in a long career that’s seen go from school to school, town to town, much like an Old West figure, to shake things up and turn the basketball fortunes around before lighting out for the next challenge. Much like his counterpart at South, boys socer coach Joe Maass, who has risen the school’s once cellar-dweller boys soccer program to great heights, Chubick has elevated South High hoops to elite status. After coming close the last few years, Chubick’s Packers finally won the state Class A title this past season – he survived a heart attack en route – and for his efforts he’s been named Nebraska High School Coach of the Year. His team’s championship came just weeks after South’s soccer team won the Class A crown, giving the school and the South Onaha community it represents the best run in sports they’ve had in quite a while.
A good man’s job is never done: Bruce Chubick honored for taking South to top
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in El Perico
Omaha South High 2016 Nebraska High School Coach of the Year Bruce Chubick and his wife Dianne envision one day taking off in their new motor home and not coming back. The couple recently made a road trip by car, but duty still calls the much traveled Chubick. At 65 he’s the metro’s oldest head coach. He’s back prepping for the next boys basketball season with his reigning Class A state champion Packers.
He lost key players from that 28-1 squad that won South’s first state basketball title since 1990. South is the latest rebuilding project he’s engineered at Nebraska and Iowa schools. South came close to hoops titles under him in 2015 and 2012 before breaking through versus Fremont in last March’s finals – giving him his second title after leading West Holt to the C1 crown in 1988 behind his son Bruce.
“It was real satisfying we got it done. I think I appreciated this one a lot more just knowing how valuable that is for a community and school,” he said.
This coming season Chubick lacks depth but has talent in returning all-Nebraska star Aguek Arop. The athletic wing bound for Nebraska may be the main reason Chubick’s coming back despite health concerns. In the midst of last year’s dominant run Chubick suffered a heart attack during a game and elected to coach through it before seeking treatment.
“I didn’t want to quit on the players,” he explained.
He’s no stranger to toughing out difficulties. His son Joe had brain cancer and the family endured an ordeal of doctors, tests and procedures. To get away from it all, Chubick built a cabin in the Montana wilderness, where the family went off the grid for two years. It was a trying but healing time.
“It made the family close. I wouldn’t want to do it again,” he said. “it was a simple but tough life. There’s a lot of stories there, trust me.”
He later survived a kidney cancer scare. Then the recent heart issue. Stints opened clogged arteries. He’s still coaching because he keeps his word.
“I promised Aguek (Arop) when he came in I would stay until he graduated, so I want to keep my word,” said Chubick, who may have his best player ever in Arop. “Aguek is probably the most gifted of all of them, i mean, he’s really special.”
It’s no accident Chubick calls rebuilding programs “the fun part” of his job. He’s been building things his whole life. That cabin. Houses,. Until now, he’d always left after building a program up. “Once you get ’em built I never thought it was that much fun.” But he’s still at South even years after laying a successful foundation. “South happened toward the end of my career. It’s pretty comfortable. I really like South. It’s a good place for us. We found a home when we landed in South Omaha. Once we got this thing built I thought I might as well enjoy it a few years before I turn the keys over to somebody else.”
His “logical” successor is his son Bruce – his top assistant.
This lifelong student of the game grew up in Council Bluffs, where he played whatever sport was in season. “I was the one who usually organized teams. One neighborhood played the other.” He starred at Abraham Lincoln High. While at Southwestern Junior College in Creston, Iowa and at Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, Iowa, he coached junior high ball. “That was my work study program,” he said. At SJC coach Ron Clinton let Chubick and his mates help strategize “how to play teams.” Game-planning and leading got in his blood.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t work with kids.”
His wife Dianne, who’s seen nearly every high school game he’s coached, said she most admires “the way he can touch kids,” adding, “When they come into his program they’re like his family and he wants the best for every one of them.”
He said his son Joe’s resilience in the face of struggle has affirmed for him that “things are what you make of them.”
Chubick still hungers to coach. “Honest to God we were on the bus after we won the championship headed back to Omaha and before we got out of Lincoln city limits I was thinking about next year. How we’d have to build around Aguek and figure out which players would have to step up.” He said he believes in “that old adage – when you’re through learning, you’re through. That’s true with coaching. You think you know it all, you should quit because you never know it all. I use the analogy that coaching’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You pick up pieces here and there and you try to put the puzzle together. For most coaches, the puzzle’s never complete. I’m not sure mine’s complete.”
His health will determine when he retires. “As long as my health holds up, I don’t think it’s time. Not yet.”
He won’t take it easy in the meantime. “A lot of people go through life and they don’t really live – they just kind of go through the motions. We’ve gotten our money’s worth. We’ve lived.”
Follow his and his team’s viviendo en grande (living large) journey at http://southpackerspride.com/.
The College World Series has me all nostalgic for the way things were and by that I mean the CWS and Rosenblatt Stadium enjoying a long-lived marriage as the home to the Boys of Summer. It was a pairing that seemed destined to last decades more. My story here from 1998 appeared at the peak of CWS glory at The Blatt. It was coming on 50 years for this event and venue. But within a decade all the platitudes uttered by the NCAA and others about this match made in heaven began to erode and the business interests and metrics that control big-time college athletics erased any sentiment and moved forward with cold, calculated speed to a new CWS era. The powers that be abandoned Rosenblatt and made plans to develope the new TD Ameritrade ballpark in order to keep the series in Omaha because the Grand Old Lady, as Jack Payne refers to the vintage Blatt, was showing its age and could not accommodate fans in the manner the NCAA demanded. Of course, Omaha had already put put tens of millions of dollars into updating Rosenblatt to keep the series here. The city then spent much more than that again to build a new park to keep the series here. Those who said The Blatt had to go called it a relic and anachronism in an age of expansive stadiums with unobstructed views and wide concourses. There is no doubt that Rosenblatt’s guts were cramped, claustrophobic-inducing and offered limited or nonexistent views of the field from the concourse. Defenders cited the history, legacy, tradition and character of the old park that would be sacrificed, lost and irreplacable in a new venue. We all know what happened. But for a glorious run of more than half a century, The Blatt reigned supreme.
