Rosenblatt becomes distant memory
OMAHA, Neb. -- The auction starts just after 9 a.m., under a red-and-white tent and a cold, gray sky. The wind howls, and the tent shakes. Maybe the old girl is fighting back. Her most passionate supporters will argue this, that the flood that creeps near the spanking-new TD Ameritrade Park and the tornado sirens that caused a ruckus last week are signs the ghosts of Rosenblatt aren't happy with progress. But that's just nonsense. It's time to let go.
An old man in a cowboy hat, dark sunglasses and a gray suit ambles up to the microphone. In auction circles, Dick Kane is famous for selling cattle and a tie worn by Warren Buffett that supposedly went for $56,000. This Thursday morning, Kane is selling history. He's helping auction off the final remnants of Rosenblatt Stadium, the 60-year home of the College World Series.
There's a trash can from the umpires' locker room to be had, plus some dugout benches, pitching rubbers and a couple of toilets. Here's what happens when an old stadium dies: It lives on in tiny pieces. So that's why they're here, 150 people in the parking lot, 941 online. To hold on to the past.
A cleat brush starts the bidding, and Kane pulls his microphone close.
Cleat cleaner, all right! OK, who bids $50? Hundred, hundred, hundred-dollar bid. Seventy-five. No hundred, now hundred. You done, you through? Sold! Seventy-five dollars!
In the back of the tent, Robert Stark sits, scribbles and sighs. Dressed in Longhorns gear right down to his burnt-orange New Balance sneakers, Stark is sad about the move. Oh, he's been in the new stadium, a $131 million beauty that is being hailed as a big league ballpark with a cozy college feel. But he still doesn't understand why things had to change.
"I've got no problems with the [new] park itself," Stark said. "But it's commercialized now.
"The College World Series, in the past, was one of the least-commercialized events that I'd been to in college sports. This was like coming to somebody's hometown and going to a baseball game. The best way I've been able to tell people about it is that it just had a warm, fuzzy feeling when you walked in there. It was just like you could go back in time."
The whole morning feels strange, with the guts of the old park flashing on a pair of big screens while bids come in on laptops. It starts with the national anthem and a half-hearted rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."
By the time it's over, the massive sign that says, "Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium" is sold for $7,000 to an online bidder. His handle is two words.
Welcome to progress. It sits 3 miles down the road and several light years away from Rosenblatt. The change of scenery at the new TD Ameritrade Park is the first thing you notice on TV. Lush green trees give way to an artsy mural and a downtown skyline.
Comfort replaces old-school charm. This is what the average fan wants, right? Seats with legroom, toilets that flush, views that are unobstructed? The new concourses are open and wide, allowing strangers to get up and gab, which is something Midwesterners like to do.
They sell crepes inside in a stand that no doubt would have been mocked at the Blatt. But here's the thing: All this isn't necessarily the future. It's the present. It's club seating and suites and corporate tents. It's a vision the city had to take to keep its status as the longest-running site of an NCAA championship.
So a new park was built in a nontraditional way, for an event, not a particular team. It is devoid of bias and anything truly iconic. It is, in many ways, the opposite of Rosenblatt. But that's progress, and that's what Bruce Carpenter was tasked with a few years ago, the heavy burden of replacing a ghost. He's the lead architect for HDR on the TD Ameritrade project. He's from Omaha.
Like many others in this city, Carpenter grew up around the CWS. His uncle took him to the Blatt as a boy, and Carpenter was mesmerized by the hot summer nights on 13th Street, the genuineness of the ballplayers, the electricity on the field, the plumes of smoke from barbecues in the parking lot. He grew up and took his daughter and her friends to the old stadium. They sat in general admission the day Warren Morris hit the walk-off homer that gave LSU the title in 1996. Then one day, Carpenter's daughter took her daughter to the CWS.
"It's a generational experience," he said. "We knew if we were going to do something, it had to be right. We had to get it right."
