MAHA, Neb. -- The south part of town was always separate. It was built on meatpacking plants and baseball, and, on a good day, the smell of both filled the air. Change comes, but in small, tolerable increments. There's a Jimmy John's opening up on 13th Street, and, in the general landscape of things, it sticks out like an espresso stand in Mayberry. But that's part of South Omaha's charm, the locals say. That's what makes all of this so hard.
The sky is blue, the sun is warm, and, like on so many other late-spring afternoons, Garry Gernandt, the 64-year-old city councilman who represents South Omaha, is pulling into the parking lot of Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium. And he feels as if he's going to cry. Ask anyone, and they'll say old Garry is tough. He fought criminals for 31 years, defended his country in the Marines, but didn't stand a chance against progress.
He climbs out of his 1988 Lincoln Mark VII -- American-made, of course -- and is wearing a tucked-in T-shirt with a dying stadium on it. "So Long, Johnny," it says. If it's this tough now, days before the last College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium, how will he stand it with 25,000 people in here, packing the old yard, saying goodbye?
"I may sometimes sound a little bitter," he says. "I fought a battle that needed to be fought. Is it old? By golly, it's old. And so am I. But improvements can be made. They've decided in this particular case it was time for a change, and the demise of Rosenblatt will have an effect on the neighborhood, in my opinion.
"It just yanks at my chest hairs every time I think about it, but it's a done deal."
Gernandt gazes up at the stadium and sighs. For 60 years, Rosenblatt Stadium has been home to the CWS, and history oozes out of the blue metal girders. Barry Bonds played here, young, mustached and almost gangly. So did Dave Winfield, Sal Bando and a much hairier Terry Francona. So much has happened, Gernandt says, there is so little to depend on, but baseball fans could count on one thing, that the College World Series would be on this hill, that life would crawl at a slower pace and that very little in this tree-lined neighborhood would change.
And now everything is flying at warp speed. The longest-running site of any NCAA championship event will be demolished, giving way to a new ballpark in downtown Omaha. To the casual observer, it's an inevitable move three miles north into the 21st century. To baseball fans, and Omaha, it's far more emotional.
More than 17,000 people signed a petition to save history. Some angrily vowed to lock hands and stand in the way of the planned demolition; others tried the polite Midwestern approach and sent letters to the mayor. "Any city can just build a new stadium," says Jason Smith, co-chairman of the Save Rosenblatt committee. "This is analogous to something like the Parthenon. These are things that define elements of society."
But now it's over, and even an ex-Marine knows when to stop fighting. Gernandt says he'll be here when the wrecking ball comes. He'll somehow make it through this last CWS at the 'Blatt, lingering a little longer, listening carefully to its stories.
John Robert Miller hated change. He was still a bachelor at 43, in part because he was set in his ways. He worked at an Italian restaurant in Indiana for 50 straight weeks every year so that he could take the other two off to fly to Omaha for the College World Series. He bought piles of T-shirts and designed them with the logos of the eight teams coming to Omaha. Miller never watched cartoons as a kid. He watched baseball.
"This time of year," says his mom, Carolyn Mouw, "he loved it so much."
Mouw lives just outside of Omaha, and has season tickets. But "Bobby" never wanted to sit in the reserved seats. He'd plant himself in the bleachers in right-center, which were wood, then metal. He loved interacting with the players and swatting around beach balls with newfound friends. Out there in the stands, Miller felt as if he was in the middle of the action and had the best seat in the house. He shot pictures of the old haunt, its blue metal beams seemingly touching the sky.
Most days, Miller would arrive at 7 a.m. and wait for hours on the hill just to get in. He'd go home tired and sunburned, his feet swollen. And for 18 straight years, he kept coming.
In March 2004, Bobby was killed in a car accident in Indiana. Carolyn found out about it as she was driving home from her father's funeral. The family cleaned out his apartment, and found 12 rolls of film from his last trip to Omaha, in 2003. One photo was a snapshot of his view for so many years, the young men in the perfectly manicured outfield waiting for the next pitch, the stadium planted below the thin white clouds.
Bobby's family lasered the photo onto his black marble headstone.
