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…