Realistically, the move had to be made. The old girl was antiquated and, in some jam-packed aisles, potentially dangerous. Even the 'Blatt's staunchest supporters, deep down, must know that. In attempt to possibly allay their fears that all is lost, the NCAA came up with a new slogan for the CWS. "History Happens Here."
But back to Carpenter. He's sitting in a reserved section a couple of hours before an afternoon game Tuesday when it starts to rain. He heads to a seat with an overhang, but it's too loud. He wants to talk about the new stadium, so he walks upstairs to the suite level. A woman in a yellow jacket at the door tells him he can't come in without a ticket. Carpenter explains he just wants to do a quick interview; the woman won't budge.
He is humble and doesn't want to throw around any weight, but his assistant will. She tells the woman at the door that the man to whom she's denying entry actually helped design the park and that their company has a suite right on this floor.
Not without a ticket, the woman says. "Not with the NCAA. It's not my rules."
So Carpenter trudges back out in the rain and noise and continues. See, he sat on an advisory committee in the early stages of the proposed move. The committee members batted around a number of possibilities. Initially, there was talk of building the new park in that same neighborhood on 13th Street, but it couldn't be done. Omaha didn't want to lose the series for a year or two while construction was going on, and there wasn't room to build a new park next to the old one.
He says there are a few nods to the old park if you look closely. The new field, he says, has the exact same dimensions. The organ still plays here, albeit with a new man tickling the keys. And the general-admission fans are in one community with the reserved-ticket holders, just like the 'Blatt.
The crowd starts to file in, and the architect tries to listen to what they're talking about. He wants to make sure he got it right.
In the din of an 11-inning victory over UCLA for the national championship last summer, South Carolina pitcher Michael Roth dropped to the ground and grabbed some dirt. He packed about 3 pounds into a couple of bags. He still has no idea what to do with all of it, so it sits in his closet.
He keeps it because it was the last game at Rosenblatt, and he knows what the stadium means to college baseball. The Gamecocks took the back route up the hill upon arriving in Omaha last year, and soaked in all the vendors and the tailgaters.
"You know," Roth said, "it was like a big party out there. I'm sure it'll get to that point down at TD Ameritrade. People just have to get used to it."
It was clear, by the opening pitch this year, that the adjustments would take time. Tailgaters who cooked gumbo and hamburgers together for decades are spread out over several parking lots now. They pay $20 a game to park, hide their beer and gripe about the corporate tents.
Season-ticket holders who used to bond for two weeks each summer in their little villages of reserved seats are now scattered throughout the new stadium. Some of them, on opening day last Saturday, stood up between each inning until they spotted their friends.
"The stadium itself, I can't say a bad thing about it," a man who would identify himself only as Jim said as he tossed beanbags in Lot B and drank a purple concoction. "It's all the s--- outside of it that bothers me."
But in the end, it's still baseball. It's still Omaha. South Carolina brought its superstitions to town again, minus the spirit stick that helped carry the team last year. The Gamecocks still do a "big dog" chant before every game, which is still led by second baseman Scott Wingo. "Big dog bark one time. Ah-oo!" And coach Ray Tanner still insists on frequenting many of the same restaurants, because if it worked before, why mess with it?
The Gamecocks love the new ballpark. The clubhouses are bigger, and so are the dugouts. They have indoor hitting tunnels now, plus a microphone on the mound to capture the sounds of the pitcher.
Shortly after Roth threw 122 pitches last weekend in the new yard, he told friends that it felt like he was pitching at Yankee Stadium.
"I wouldn't say it's better," Roth said. "I just think it was time for something new. I think it's time for college baseball to move forward. You know, we were in Rosenblatt for 60 years. There's tons of tradition walk-off homers, walk-off hits.
"Here in 2011, now's the time to start some new tradition."