The series and the stadium: CWS and Rosenblatt are home to the Boys of Summer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.
It’s baseball season again, and The Boys of Summer are haunting diamonds across the land to play this quintessentially American game. One rooted in the past, yet forever new. As a fan put it recently, “With baseball, it’s the same thing all over again, but it isn’t. Do you know what I mean?”
Yes, there’s a timelessness about baseball’s unhurried rhythm, classic symmetry and simple charm. The game is steeped in rules and rituals almost unchanged since the turn of the century. It’s an expression of the American character, both immutable and enigmatic.
Within baseball’s rigid standards, idoosyncracy blooms. A nine-inning contest is decided when 27 outs are recorded and one team is ahead, but getting there can take anywhere from two to four hours or more. All sorts of factors, including weather delays, offensive explosions and multiple pitching changes, can extend a game. An extra inning game results when the two teams are tied after nine stanzas. The number of extra innings is limitless until one team outscores the other after both clubs have had their requisite turns at the plate. There are countless games on record that have gone 10, 11, 12 or more innings, sometimes upwards of 15 to 18 innings and some have even gone beyond these outlier limits to 20 or more innings, when they become true marathon contests of will for players and fans alike. The hours and plays can add up to the point that you can’t remember all the action you just sat through and witnessed.
Stadiums may appear uniform but each has its own personality – with distinctive outfield, dimensions, wind patterns, sight lines, nooks and crannies. Balls play differently and carry differently in each park. The way the infield grass and dirt are maintained differs from park to park. The way the pitcher’s mound and batter’s box are aligned differs, too.
Look in any almost American town and you’ll find a ballpark with deep ties to the sport and its barnstorming, sandlot origins. A shrine, if you will, for serious fans who savor old-time values and traditions. The real thing. Such a place is as near as Omaha’s Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, the site the past 49 years of the annual College World Series.
The city and the stadium have become synonomous with the NCAA Division I national collegiate baseball championship. No other single location has hosted a major NCAA tournament for so long. More than 4 million fans have attended the event in Omaha since 1950.
This year’s CWS is scheduled for May 29-June 6.
The innocence and the memories
In what has been a troubled era for organized ball, Rosenblatt reaffirms what is good about the game. There, far away from the distraction of Major League free-agency squabbles, the threat of player and umpire strikes, and the posturing of superstars, baseball, in its purest form, takes center stage. Hungry players still hustle and display enthusiasm without making a show of it. Sportsmanship still abounds. Booing is almost never heard during the CWS. Fights are practically taboo.
The action unwinds with lesiurely grace. The”friendly confines” offer the down home appeal of a state fair. Where else but Omaha can the PA announcer ask fans to “scooch in a hair more” and be obliged?
Undoubtedly, the series has been the stadium’s anchor and catalyst. In recent years, thanks in part to ESPN-CBS television coverage, the CWS has become a hugely popular event, regularly setting single game and series attendance records. The undeniable appeal, besides the determination of the players, is a chance to glimpse the game’s upcoming stars. Fans at Rosenblatt have seen scores of future big league greats perform in the tourney, including Mike Schmidt, Dave Winfield, Fred Lynn, Paul Molitor, Jimmy Key, Roger Clemens, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Belle, Barry Bonds and Barry Larkin.
The stadium on the hill turns 50 this year. As large as the CWS looms in its history, it’s just one part of an impressive baseball lineage. For example, Rosenblatt co-hosted the Japan-USA Collegiate Baseball Championship Series in the ’70s and ’80s, an event that fostered goodwill by matching all-star collegians from each country.
Countless high school and college games have been contested between its lines and still are on occasion.
Pro baseball has played a key role in the stadium’s history as well.
Negro Leagues clubs passed through in its early years. The legendary Satchel Paige pitched there for the Kansas City Monarchs. Major League teams played exhibitions at Rosenblatt in the ’50s and ’60s. St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Stan Musial “killed one” during an exhibition contest.
For all but eight of its 50 years Rosenblatt has hosted a minor league franchise. The Cardinals and Dodgers once based farm clubs there. Native son Hall of Famer Bob Gibson got his start with the Omaha Cardinals in ’57. Since ’69 Rosenblatt’s been home to the Class AAA Omaha Royals, the top farm team of the parent Kansas City Royals. More than 7 million fans have attended Omaha Royals home games. George Brett, Frank White and Willie Wilson apprenticed at the ballpark.
With its rich baseball heritage, Rosenblatt has the imprint of nostalgia all over it. Anyone who’s seen a game there has a favorite memory. The CWS has provided many. For Steve Rosenblatt, whose late father Johnny led the drive to construct the stadium that now bears his name, the early years held special meaning. “The first two years of the series another boy and I had the privilege of being the first bat boys. We did all the games. That was a great thrill because it was the beginning of the series, and to see how it’s grown today is incredible. They draw more people today in one session than they drew for the entire series in its first year or two.”
For Jack Payne, the series’ PA announcer since ’64, “the dominant event took place just a couple years ago when Warren Morris’ two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth won the championship for LSU in ’96. He hit a slider over the right field wall into the bleachers. That was dramatic. Paul Carey of Stanford unloaded a grand slam into the same bleacher area back in ’87 to spark Stanford’s run to the title.”
Payne, a veteran sports broadcaster who began covering the Rosenblatt beat in ’51, added, “There’s been some great coaching duels out there. Dick Siebert at Minnesota and Rod Dedeaux at USC had a great rivalry. They played chess games out there. As far as players, Dave Winfield was probably the greatest athlete I ever saw in the series. He pitched. He played outfield. He did it all.”