"It was special, you know?" Mouw says. "And it made us feel good to give that little piece of something forever for him that he loved."
At his funeral, the family passed out his homemade CWS T-shirts. And today, Mouw says, a piece of Bobby lives on in various parts of the country.
The first year back at the 'Blatt was hard, especially when the family walked up that big hill, right where Bobby waited. But every year, Mouw leaves her reserved seat for a few minutes and finds a spot in right-center. She looks at the field and the sky. She thinks of Bobby.
And wonders what he'd say about the changes.
"I think he would be upset," she says. "It's a good piece of tradition that's gone. He'd get on his soapbox and he'd say, 'Look at all these young men who played here for years.' I'm telling you, he would not be happy."
The Byrds' song "Turn! Turn! Turn!" is crackling in mono over the speakers at the Zesto Drive-in, and Mike Kelley eases onto an old, blue-painted picnic bench. Kelley is co-owner of this ice cream stand, which has been standing next to Rosenblatt for as long as the graybeard can remember. Nothing changes here. The place is '50s decor; the fryer is at least 20 years old.
"We have probably the best burger in town," Kelley says. "I have a lot of backing on that.
"I think by now it's just the aroma of the building. Somehow when you get old equipment, it has a certain taste."
During the CWS, Zesto's is hopping. It converts to an ice cream parlor/beer tent. On good days, more than a thousand people pass through the tent, which Kelley calls a "family picnic and a meat market all rolled up into one." He makes 80 to 90 percent of his total gross revenue during those 10 days in June. He knows those profits are about to melt away.
Kelley, of course, was angry when the downtown deal was going down. But it went beyond finances for him; it was personal. His dad, Tom Kelley, threw the first pitch at Rosenblatt Stadium when it opened in 1948. His son will throw the first pitch at the final Omaha Royals game in the stadium late this summer.
This is football territory, no doubt. Last week, the Omaha TV stations cut away from their regularly-programmed afternoon soap operas to air updates on the beloved Cornhuskers' entry into the Big Ten. But baseball has deep roots in Omaha, especially in the south part of town.
In 1939, the Omaha McDevitts won the American Legion World Series, and, according to local media accounts, were greeted by thousands of adoring fans upon their train ride home and received a parade through downtown Omaha. Nine years later, Rosenblatt was built on one of the highest perches in town, and hosted its first CWS in 1950. The city adopted the event as its own, showered adulation upon its participants, and was protective over it.
Rosenblatt is one of the last minor-league ballparks to use live music, and its organist, Lambert Bartak, has been playing old ballpark songs since the 1950s. Bartak isn't expected to make the move downtown. But the CWS will survive in Omaha -- the NCAA and the city recently agreed to a deal to keep it there through 2035 -- and Kelley takes solace in that.
When it was clear that Rosenblatt's fate was out of his hands, Kelley wrote a letter to The Omaha World-Herald asking fans to support the new stadium. That's what Nebraskans do, Kelley says. They support their teams and their events.
"I guess I'm going to shed crocodile tears," Kelley says, "but you move on."
Jesse Cuevas is the man who can give a dissertation on everything Rosenblatt and almost everything South Omaha. He grew up on Atlas Street, two blocks from the stadium. At the age of 9, he started working in what would become a 40-year career at the 'Blatt, only Cuevas never counted that first year because at 9, he wasn't committed enough.
When he was younger, and much more agile, he climbed up the old scoreboard and manually changed the numbers. He shagged balls for hitters twice his size. When Jesse grew to be a man, he knew his calling. He'd keep Rosenblatt's grass green and perfect.
Cuevas, surely, has a thousand Rosenblatt stories. But here's the problem -- he isn't talking. He politely declines to do an interview, and it's clear why. People close to Cuevas say he isn't happy about the ballpark, his ballpark, being torn down. Some were convinced that old Jesse would someday die here. Others can't imagine where he'll go next.
He's only 50, but is rooted somewhere in the 1940s, before luxury suites and loge boxes. His work is like religion. Either you believe in it or you don't. Cuevas, who's half Hispanic and half Polish, grew up in South Omaha when it was a real melting pot. His mother's family came here to work in the packing houses, his father's family toiled away on the railroad.