Rich Neves has a faraway reference to tradition. He has followed the College World Series on TV since he was 7. From his home in Northern California, he'd watch the Midwestern sun sink over the Desert Dome, and he wondered what it would be like to hang out in that old neighborhood. Neves saved and scrimped, and this year, he finally swung it and took his uncle Francis to Omaha.
It didn't matter that the venue changed. They're getting older, and Neves wanted to thank his uncle for taking him to all the sporting events he's gone to in his life, the 49ers games and the chilly nights in Candlestick Park. Neves misses the quirks of Candlestick. But he's moved on.
He'd never been to the Midwest before this week, and it was kind of like stepping into a different planet. They got lost their first day in town and stopped a local for help. The guy didn't just give them directions. He told them to hop in his car and he'd take them to their hotel.
Neves says the new ballpark is "absolutely beautiful" and that there's not a bad seat in the house. He says stadiums don't make memories. People do.
And that, generations of players, coaches, and observers say, is what makes the College World Series so special. The people and their Midwestern charm.
"I mean, if you took it out of Omaha, it would've been a lot different," he said. "The people here are wonderful. They're incredibly friendly. I kind of don't want to leave the stadium. My uncle and I shared a special time out here, and I can't wait to make a new tradition."
The Stadium View Sports Cards shop used to be hopping. In 19 years, Greg Pivovar figures he gave out 45,000 free beers at his store across the street from the Blatt. Last year, nobody wanted the party to end. They signed their names to the side of the building and promised to be back, new digs be damned.
Pivovar, a local attorney, got ready for his customers' arrival this year. He bought $150 worth of groceries, made a huge pot of seafood jambalaya and put the Busch Light on ice. Three days passed, and only eight customers came. Two of them were a couple of young men, maybe 21 or 22, who drove all night from Illinois to see their first CWS. They showed up at 7:30 a.m. Saturday and rejoiced over their great parking spot.
"They had no f---ing idea the thing had moved," Pivovar said, chuckling.
But there isn't much to smile about these days on 13th Street. Pivovar got choked up when he was asked where everyone is this year. He went to his back room, composed himself and sipped a beer.
His shop has everything, from RC cans with Larry Bowa's face on them to a Nolan Ryan cereal box. He has two customers in his shop on this particular morning, and Piv -- that's what everybody calls him -- asks how the tailgating is going. One customer, a Texas fan, says he was approached outside by a scalper who wanted $200 a ticket. The Texan shows what he said to the scalper, extending his middle finger.
"I mean, it's a business down there," Pivovar said. "It's not about getting to know your clientele, getting to know your people and respecting them. Inside and outside, the park, it's all business. Have you been down there? It's all just corporate tents. And that's not baseball fans. These guys out here are baseball fans.
"This was kind of the last bastion as far as NCAA events where you could get in for 20 bucks. You could sit there with a bunch of regular Joes, sit around, have a beer and cook out and tailgate and do it for relatively free. Now, there's some of that going on down there, but it's not the same."
The Texan, Cy Ditmore, agrees. He's made a point to park at Rosenblatt, then takes a bar shuttle to the stadium. He wants to remember this game's roots. A few minutes pass, a woman in a visor walks in, and Piv's spirits are buoyed. It's customer No. 9, he says. He has no idea what he'll do with the jambalaya. No clue what he'll do with his shop, either. It was always a hobby, but if it takes food away from his family, it can't be a hobby anymore.
Piv's also renting space downtown for a second shop during the College World Series. He goes there in the afternoons. It's not nearly the same.
"I didn't expect a place full of people or anything," he said. "But you expected a few of them would come back. When I tell people I'm going to do something, I do it."
He walks behind his counter, surrounded by new T-shirts and old memories. He wonders whether people came in all these years for the conversation or the free beer. He's pretty sure of one thing.
They've moved on.
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.For more coverage of college sports, follow us on Twitter (@ESPNUcom) and check us out on Facebook (search: ESPNU.com).
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