Terry Forsbeg, the former Omaha city events manager under whose watch Rosenblatt was revamped, said, “Part of the appeal of the series is to see a young Dave Winfield or Roger Clemens . Players like that just stick out, and you know they’re going to go somewhere.” For Forsberg, the Creighton Bluejays’ Cinderella-run in the ’91 CWS stands out. “That was a reall thrill, particularly when they won a couple games. You couldn’t ask for anything more.” The Creighton-Wichita State game that series, a breathtaking but ultimately heartbreaking 3-2 loss in 12 innings suffered by CU, is considered an all-time classic.
Creighton’s CWS appearance, the first and only by an in-state school, ignited the Omaha crowd. Scott Sorenson, a right-handed pitcher on that Bluejays squad, will never forget the electric atmosphere. “It was absolutely amazing to be on a hometown team in an event like that and to have an entire city pulling for you,” he said. “I played in a lot of ballparks across the nation, but I never saw anything like I did at Rosenblatt. I still get that tingling feeling whenever I’m back there.”
A game that’s always mentioned is the ’73 USC comeback over Minnesota. The Gophers’ Winfield was overpowering on the mound that night, striking out 15 and hurling a shutout into the ninth with his team ahead 7-0. But a spent Winfield was chased from the mound and the Trojans completed a storybook eight-run last inning rally to win 8-7.
Poignant moments aboud as well. Like the ’64 ceremony renaming the former Municpal Stadium for Johnny Rosenblatt in recognition of his efforts to get the stadium built and bring the CWS to Omaha. A popular ex-mayor. Rosenblatt was forced to resign from office after developing Parkinson’s disease and already suffered from its effects at the rededication. He died in ’79. Another emotional moment came in ’94 when cancer-ridden Arizona State coach Jim Brock died only 10 days after making his final CWS appearance. “That got to me,” Payne said.
Like many others, Payne feels the stadium and tourney are made for each other. “It’s always been a tremendous place to have a tournament, and fortunately there was room to grow. I don’t think you could have picked a finer facility at a better location, centrally located like it is, than Rosenblatt. It’s up high. The field’s big. The stadium’s spacious. It’s just gorgeous. And the people have just kept coming.”
Due to its storied link to the CWS the stadium’s become the unofficial home of collegiate baseball. So much so that CWS boosters like Steve Rosenblatt and legendary ex-USC coach Rod Dedeaux would like to see a college baseball-CWS hall of fame established there.
Baseball is, in fact, why the stadium was built. The lack of a suitable ballpark sparked the formation of a citizens committee in ’44 that pushed for the stadium’s construction. The committee was an earlier version of the recently disbanded Sokol Commission that led the drive for a new convention center-arena. With the goal of putting the issue to a citywide vote, committee members campaigned hard for the stadium at public meetings and in smoke-filled back rooms. Backers got their wish when, in ’45, voters approved by a 3 to 1 margin a $480,000 bond to finance the project.
Unlike the controversy surrounding the site for a convention center-arena today, the 40-acre tract chosen for the stadium was widely endorsed. The weed-strewn hill overlooking Riverview Park (the Henry Doorly Zoo today) was located in a relatively undeveloped area and lay unused itself except as prime rabbit hunting territory. Streetcars ran nearby just as trolleys may in the near future. The site was also dirt cheap. The property had been purchased by the city a few years earlier for $17 at a tax foreclosure sale. Back taxes on the land were soon retired.
Dogged by high bids, rising costs and material delays, the stadium was finished in ’48 only after design features were scaled back and a second bond issue passed. The final cost exceeded $1 million.
Baseball launched the stadium at its October 17, 1948 inaugural when a group of all-stars featuring native Nebraskan big leaguers beat a local Storz Brewery team 11-3 before a packed house of 10,000 fans.
Baseball has continued to be the main drawing card. The growth of the CWS prompted the stadium’s renovation and expansion, which began in earnest in the early ’90s and is ongoing today.
A new look
Rosenblatt is at once a throwback to a bygone era – with its steel-girded grandstand and concrete concourse – and a testament to New Age theme park design with its Royal Blue molded facade, interlaced metal truss, fancy press box and luxury View Club. The theme park analogy is accentuated by its close proximity to the Henry Doorly Zoo.
Some have suggested the new bigness and brashness have stolen the simple charm from the place.
“Maybe some of that charm’s gone now,” Terry Forsberg said, “but we had to accommodate more people as the CWS got popular. But we still play on real grass under the stars. The setting is still absolutely beautiful. You can still look out over the fences and see what mid-America is all about.”
Jack Payne agrees. “I don’t think it’s taken away from any of the atmosphere or ambience,” he said. “If anything, I think it’s perpetuated it. The Grand Old Lady, as I call it, has weathered many a historical moment. She’s withstood the battle of time. And then in the ’90s she got a facelift, so she’s paid her dues in 50 years. Very much so.”
Perched atop a hill overlooking the Missouri River and the tree-lined zoo, Rosenblatt hearkens back to baseball’s, and by extension, America’s idealized past. It reminds us of our own youthful romps in wide open spaces. Even with the stadium expansion, anywhere you sit gives you the sense you can reach out and touch its field of dreams.
NCAA officials, who’ve practically drawn the blueprint for the new look Rosenblatt, know they have a gem here.
“I think part of the reason why the College World Series will, in 1999, celebrate its 50th year in Omaha is because of the stadium we play in, and the fact that it is a state-of-the-art facility,” said Jim Wright, NCAA director of statistics and media coordinator for the CWS the past 20 years.
Wright believes there is a casual quality that distinguishes the event.
“Almost without exception writers coming to this event really do become taken with the city, with the stadium and with the laidback way the championship unfolds,” he said. “It has a little bit different feel to it, and certainly part of that is because we’re in Omaha, which has a lot of the big city advantages without having too many of the disadvantages.”
For Dedeaux, who led the Trojans to 10 national titles and still travels from his home in Southern California to attend the series, the marriage of the stadium-city-event makes for a one-of-a-kind experience.
