For six decades, college baseball fans and those simply wanting to experience a living, breathing American institution have made their way to the heart of our nation for the NCAA Men's College World Series.
This year, the good people of Omaha are expecting a larger-than-normal number of CWS rookies, anxious to come and pay their respects to Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium during this, its 61st and final edition of the NCAA championship. Next year the event will move uptown to new skybox-laden, $140 million digs.
To those newbies, their gracious hosts have one piece of advice.
"Don't just buy a ticket, go through the turnstiles, take your seat and watch the game," says Steve Rosenblatt, son of Johnny and a former Omaha city politician. "Arrive early, hours early, and soak up the atmosphere around the stadium. Talk to the people. Get something to eat. Take it all in."
The Blatt sits tucked in between the graph paper-like streets of South Omaha, suddenly rising out of the rows of homes originally built for employees of the city's once-unparalleled meat packing industry.
Now those homes play host to thousands of fans, providing front-lawn parking spots, bottles of water (and other beverages) and faces that have become familiar after more than a half-century of baseball. When I wrote my book "The Road To Omaha" I referred to that atmosphere as simply The Neighborhood, and it is as much a part of Rosenblatt Stadium as anything you'll find inside.
So, what are the can't-miss experiences that everyone must hit during this, the final pilgrimage to The 'Blatt? Read ahead as we present the must-dos, must-sees and must-tastes for anyone rolling to the Big O to say one last goodbye.
1. Drink a cold one at Stadium View Sports Cards … hey, it's free.
There are plenty of great spots to hit along 13th Street, the main thoroughfare that runs along the third-base side of Rosenblatt, from the classic rock of Starsky's Bar and Grill, to the aluminum tinks of the Nike Baseball House to the impromptu shopping mall of souvenirs spread out on the lawn of the old Rosewater School, now home to apartments.
But the heartbeat of The Neighborhood is Stadium View Sports Cards, a red, white and blue frame house directly across the main pedestrian walkway from the stadium. Owner Greg Pivovar ("Piv") bought the old storefront in 1992, moved in with his legendary collection of sports memorabilia, and greets CWS week customers with "Welcome … wanna beer?" He's serious. So serious that he sells updated T-shirts each year with the number of brews he's given away.
In 2009 he wrestled his way through a bout with throat cancer to make it out for the Series, and this year he plans to let his customers, old and new, sign their names to the outside of the 112-year-old building as a way to say goodbye.
2. Boo a Rosenblatt Stadium ball girl.
No one is real sure when this tradition started, but it's been around as long as anyone can remember. When foul balls loop back and land in the giant net behind Rosenblatt's home plate, they roll back down and hit the cable that suspends the net and then drop back onto the field.
It's up to a rotating team of ball girls, most current or former college softball players, to chase those balls and keep them off the playing surface. If they catch a ball cleanly off the net, they are applauded for their effort. If it hits the ground, they are booed by the 20,000-plus fans. Judging from the scabs and dirty shirts, they are willing to go to any length to keep from being heckled.
"It takes some getting used to at first," admits longtime vet Kathleen Brown, now the women's softball coach at Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville, Va. "But I've had fans tell me that they come to the College World Series just to play the ball girl game. That's pretty cool."
3. Blow a kazoo at the Professional Tailgaters' "Hooding Ceremony."
Mark Samstead is an Omaha native living in Florida, but he hasn't missed a College World Series in … well … ever. He and his CWS Professional Tailgaters (which is trademarked) are easily identifiable by their pink flamingo decorative motif, and they always set up shop near the bend on College World Series Boulevard at the southeastern corner of the Rosenblatt parking lot.
It's there that Samstead presides over the "Hooding Ceremony," which takes place roughly 30 minutes after a team is eliminated from the eight-school CWS field. Eight plastic pink flamingos, one per school, line the thin strip of grass that Samstead's crew calls home for the two weeks. As each squad is sent packing, their flamingo is surrounded by dozens of fans, Samstead says a few words, lays dead flowers at the bird's feet, pours a beer over its head, and then tires a black hood around its neck. All while "Taps" is played on kazoos.
Having a hard time visualizing this? See this video that I shot last year.
4. Sip a double fudge milk shake from Zesto.
First of all, it's Zesto … not Zesto's. And as the sign claims, it is indeed "nationally famous" thanks to decades of unpaid promotion from many an ESPN play-by-play man who has made a between-games run to grab a malted shake from the nearly endless list of flavors. (I'm looking at you, Mike Tirico.)
Located at the corner of 13th and D Streets, the ice cream and hamburger stand is one of the last remaining stores of a once-gigantic national franchise. The most famous Zesto of them all is currently owned by Sue and Ron Tremble, who also own the beer garden in the adjacent parking lot and live in the house next door. During the two weeks of the CWS, they employ more than 20 people and will sell more than 1,500 cheeseburgers, cooked 50 at a time.
The biggest rush is always during the between-games break on two-game days. If you're standing in line, be sure to bring sunscreen and keep your head on a swivel. Spotted in line at Zesto in recent years -- Robin Ventura, Orel Hershiser and UNC basketball coach Roy Williams.
5. Hang with the teams by the bus.
In a world where college athletes are shuttled in and out of major championships like they're Rihanna doing a show at the Staples Center, the teams of the College World Series are brought in by bus and unloaded directly into the middle of the crowd loitering in front of the main gate and snapping photos in front of the iconic "Road To Omaha" statue.
