A yearlong swan song in Omaha
Rosenblatt Stadium, the College World Series' home since 1950, will be shutting down
OMAHA, Neb. When a beloved stadium is about to go away, you never know when the emotional impact will hit you. For me, it was during a moment alone in Rosenblatt Stadium -- home of the College World Series.
In my quest to capture the Rosenblatt mystique, I had sampled seemingly everything the city of Omaha has to offer: restaurants, bars and hotels, as well as the tailgating scene and the two-week, nonstop party on 13th Street, which was a zoo. Oh, I even checked out the actual zoo.
As I walked around, looking at the field from every vantage point, I somehow lost the cord to my laptop. I went to the stadium early the next morning to see if I could retrieve it.
A cooling rain had showered the town overnight, and Rosenblatt's blue-, yellow- and red-painted seats sparkled a bit in the predawn glow. Somehow, without the electricity of a capacity crowd filling the space, I could really feel the soul of the place. And even though this was my first visit to the monument, I knew I'd be melancholy when it was torn down.
Omaha recently faced a bit of a Sophie's choice. The city could build a new downtown stadium and keep the NCAA's signature baseball event for the next quarter-century, or it could hold on to the aging Rosenblatt and possibly lose the tournament that has become synonymous with the building and with Omaha itself. The decision was difficult: Keep the Series and lose beloved Rosenblatt, which has hosted the "Greatest Show on Dirt" since 1950 and is set to be razed after next year's CWS.
"The overall sense from those who are involved is that we're building the future of the CWS," said Jack Diesing Jr., who leads the all-volunteer organizing committee College World Series of Omaha Inc. "It's all about the event. We'll miss Rosenblatt, but the idea is also to continue to take the CWS to the next level for everyone involved. And the vision we create here is going to do that."
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The hilltop where the venerable venue opened in 1948 overlooking the leafy Missouri River basin was purchased at a tax sale for the low, low price of $17. The facility originally was called Omaha Municipal Stadium, and its initial tenants were the minor league Omaha Cardinals. Then the Division I men's championship tournament arrived in 1950, and never left.
Former Omaha Mayor Johnny Rosenblatt worked tirelessly to turn his vision of his city as a baseball haven into reality, and a grateful town put his name on its signature edifice in 1964. The Kansas City Royals stationed their AAA affiliate in Rosenblatt in 1969, and the hometown Creighton Bluejays also have made a nest at the Blatt.
As I rode a hotel shuttle to Rosenblatt from the construction site of its replacement, the van's driver regaled me and the other passengers with his own take on the biggest subject in town right now: the imminent demise of this iconic venue.
"I'll tell you one thing," he said, occasionally removing his hands from the wheel in his zeal to make a point, "if you ask anyone from around here, it's unanimous: We want to keep the name Rosenblatt in some fashion when we get the new place."
For traffic-safety reasons alone, it's an idea whose time has come.
The new place will be TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. Right now, it's a very large patch of dirt in the northern downtown (NoDo) area, with a few steel beams sticking out of it. By 2011, the site will be transformed into a gleaming new home for the College World Series, which matches eight teams in a double-elimination tournament to decide the NCAA championship. NoDo is ripe for the development that is sure to follow.
The new place will, of course, be very nice. But visitors and Omaha residents alike have an understandable love for the historical home of the Series.
Due to a bright blue paint job, Rosenblatt Stadium is immediately visible from a distance. Like most visitors to the CWS, I stopped by the front gate to snap a picture of "The Road to Omaha," the statue of ecstatic players forming a celebratory dog pile.
Flags representing the eight teams who earned the right to play here this year fluttered in the breeze as fans lined up to be photographed in front of the sculpture. Visitors to the statue harbor hopes that their team will be the next to embody the sport's ultimate moment, and I was no different. My hometown Virginia Cavaliers were making their debut at Rosenblatt at the same time I was.
Making the 2009 CWS may be a new experience for the University of Virginia as a team, but the coach, Brian O'Connor, has been here so often he could probably give tours. Born in Omaha, he attended Series games at Rosenblatt as a boy. As a collegiate pitcher, he took the mound for Creighton in the 1991 tournament. He then returned as an assistant coach for Notre Dame when the Irish got here in 2002. He got Virginia here in his sixth year as head coach.
"I've had multiple conversations with a good friend of mine that I lived with back in Omaha," O'Connor said. "He kept calling me throughout the season saying, 'This is the year, Brian. This is the year you're going to do it. You've got to coach a team in that stadium before they demolish it.'
"It's unfortunate that it's coming down, but it needs to happen for the betterment of the College World Series. I'm proud to get a chance as a head coach to coach a game in that stadium before it's gone."
O'Connor's mug should be familiar to Rosenblatt visitors. A photograph of his face was used as a model for one of the figures on "The Road to Omaha" statue, which was created by local artist John Lajba and dedicated in 1999. The statue is one of Rosenblatt's treasures that will be transplanted to the new stadium.
What will be left to the wrecking ball are the many alterations that the stadium has seen over the years.
"Rosenblatt is very different than it was when it started as Omaha Municipal Stadium," said architect Martin DiNitto, whose firm -- Kansas City-based Populous -- is designing TD Ameritrade Park Omaha. "In its day it was a very contemporary building. What you see at Rosenblatt today is a multitude of improvements that have come over 30 years. The original building is still under there somewhere."
DiNitto's affection for Rosenblatt was evident in his voice. He said that Populous came into Omaha looking at renovation as an option, but it quickly became obvious that private donors preferred to fund a new downtown stadium rather than bankroll another facelift for the grand ballpark. The question that remains is, can the new place capture the spirit of the old place?
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