“I love the feeling of it. The intimacy. Whenever I’m there I think of all the ball games but also the fans and the people associated with the tournament, and the real hospitable feeling they’ve always had. I think it’s touched the lives of a lot of people,” he said.
Fans have their own take on what makes baseball and Rosenblatt such a good fit. Among the tribes of fans who throw tailgate parties in the stadium’s south lot is Harold Webster, an Omaha tailored clothing salesman. While he concedes the renovation is “nice,” he notes, “The city didn’t have to make any improvements for me. I was here when it wasn’t so nice. I just love being at the ballpark. I’m here for the game.” Not the frills, he might have added.
For Webster and fans like him, baseball’s a perennial rite of summer. “To me, it’s the greatest thing in the world. I don’t buy season tickets to anything else – just baseball.”
Mark Eveloff, an associate judge in Council Bluffs, comes with his family. “We always have fun because we sit in a large group of people we all know. You get to see a lot of your friends at the game and you get to see some good baseball. I’ve been coming to games here since I was a kid in the late ’50s, when the Omaha Cardinals played. And from then to now, it’s come a long way. Every year it looks better.”
Ginny Tworek is another fan for life. “I’ve been coming out here since I was 8 years-old,” the Baby Boomer said. “My dad used to drop me and my two older brothers off at the ballpark. I just fell in love with the game. It’s a relaxing atmosphere.”
There is a Zen quality to baseball. With its sweet, meandering pace you sometimes swear things are moving in slow motion. It provides an antidote to the hectic pace outside.
Baseball isn’t the whole story at Rosenblatt. Through the ’70s it hosted high school (as Creighton Prep’s home field), college (Omaha University-University of Nebraska at Omaha) and pro football (Omaha Mustangs and NFL exhibition) games as well as pro wrestling cards, boxing matches and soccer contests. Concerts filled the bill, too, including major shows by the Beach Boys in ’64 and ’79. But that’s not all. It accommodated everything from the Ringling Brothers Circus to tractor pulls to political rallies to revival meetings. More recently, Fourth of July fireworks displays have been staged there. Except for the annual fireworks show, the city now reserves the park for none but its one true calling, baseball, as a means of protecting its multimillion dollar investment.
“We made a commitment to the Omaha Royals and to the College World Series and the NCAA that the stadium would be maintained at a Major League level. The new field is farily sensitive. We don’t want to hurt the integrity of the field, so we made the decision to just play baseball there,” Omaha public events manager Larry Lahaie said.
A new $700,000 field was installed in 1991-92, complete with drainage and irrigation systems. Maintaining the field requires a groundskeeping crew whose size rivals that of some big league clubs.
Omaha’s desire to keep the CSW has made the stadium a priority. As the series begain consistenly drawing large crowds in the ’80s, the stadium experienced severe growing pains. Parking was at a premium. Traffic snarls drew loud complaints. To cope with overflow crowds, officials placed fans on the field’s cinder warning track. The growing media corps suffered inside a hot, cramped, outdated press box. With the arrival of national TV coverage in the ’80s, the NCAA began fielding bids from other cities wanting to host the CWS.
In the late ’80s Omaha faced a decision – improve Rosenblatt or lose the CWS. There was also the question of whether the city would retain the Royals. In the ’90s the club’s then owner, Irving “Gus” Cherry, was shopping the franchise around. There was no guarantee a buyer would be found locally, or if one was, whether the franchise would stay. To the rescue came an unlikely troika of Union Pacific Railroad, billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Peter Kiewit Son’s Inc. chairman Walter Scott Jr. , who together purchased the Royals in 1991.
Urged on by local organizers, such as Jack Diesing Sr. and Jr., and emboldened by the Royals new ownership the city anteed-up and started pouring money into Rosenblatt to rehab it according to NCAA specifications. The city has financed the improvements through private donations and from revenue derived from a $2 hotel-motel occupancy tax enacted in ’91.
The Beach Boys in concert at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha. RUDY SMITH/THE WORLD-HERALD
A carnival or fair atmposphere
The makeover has transformed what was a quaint but antiquated facility into a modern baseball palace. By the time the latest work (to the player clubhouses, public restrooms and south pavilion) is completed next year, more than $20 million will have been spent on improvements.
The stadium itself is now an attraction. The retro exterior is highlighted by an Erector Set-style center truss whose interlocking, cantilevered steel beams, girders and columns jig-jag five stories high.
Then there’s the huge mock baseball mounted on one wall, the decorative blue-white skirt around the facade, the slick script lettering welcoming you there and the fancy View Club perched atop the right-field stands. The coup de grace is the spacious, thatched-roof press box spanning the truss.
Rosenblatt today is a chic symbol of stability and progress in the blue collar South Omaha neighborhood it occupies. It is also a hub of activity that energizes the area. On game days lawn picnics proceed outside homes along 13th Street and tailgate parties unwind in the RV and minivan-choked lots. The aroma of grilled sausage, bratwurst and roasted peanuts fills the air. A line invariably forms at nearby Zesto’s, an eatery famous for its quick comfort food.
There’s a carnival atmosphere inside the stadium. The scoreboard above the left-field stands is like a giant arcade game with its flashing lights, blaring horns, dizzying video displays and fireworks. Music cascades over the crowd – from prerecorded cuts of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and the Village People’s “YMCA” to organist Lambert Bartak’s live renditions of “Sioux City Sioux” and “Spanish Eyes.” Casey the Mascot dances atop the dugouts. Vendors hawk an assortment of food, drink and souvenirs. Freshly-scrubbed ushers guide you to your seat.
The addition that’s most altered the stadium is the sleek , shiny, glass-enclosed View Club. It boasts a bar, a restaurant, a south deck, a baseball memorabilia collection, cozy chairs and, naturally, a great catbird’s seat for watching the game from any of its three tiered-seating levels.