The players make their march to the locker room through that crowd in uniform, carrying their bat bags, old-school style.
Fans aren't discouraged from interacting with the stars of college baseball (not to mention future stars of the big leagues). They are, in fact, encouraged to do so. Few CWS experiences can match that of watching Omaha residents waiting by the bus to give pats on the back and words of encouragement to a visiting team that has just lost a big game.
"We were so disappointed when we were eliminated in 2008," FSU-turned-San Francisco Giants slugger Buster Posey told me last year. "But it was really something to see how the locals were there for us to make us feel better. I'll never forget that."
6. Eat genuine Cajun gumbo with the Boudreaux Thibodeaux Boys.
Down below the outfield grandstands, right along Bob Gibson Boulevard, flies an odd mix of LSU Tigers, Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns and Nebraska Cornhuskers flags. This is the home of the Boudreaux Thibodeaux tailgate party, held by an unlikely group of friends who met by chance in this same parking lot.
A decade ago, Louisiana natives Stan Evans and Jeff Hyde just happened to park next to local Randy Workman and Larry Berray. They quickly hit it off and started exchanging tips about the fine art of tailgating. Now the quartet, along with several dozen additional friends, spend each year cooking beneath a tent city, supported by an army's worth of trailers packed with stacks of 100-quart coolers packed with everything from Cajun crawfish to corn-fed Nebraska beef.
If you stop by and introduce yourself roughly 90 minutes before the game, they'll tell you the story of how they met and how they are now lifelong friends, and they'll even feed you, too. But be sure to visit before June 25; that's when the Louisiana contingent has to head back home.
7. Visit the Henry Doorly Zoo.
Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo and Rosenblatt have been friendly neighbors since the ballpark opened in 1949. When the wrecking ball hits the stadium this fall (the Triple-A Omaha Royals have to finish their season first), the zoo will be the biggest beneficiary, as it will expand into the empty space.
To honor its fallen neighbor, the Doorly Zoo will be incorporating what will be called "The Infield At The Zoo" into the new area of its park. Remembrances of The Blatt will include a bronze marker where home plate now rests, markings to indicate where the basepaths once were, keeping the original foul poles in place, and scattering some of the ballpark's trademark multicolored seats throughout the zoo.
In the meantime, it's a great place for fans to visit before current CWS games. And if you're looking for fans of 2010 participant Clemson and longtime CWS stalwart LSU, go down to the tiger cage.
"Every year we have fans ask us to borrow the animals that represent their mascot," zoo director Daniel Morris said to me in 2008. "We're always flattered, but no, we can't let them borrow a tiger."
8. Catch a foul ball at an official CWS off-site practice.
Each team takes batting practice before each game of the College World Series, which always leads to a madhouse in the outfield bleachers as fans scramble for the rain of home run balls. However, there is a better, quieter and free-of-charge place to round up as many balls as one could want.
Each morning, Omaha's official College World Series website posts the practice schedule for the teams not playing at Rosenblatt that day. There are three primary locations -- Creighton University's downtown stadium, the legendary Boys Town School west of the city, and perhaps the best location of them all, Bellevue East High School, just 15 minutes south of The Blatt.
Down at Bellevue East, the locals are always there to greet the teams each year, including Marilyn Ralston, aka The Gatorade Lady, on hand with a cooler full of drinks for the visiting players.
9. Listen to America's last great ballpark organist.
Lambert Bartak has been tickling the ivories of his 1935 Hammond Organ at Rosenblatt Stadium since, well, he doesn't like to say exactly, but it's "somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 years." As a teenager, he played his accordion for the troops during World War II and as an accompanist to childhood friend Johnny Carson as his buddy did card tricks.
Now he sits in a glass room in the massive Rosenblatt press box, surrounded by banks of computers that run the giant left-field video screen. And in between blasts of Van Halen and Kanye West he slides in some "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" and "You Are My Sunshine." For some reason, he is surrounded by sheet music (he never looks at it, calls it "a crutch") and when the "90-something" gets his nightly shot on the Jumbotron, he waves and gets a standing ovation … every time.
10. Talk to a Rosenblatt Stadium legend.
Just inside the main gate, off to the left before you hit the main concourse, is the entrance to the Rosenblatt Stadium press-box elevator. No one's asking you to be a stalker, but if you keep your eyes open, you can catch the attention of the constant flow of Blatt legends as they file in and out of the tower above.
There'll be Bartak and official scorer Louis Spry, who has kept the book for every CWS since 1981 and was in attendance for many more before that. Head groundskeeper Jesse Cuevas has been on the job since before he was a teenager. And across the way in the ticket office is Eddie Sobczyk; along with his son Mike and grandson Jay, Sobczyk has run the Series ticket office for 50 years.
You'll also see ESPN's Mike Patrick and Sean McDonough, who have called play-by-play for the CWS for decades now. And because this is the final go-round for the old ballpark, there will also be a parade of legends, from LSU's Skip Bertman and Texas coach Augie Garrido to players such as Dave Winfield and Nomar Garciaparra.
Don't hesitate to stop them and ask for their best tales from Rosenblatt. Or just thank them for what they've built, an American sports institution that can never be torn down, even if its ballpark will be.
Ryan McGee is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Road To Omaha: Hits, Hopes and History at the College World Series," which chronicles the excitement and passion of the CWS, is now available on paperback.