Omaha celebrates debut of new ballpark

Originally Published: April 19, 2011
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN.com

OMAHA, Neb. -- They haven't laid a finger on the old ballpark.

[+] EnlargeRosenblatt
Mitch Sherman/ESPN.com Rosenblatt awaits demolition while its replacement debuted to positive reviews Tuesday.

Rosenblatt Stadium stood tall in the cold wind Tuesday, 2.8 miles south of its shiny replacement -- a straight shot down 13th Street.

When South Carolina celebrated its national title this past June, many pegged the 61-year home of the College World Series as nothing more than a pile of rubble by now. But there it stands, looking proud though haggard, empty and sentenced, someday soon, to demolition.

Meanwhile, this city welcomed a new era of college baseball on a frigid evening as Nebraska beat host Creighton 2-1 in the debut of TD Ameritrade Park.

College baseball revolves more around its stadiums than its stars. And its new mecca, despite lacking the charm and character of Rosenblatt, does not disappoint.

"It's a beautiful venue," Omahan Jeff Reinhardt, 53, said from his seats in left-center field, "and I'm very proud it's in Omaha."

The new home of the College World Series offers so much that Rosenblatt never could: wide-open, 360-degree concourses, comfortable seating, modern amenities, and luxuries such as 26 suites and nearly 250 flat-panel TV screens. It comes with a $131 million price tag funded through a public-private partnership and a new, 25-year agreement with the NCAA that will keep Omaha's sacred CWS in place through 2035.

On opening night at TD Ameritrade Park, all the bitterness of the past half-decade gave way to handshakes.

Ushers smiled. Fans gazed in awe. Concessionaires whistled. It's a big league park, minus about 15,000 seats, and for one day, at least, it unified Omaha.

TD Ameritrade Park
AP Photo/Nati HarnikTD Ameritrade Park is the sparkling new home of the College World Series.

"At the end," said Roger Dixon, president of Omaha's Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, "everybody stood up and said this is the right thing for Omaha."

No doubt, it was a painful process. The realization hit Omaha long ago that it needed change to keep the CWS beyond 2010. Debates turned heated. Renovate Rosenblatt -- so entwined in CWS lore -- or start anew?

Former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey proposed a new stadium in 2007. The idea passed in 2008 after power struggles over the facility's size, location and availability to the minor league club in Omaha.

The Triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals in the end split for a new, 6,500-seat stadium in the city's southwest suburbs.

On the northern edge of downtown at the big park, with seating for 24,505, the symbolic completion of the journey came last week as the Road to Omaha statue arrived at the corner of 13th and Cuming streets.

It stood as an iconic monument outside the gates of Rosenblatt since 1999, a tribute to former hometown kid Brian O'Connor, the current Virginia coach who helped lead Creighton to its lone CWS appearance 20 years ago.

The Bluejays, starting Tuesday, play their home games here. Some of the Creighton players hardly believe their good fortune.

"When they first walked out, you could tell," CU coach Ed Servais said. "Their eyes were bugging out."

[+] EnlargeCWS Sculpture
AP Photo/Nati HarnikThe iconic Road to Omaha statue made the trip downtown to the new ballpark.

Fahey, the former mayor, who did not seek re-election in 2009, looked every bit the proud father Tuesday. For his contributions, Omaha renamed the street that runs behind right field after him.

"This stadium did exactly what we talked about," Fahey said. "There's not a bad seat in the house. It's so different from Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt was wonderful, but this is the new age."

Jack Diesing, longtime president of CWS Inc., Omaha's organizing committee, described the opening of the stadium as a "dream."

"It was never on anybody's radar screen that a brand-new stadium would be the answer when this process began," Diesing said. "And even when it became the answer, there were a lot of times I didn't think it would happen."

Creighton announced the attendance at 22,217 on Tuesday, the largest crowd in college baseball this year. In the 40-degree conditions, officials estimated an actual head count of 18,000.

Fans agreed that Omaha had moved past its attachment to Rosenblatt.

"There will be new memories here," Creighton freshman Laura Jablonski said. "It's a new era. It's going to be great."

Quinton Richards worked on the College World Series maintenance crew at Rosenblatt. He said he still regrets missing North Carolina pitcher Andrew Miller, who visited Omaha in 2006 with a fastball reputed to approach 100 mph.

"I heard about him, but I couldn't find an exit from the concourse to see," Richards said. "Here, wow, you can actually see the game. I think it's amazing. They learned from Rosenblatt. The thought put into this place is extraordinary."

It also caters to the student-athlete.

That is, after all, the objective of Omaha's premier event, said Dennis Poppe, NCAA managing director for football and baseball. Poppe watched Tuesday night with a group of NCAA staff and corporate partners that numbered more than three dozen.

Logan Ehlers
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska's Logan Ehlers led the Huskers to a 2-1 victory over Creighton on Tuesday.

"Those young men who have played in previous World Series and are fortunate to come back this year, they'll notice a major, major difference," Poppe said. "The goal of your career as a college baseball player is to reach the top. Now, we can say this is the top in every way."

Still, it took two stadiums to replace Rosenblatt. Across town Tuesday night, the Omaha Storm Chasers -- rebranded with a catchy name last year when the club left Rosenblatt -- beat Memphis 2-0.

As much as the legacy of the old park survives downtown, part of Omaha baseball history moved with the minor league club. Its new stadium, Werner Park, pays tribute to local legends Johnny Rosenblatt, another former mayor who gave his name to the historic venue that now sits empty, and Bob Gibson.

In fact, Steve Rosenblatt, Johnny's son, traveled to Omaha not for the Tuesday opening of TD Ameritrade Park but last week for the Werner Park unveiling.

Martie Cordaro, general manager of the Storm Chasers, felt the pain, too, that came with this baseball divorce. The Storm Chasers could not co-exist with the college event. The CWS simply grew too large.

"I would tell you," Cordaro said, "I'm very surprised we ended [up] staying here."

That famous, old-school organ from Rosenblatt also made its way to TD Ameritrade Park, although by a circuitous route. It belonged to the Storm Chasers, who donated it to the city, according to Cordaro. The city placed it downtown.

So this week, all is well again in Omaha baseball.

"Good things [don't] come easy," said Diesing, of the organizing committee. "We're moving into the future, and what we've got is something, I think, that's going to blow everybody away."

Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mshermanespn@gmail.com. Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter:

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