But you won’t catch serious fans there very long. The hermetically-sealed, soundproof interior sucks the life right out of the game, leaving you a remote voyeur. Removed from the din of the crowd, the ballyhoo of the scoreboard, the enticing scent of fresh air and the sound of a ball connecting with leather, wood or aluminum, you’re cut off from the visceral current running through the grandstand. You miss its goosebump thrills. “That’s the bad thing about it,” Tworek said. “You can’t hear the crack of the bat. You don’t pay as close attention to the game there.”
When Rosenblatt was Municipal Stadium. At the first game, from left: Steve Rosenblatt; Rex Barney; Bob Hall, owner of the Omaha Cardinals; Duce Belford, Brooklyn Dodgers scout and Creighton athletic director; Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb.; Johnny Rosenblatt; and Johnny Hopp of Hastings, Neb.
Baseball’s internal rhythms bring fans back
Even with all the bells and whistles, baseball still remains the main attraction. The refurbished Rosenblatt has seen CWS crowds go through the roof, reaching an all-time single series high of 204,000 last year. The Royals, bolstered by more aggressive marketing, have drawn 400,000-plus fans every year but one since ’92. Fans have come regardless of the won-loss record. The top single season attendance 447,079 came in ’94, when the club finished eight games under .500 and in 6th place.
Why? Fans come for the game’s inherent elegance, grace and drama. To see a well-turned double play, a masterful pitching performance or a majestic home run. For the chance of snaring a foul ball. For the traditional playing of the national anthem and throwing out of the first pitch. For singing along to you-know-what during the seventh inning stretch.
They come too for the kick back convivality of the park, where getting a tan, watching the sun set or making new friends is part of the bargain. There is a communal spirit to the game and its parks. Larry Hook, a retired firefighter, counts Tworek among his “baseball family,” a group of fans he and his grandson Nick have gotten acquainted with at the Blatt. “It’s become a regular meeting place for us guys and gals,” he said. “We talk a little baseball and watch a little baseball. Once the game’s over everybody goes their separate ways and we say, ‘See ya next home stand.'”
The season’s end brings withdrawl pains. “About the first couple months, I’m lost,” Hook said. “There’s nothing to look forward to.” Except the start of next season.
As dusk fell at Rosenblatt once recent night, Charles and Stephanie Martinez , a father and daughter from Omaha, shared their baseball credo with a visitor to their sanctuary above the third-base dugout. “I can never remember not loving baseball,” said Charles, a retired cop. “I enjoy the competition, the players and the company of the people I’m surrounded by.”
Serious fans like these stay until the final out. “Because anything can happen,” Stephanie said. “I like it because it’s just so relaxed sitting out on a summer day. There’s such an ease to it. Part of it’s also the friends you make at the ballpark. It doesn’t matter where you go – if you sit down with another baseball fan, you can be friends in an instant.”
That familiar welcoming feeling may be baseball’s essential appeal.
Coming to the ballpark, any ballpark, is like a homecoming. Its sense of reunion and renewal, palpable. Rosenblatt only accentuates that feeling.
Like a family inheritance, baseball is passed from one generation to the next. It gets in your blood.
So, take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd…
It is with heavy hearts that we share the passing of Dr. Jack Lewis. A 1952 graduate of Central, Dr. Lewis served as the team doctor at Central for over 50 years, performing thousands of physicals and walking the sidelines of hundreds of football games. Dr. Lewis received numerous recognitions and sat on many different boards, including being inducted into the inaugural Central High School Hall of Fame in 1999, Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame, and Omaha Public Schools Athletic Hall of Fame. After receiving his first degree from Stanford University, Dr. Lewis obtained his medical degree from the University of Nebraska College of Medicine where he then served as a professor of internal medicine. Football games won’t feel the same this fall when Dr. Lewis isn’t on the sideline, offering decades of expertise to our student athletes. Dr. Lewis loved Central, and we will miss him dearly.
The visitation will be held on Thursday, June 23, from 4 – 6:30 pm at the Heafey-Hoffmann Dworak & Cutler Bel Air Chapel on 12100 West Center Road. The service will be held on Friday, June 24, at 11 am at the Presbyterian Church of the Cross on 1517 S 114th Street.
Dr. Jack Lewis
Omaha fight doctor Jack Lewis of two minds about boxing as the city readies to host the National Golden Gloves
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
For the first time since 1988, Omaha plays host to the National Golden Gloves boxing tournament, one of the nation’s showcases for amateur boxing. The 2006 tourney is a six-day event scheduled for April 24-29 at two downtown venues. The preliminary and quarterfinal rounds will be fought at the Civic Auditorium the first four days, with the semi-final and championship bouts at the Qwest Center Omaha the final two days.
Historically, the national Golden Gloves has produced scores of Olympic and world champions. Former Gloves greats include Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield and Roy Jones Jr.
Three men with long ties to the local boxing scene recently shared their thoughts on the Gloves with the New Horizons.
The man heading up the event is Omaha’s fight doctor, Dr. Jack Lewis, a 71-year-old internal medicine physician. As a doctor who loves a sport that gets a bad name from the medical community, he’s a paradox. While a staunch supporter of amateur boxing, Lewis is a fierce critic of the professional fight game, which he has come to abhor.
His experience in the prizefighting arena included serving as ringside physician for the 1972 world heavyweight title fight in Omaha between champ Joe Frazier and contender Ron Stander from Council Bluffs. Lewis stopped the fight after the fourth round with a battered Stander blinded by blood in his eyes.
“I love the sport of amateur boxing. I was involved in pro boxing and I didn’t like that from a medical standpoint,” Lewis said. “After just a few years working with the pros, I quit. In some cases, I didn’t know who the fighters were. They were fighting under fake names. I’d ask all these questions and the boxer would say the last time he lost a fight was a month ago in Chicago, and then some guy would come up later and tell me that same guy got knocked out last night in Chicago.
“Those pro boxers move around, have fake names, won’t give you their true medical history.”
Lewis continued, “Those pro boxing days are behind me. That sport needs to be cleaned up.”