Jesse was sort of a family celebrity, and for years was quoted by the newspaper folk during the CWS. Now, big Jesse is quiet. Maybe he has nothing to say. Maybe he has no clue what he'll do when this last summer ends.
Of the 900 miles he used to drive from Austin, Texas, to Omaha, Robert Falcon always loved the last few blocks the best. That's when he crossed the Missouri River, passed the "Nebraska: The Good Life" sign and spotted the old stadium from the interstate.
"You look off to the left," Falcon says, "and there, up on the hill, is the cathedral to college baseball."
Falcon is a Longhorns fan, born and bred, and used to stay up late watching the CWS on TV as a kid. Twelve years ago, he finally made the trek to Omaha with his dad, Sonny. They ate ice cream at Zesto's, drank beers at a few neighborhood holes-in-the-wall and hung out in a cluster of burnt-orange tents known as "Little Texas."
They made friends in unlikely places. The Falcons come back nearly every year, but never stay at a hotel. They bunk for 10 days at the house of one of their Midwestern pals, a couple of Longhorns relying on the hospitality of a Cornhusker.
So Falcon was one of those fans who wrote to the mayor, begging him to spare the 'Blatt. He can't imagine what June will be like without those neighbors on 13th Street who rent their yards for $10 parking and throw in a lemonade or a beer. He wonders what will happen to the flamingos.
Every year, a group of tailgaters sets up eight yard ornaments to represent the eight CWS teams. The flamingos are decked in team T-shirts, logos and beads. Thirty minutes after a school is eliminated, a ceremony is held and a hood is placed over the fallen flamingo. It's silly, Falcon knows. It's also tradition.
"It's really sad," Falcon says, "that the NCAA and the city of Omaha have managed to move and ruin probably the best fan experience in college sports.
"With the move downtown, I think the tailgates and the camaraderie over the years are going to be lost."
Thirty-five million dollars in renovations, and Greg Peterson had his hands in all of it. He drew up the new press box, the stadium view club, the new bleachers. As a former city planner, Peterson knows just about every dusty inch of the old place. He knows the stadium's soul.
"Does a stadium have a personality, or do the events make it have a personality?" he says. "Relationships and friendships give it personality and soul."
Peterson plans to spend the last days of the 'Blatt just outside the stadium, in Row J of the parking lot. The spot has become famous for its tailgating, its barbecues and most of all, its stories. Back in the '90s, during LSU's dominance, Row J was all Cajun. It gravitated to Russell Mendoza, a man who lived large and laughed hard.
Mendoza loved friendships and food and used to cook for the 60 or so folks in Row J, but most of all, he loved his LSU Tigers. One day Mendoza was diagnosed with cancer, and doctors said he'd have to miss the CWS and take his treatments. He showed up in Omaha anyway, for what would be their last CWS together. When he left, he looked everyone in the eye in Row J, told them how much he loved them, told them how much he loved coming to Omaha.
"Not long after that," Peterson says, "he died. And forever, I'll remember that.
"I don't even remember how we met him. But we did, and we were better for it."
The sentimentalist in him will miss the 'Blatt. The planner in him knows it's time to move on. He's heard the complaints: the concourses are too narrow, the bathrooms are too small, the concessions are too limited. The city squeezed just about everything it could out of the building, he says. Now he'll hoist a beverage and say goodbye.
He doesn't know where Row J will end up next year when the CWS moves downtown. Parking no doubt will be at a premium, and the only neighbors around will be living in lofts and brick condos.
But Peterson is confident they'll find each other, and lay down roots in another meeting place. It's still baseball. It's still Omaha.
"I guess with my background, if you can't accept change, then you probably shouldn't work in the planning department," he says. "Rosenblatt served the city well. But long term, [moving] is the right thing, and needed to happen. When people are sitting in the new ballpark downtown on a summer's night, and it's dark and all the buildings are lit up and you're looking at the riverfront people are going to go, 'Wow, this is cool.'
"People need to celebrate this year with great joy and be ready to move downtown next year."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com. Paula Lavigne, a reporter in ESPN's Enterprise Unit, contributed several of the video clips. Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.