More than just a fan of amateur boxing, Lewis is a veteran ringside doctor and longtime president of the Great Plains Boxing Association, the main organizing body for amateur boxing in Nebraska. This is the second time under his leadership his hometown of Omaha is presenting the Golden Gloves nationals.
Lewis is optimistic the event will fare better than recent national Gloves tourneys in cities like Kansas City, where the event failed miserably at the gate.
“We’ve done this before. I think our sales are going very well,” he said.
With Omaha’s success as College World Series host, with the Qwest Center filled to capacity for Creighton University men’s basketball home games, with the arena slated to host a slew of NCAA post-season events over the next several years, plus the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, the Omaha’s known as an amateur sports-friendly town. That’s why there’s talk of Omaha trying to host the Golden Gloves on a regular basis. The event is bid out a few years in advance, so it would be awhile before Omaha could host the event again after 2006.
“Omaha knows how to put people in the seats. Plus, this is really a fight town,” said Harley Cooper of Omaha. The former two-time national Gloves champion is seving as the 2006 tournament director. “It’s an outstanding event, Fans will see the best boxing in the country and probably see some future Olympic and professional champions.”
Omaha boxing historian Tom Lovgren joins many others in calling the Qwest “a great facility for boxing.” “The people there do a superb job,” he added.
While he never boxed, Lewis lettered in football and rugby at Stanford University, backing up future NFL great John Brodie at quarterback in the late 1950s. He said his athletic background and internal medicine specialization “lent itself” to begin treating athletes.
After graduation from Standford and the University of Nebraska Medical School, Lewis did his internal medicine residency in Oakland, California. He came back to Omaha in 1964 to practice with his physician father.
Right away, Lewis’ sports medicine interest found him treating a variety of athletes – jockeys at the Ak-Sar-Ben thoroughbred race track, football players at his alma mater Central high School, where he has been team physician since 1964, and boxers at the Omaha and Midwest Golden Gloves tournaments.
Lewis’ passion for amateur boxing has only grown. He enjoys the purity of the sport. He applauds the protective headgear and other measures taken to ensure fighters’ safety. He believes the competition inside the ropes instills discipline in its participants.
“I think the greatest athlete is the guy that steps in the ring and some guy comes after you. I think it builds character. I think it teaches you resraint. It helps you collect yourself. Through those years I’ve been to many meetings and been to many nationals. I’ve been he ringside physician at hundreds of fights and taken care of a lot of medical problems at the fights. Even though I never fought, I’ve educated myself in boxing and in all the trials and tribulations of the kids.”
Lewis said amateur boxing has suffered unfairly from the ills of its pro counterpart.
“There has been a lot of deaths and those deaths really hurt amateur boxing because then parents don’t want their kids to go into boxing. There’s been a lot of unscrupulous stuff. When I started it was a more popular sport. Today, kids are into doing all kinds of other things. They just don’t go into boxing anymore. And the coaching ranks have really declined. It’s an uphill battle.”
Despite the smaller number of young boxers, Tom Lovgren said “there are kids around that can fight and the Golden Gloves is still a major contributor to the U.S. Olympic boxing team. He said a Gloves title still carries weight in the world of boxing.
“If you are a national Golden Gloves champion, you’re highly respected when you make a turn to the pro ranks.”
Lewis said another thing unchanged in the sport over the years is that ethnic-racial minorities are disproportionately drawn to boxing.
“Our best known boxers in the state now are Latino. There’s been a great influx of Spanish-speaking kids. Unfortunately, many of them don’t have U.S. citizenship and the rules require you to be a citizen in order to compete at nationals (Golden Gloves).”
In the history of the Golden Gloves there have been but five national champions from Nebraska. According to Lovgren, the best of the bunch was Harley Cooper, who won his titles in 1963 and 1964 (the first at heavyweight and the second at light heavyweight). He won those titles when he was in his late 20s. which is much older than the typical Gloves fighter. Since retiring from the ring, Cooper’s devoted time to developing and suporting area amateur boxing. He never turned pro.
“Everybody wanted him to fight for them,” said Lovgran, a former prize fight matchmaker and a longtime observer of the local fight scene. “The first time anybody saw hiim in the gym they knew this guy was going to be a national champion. He could punch. He could box. He could do it all. He was the most complete fighter I ever saw from around here. I never saw Harley Cooper lose a round in amateur fights in Omaha. He was that dominant.”
Besides Cooper, the only other Nebraska boxers crowned national Gloves champions were Carl Vinciquerra and Paul Hartneck in 1936, Hartneck again in ’37, Ferd Hernandez in 1960 and most recently Lamont Kirkland in 1980. A number of other Nebraskans advanced to the semi-finals or finals, only to lose.
In general, Lewis said, area kids are at a distinct disavantage.
“Amateur programs here are not strong. We don’t have enough coaches to train these kids. We don’t have enough fighters to have regular smokers that season them. Every year, our kids go to nationals with maybe 10 to 12 fights under their belt and they face opponents with 70 to 80 fights.”
Harley Cooper said Omaha holding the nationals can only help raise the level of the amateur boxing scene here.
“It wil let our kids see what they have to strive to obtain – the different skills and knowledge they will need to be a world-class boxer. Seeing is much better than someone explaining it to you.”
He added the biggest difference between “our boxers and the fighters from bigger cities is the opponents’ strength, size and skill.”
“It’s going to be a great weekend for amateur boxing in Omaha, Nebraska” Lovgren said. “I just hope a couple of guys from Omaha can go as far as the finals.
A raucous home crowd could help spur a local fighter to do great things.
“It can’t hurt,” Lovgren said. “Who knows? Anything can happen. Boxing’s a funny game.”
“There’s still some kids out there. We should see some real good boxing,” Lewis said.
A final elimination stage before the nationals will be held March 17 and 18 at the Omaha Civic Auditorium’s Mancuso Hall. Winners in this Midwest Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions will complete Nebraska’s 11-man contingent for the April national tourney.
Tickets for the nationals may be purchased at the Qwest Center box office or via Ticketmaster by phone at 402-1212, or online at http://www.ticketmaster.com.
For more details, call the Qwest Center at 997-9378 or go online at http://www.qwestcenteromaha.com.
A Kansas City Royals Reflection
©by Leo Adam Biga
It warms my heart that my Kansas City Royals defy the cold calculations of this digitized, meta-metrics age that’s come to define the way team sports get measured these days. You see, the Royals win in spite of faring poorly in analytic forecasting, and that makes the people for whom these statistical tendencies and barometers truly serve – the gambling industry – mad. KC wins in spite of hitting relatively few home runs, scoring at a less than robust average, getting rare quality starts from its pitchers and lacking even a single superstar on its roster. The Royals win in spite of being a small market franchise with comparatively meager financial resources at its disposal. The Royals win because, well, they are winners and that is not something that can be broken down into data bytes except for wins and losses, divisional finishes, league championships and World Series titles. KC does most all of the little things right that have come to be associated with small ball – manufacturing runs by getting bunts, taking walks, advancing runners, sacrificing, hustling. They also play solid defense at every spot on the diamond and in the outfield. When the Royals are right, they play station to station team ball like no one else in today’s game, though more times than you might imagine they are also capable of keeping the line moving with hit after hit, baserunner after baserunner, enroute to big innings. They put consistent pressure on opponents until foes bend and ultimately break. If the Royals get the lead on you early or if they stay within striking distance late, they have more than enough firepower among their position players and bullpen to close the door and lock up the win or to rally and go ahead, as the situation demands. They may not be a great team in the annals of The Show and in fact these Royals may not even be as strong as the franchise’s glory years teams from 1975 through 1985, but they are consistently excellent four years running now. Should they win another division title and make a third consecutive World Series, then they are firmly in the conversation of a dynasty in our midst. What makes it all so satisfying is that the core of the club is essentially intact during this span and many of the most valuable players on this ride came up together through the KC farm system. Those that were added by trades have been part of the MLB journey to success for the full duration. The Royals may be just one more strong starting pitcher and one more run producer away from writing their ticket to another world title and assuring this bunch a measure of all-time greatness. Best of all, the Roayls are still fairly young and may be looking at another two or three or four or more years of contention. Don’t bother trying to add the numbers up to explain why the Royals are able to do what they do because you can’t quantify grit, energy, determination, desire, camaraderie and teamwork. The Royals are the epitome of guys who come through in the clutch no matter what the stats read. The numbers won’t show you a line for haivng character through advertisity or breaking the will of opponents. Of course, it’s not as if the Royals are without mega talent. The draft and farm system began stockpiling and developing elite prospects going back a decade. It took awhile for the potential to reach maturation and to show results. Each year of this four year run of results has been a different story. The Royals began to live up to their ballyhooed promise in 2013 but still had too many gaps to fill to fully emerge a top tier club. They broke through to the upper echelon and to the post-season in 2014, when they surprised everyone by reaching the World Series. Thet were arguably the better team than the Giants in that W.S. but just couldn’t overcome a certain ace. They were pretty much wire to wire leaders in 2015, when several Royals enjoyed career years, and KC fairly dominated the post season on through to a W.S. title. This season, several of those same players got off to miserable starts. Then came a rash of injuries. Manager Ned Yost and his gang of coaches and his band of brothers players have stayed the course, changed out some parts, and just like the last two years, made true on the next man up credo by plugging in guys who get the job done. So far so good. Two weeks ago or so KC struggled to do much of anything right and seemed in danger of being left out of the race before it began. Now the team has hit its stride and KC finds itself in first place. Nothing is guaranteed with so much season left to go but the team sure has the look of a contender and a champion again. The stats tell you they shouldn’t be doing this but ignore the metrics where the Royals are concerned and go with your heart. That’s what they do and it’s working out just fine.
Bob Boozer, Basketball Immortal, to be posthumously inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame
Bob Boozer, Basketball Immortal, to be posthumously inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame
I posted this four years ago about Bob Boozer, the best basketball player to ever come out of the state of Nebraska, on the occasion of his death at age 75. Because his playing career happened when college and pro hoops did not have anything like the media presence it has today and because he was overshadowed by some of his contemporaries, he never really got the full credit he deserved. After a stellar career at Omaha Tech High, he was a brilliant three year starter at powerhouse Kansas State, where he was a two-time consensus first-team All-American and still considered one of the four or five best players to ever hit the court for the Wildcats. He averaged a double-double in his 77-game career with 21.9 points and 10.7 rebounds. He played on the first Dream Team, the 1960 U.S. Olympic team that won gold in Rome. He enjoyed a solid NBA journeyman career that twice saw him average a double-double in scoring and rebounding for a season. In two other seasons he averaged more than 20 points a game. In his final season he was the 6th man for the Milwaukee Bucks only NBA title team. He received lots of recognition for his feats during his life and he was a member of multiple halls of fame but the most glaring omisson was his inexplicable exclusion from the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. Well, that neglect is finally being remedied this year when he will be posthumously inducted in November. It is hard to believe that someone who put up the numbers he did on very good KSU teams that won 62 games over three seasons and ended one of those regular seasons ranked No. 1, could have gone this long without inclusion in that hall. But Boozer somehow got lost in the shuffle even though he was clearly one of the greatest collegiate players of all time. Players joining him in this induction class are Mark Aguirre of DePaul, Doug Collins of Illinois State, Lionel Simmons of La Salle, Jamaal Wilkes of UCLA and Dominique Wilkins of Georgia. Good company. For him and them. Too bad Bob didn’t live to see this. If things had worked out they way they should have, he would been inducted years ago and gotten to partake in the ceremony.
I originally wrote this profile of Boozer for my Omaha Black Sports Legends Series: Out to Win: The Roots of Greatness. You can access that entire collection at this link–
I also did one of the last interviws Boozer ever gave when he unexpectedly arrived back stage at the Orpheum Theater in Omaha to visit his good buddy, Bill Cosby, with whom I was in the process of wrapping up an interview. When Boozer came into the dressing room, the photographer and I stayed and we got more of a story than we ever counted on. Here is a link to that piece–
The Omaha South High boys soccer program is a dynasty in the making. The only thing missing is a run of state championships. They have one, in 2013, and it came in record-setting, dominant fashion. There have been other state finals appearances, but so far that title three years ago is the only end of season, top dog bragging rights the Packers have been able to claim. Year in and year out for a decade now though the Packers are a threat to go all the way. This year is no different. This El Perico story I wrote appeared just as the 2016 state tourney got underway on Thursday, May 12. No. 3 ranked South expected to have it easy against wildcard North Platte but instead the Packers were extended to the limit before pulling out a 2-1 win. With the opening round win, South plays Saturday, May 14 against the state’s No. 1 ranked team, Omaha Westside, at Morrison Stadium on the Creighton University campus. It will be the teams’ first meeting this season. Should South win, the Packers will play for it all in the Tuesday, May 17 finals,, where they go up against their arch rival, Omaha Creighton Prep. But getting past Westside will pose a huge challenge. Then again, South seems to rise to the occasion more often than not.
Omaha South soccer poised for another state title run
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in El Perico
The 18-2 No. 3-ranked Omaha South High boys soccer team is back in the state tournament a seventh straight time after winning the District A-3 championship at its own Collin Field on May 3.
South meets wildcard entry North Platte in the Class A quarterfinals on May 12. If the Packers win as expected they meet the winner of the Omaha Westside-Kearney match in Saturday’s semifinals. Westside is the top seed. The Packers and Warriors have not met this year. At state the only way South can face arch rival Omaha Creighton Prep, who beat the Packers in the regular season, is in the May 17 finals.
The state tournament is being played at Morrison Stadium on the Creighton University campus.
South topped Nebraska’s prep rankings the first half of the year and gained national bragging rights at the Smoky Mountain Cup in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The team went unbeaten there to win its division. Back home a 3-2 loss to Millard South at the Metro Conference tournament, followed by a 1-0 setback to Prep, knocked South from the No. 1 perch. Inconsistent play nearly cost South more games.
“I feel when we got back from the mountains and the big emotional ride of that the kids’ legs were definitely tired and some of the kids were mentally tired, too,” Coach Joe Maass says. “We struggled a little bit.
We’d impose our will on a team and then kind of let up and let them come back. The Northwest game right before districts we were up 3-0 and they came back to make it 3-2. We won 4-2 but it wound up being a closer game than it should have been.”
In his team’s two losses and in several close calls Maass expressed frustration with South’s tendency to settle for long balls instead of playing to its midfield strength and controlling possession. South won its own Van Metre Invitational against a tough field but then scuffled in its last two regular season games before regaining form and swagger in district play. The Packers avenged their loss to Millard South by beating the Patriots 2-0 for the title.
“When we got to districts we were a little more focused, like we were in a must-win situation. Whenever our backs are against the wall is when our kids play the hardest and we’re the toughest.”
As has happened all season, South’s quality depth made the difference. Regular goalkeeper Luis Gama, a senior, missed districts due to injury but his backup, sophomore Adrian Felix, pitched two shutouts, including several outstanding saves against the Patriots. Midfielder Poe Reh had scored three goals all season before districts but netted four in back to back games.
Maass praised Felix for rising to the occasion, adding he always had confidence in him. He wasn’t surprised by what Reh did, either.
“Poh Reh was probably one of our better practice players during the season. In the games he would come close to making big plays but maybe didn’t have as much luck as some of the other players. But he’s been really a solid player throughout and then he just got hot that weekend with four goals in 24 hours.”
Through the 2016 campaign, even late in the season, Maass brought up several players from South’s dominant freshman, sophomore, JV teams. The late additions all made contributions. He says players are prepared to enter the bigger varsity stage by intense competition at practice. “In practice they’re competing on a level as if it’s a game.”
Individual and team expectations run high through the program.
“Our culture is based a lot on just belief that we can win every time. We are expecting to compete and win. It’s not good enough to just play on the team and walk around in your jersey in class. It’s about getting Ws.
You have to earn your spot and you have to maintain your spot.”
That winning mindset, he says, is “hard to beat.” “In Tennessee we were down two goals one game but we came right back and scored two and ended up winning. We just have the belief we can come back at all times. We beat Papio South in the 87th minute. We beat Omaha Central in the 99th minute in overtime.” He says it helps to have a senior-laden team. “They’ve played together for a long time.”
Then there’s South two sets of twins who demand excellence. “These four kids are very competitive, feisty and aggressive and they expect everybody else to play aggressive. Jimmi Becerril in particular. He’s the verbal guy that will get on people for not practicing as hard as they should. His brother Jordi is tough as nails but a little more soft spoken. But he pushes the pace as well. The other twins, Israel and Issac Cruz, are our defensive specialists and those guys have been really solid.”
Maass feels South’s poised for a good run at state. “We’re playing confident. We’re going to go just do our thing.” Adding to the confidence is that Morrison Stadium’s large field mirrors South’s home Collin Field.
“Our game is built around using the whole field and space to get around other teams’ size and athleticism. Once we get them out in space where they have to actually have skill on the ball, we have the advantage. A lot of teams just pack it in and hope to keep us out, playing for a shootout, because they know they’re not going to beat us if they play us straight up. It’s harder for teams to bunker in on a big field because there’s still space there.”
Having a team with a community behind it the way South does sure helps. “I know we’ll bring a lot of fans – we always do,” Maass says.
Keeper Luis Gama is expected back for state. His return could be key as Adrian Felix will miss the opener serving a one-game suspension for a red card violation in districts. No sweat for Maass. He feels secure in a third keeper he has ready, Fredy Nava. “He’s pretty good, too.”
At South, it’s always next man up.