Tuesday, June 22, 2010

College World Series: Final Season of Rosenblatt Stadium

All photos of Omaha and Rosenblatt Stadium available on Flickr.

The College World Series has been at the heart of Omaha summers since 1950, and all 61 fields of 8 have played at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium. In 2009, the city and the NCAA renewed its CWS lease through 2035, but with the caveat that Omaha build a new downtown stadium by 2011. The series, with attendance increasing above capacity almost every season since 1991, was outgrowing the stadium and the players, and a larger ballpark with modern amenities would be needed to generate more revenue for Omaha and the NCAA. On the other side of the coin, Rosenblatt's other tenant, the AAA Omaha Royals, were obviously struggling to fill this 23000+ seat ballpark on a regular basis - the O-Royals typically draw at less than 1/4 capacity. The plan for next season is for the O-Royals and the CWS to have separate stadiums that fit each of their needs, one downtown and one outside of the city. With that being said, I just had to go see a game during the final College World Series ever played at Rosenblatt Stadium. Erik and I had planned a week-long trip to Omaha, but his job prevented him from going. So, I condensed the same trip into a couple of days and journeyed on solo. Normally I would not cross things off of "the list" without Erik, but I feel that seeing Rosenblatt in its last season was warranted.

Erik and I both passed by Rosenblatt on the way from Lincoln to Des Moines on the tour, and even though we did not go inside, it has stood out in my mind these past 3 years among the many mindless minor and independent league structures we visited. Rosenblatt Stadium may not look flashy on the surface, but is very unique in a couple of ways. First, several additions have made this ballpark into the largest minor league park in the country. This gives it a much different look and feel than most of the more intimate ballparks in the minors, particularly at a CWS game. Secondly, the ballpark was opened for the 1948 season. Much like Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City (ironically the O-Royals' parent club), the era in which it was built gives it a motif unmatched anywhere else. It postdates all of the wood frame ballparks erected earlier in the century, and predates the smaller, amenity-filled parks we see today in the minors that all have the same basic layout. The blue steel webframe structure and original "Rosenblatt" signage are both instantly recognizable. With the Royals moving to a 7,500 seat ballpark in outlying Papillion, and the College World Series moving to the 30,000 seat TD Ameritrade Park downtown, efforts have been ongoing to save the historic ballpark. The nearby Doorly Zoo will take ownership of the land starting in 2011 and intend on using the land for parking. The latest proposal I have seen presents a compromise of repurposing over total demolition, with the front entry gate and diamond remaining as a park, and the outfield behind being converted to parking stalls. Much of Rosenblatt's charm will be lost to generations forever, but this compromise or something like it would allow Omaha to keep a small piece of history alive. Rosenblatt Stadium is definitely a hidden gem that many people do not know about because they may not be college baseball fans, but make no mistake - it has the same character and memories as the Fenway Parks of the world and will definitely be missed.

I arrived in Omaha at about 1:00 on Monday, about a 4 hour drive from Waterloo. After checking in at the Super 8 - hiked up to $80/night for the CWS, and every room was full - I figured I had a little bit of time to kill before heading to the park. Big mistake. Wasting a half-hour watching the World Cup in my room almost prevented me from gaining access to the 3:30 game. It took me about a half-hour to get from the off-ramp to the the lawn I parked on 5 blocks away for $30. The neighborhood and the atmosphere was unbelievable. Never in all my visits to Lambeau field or Yankee Stadium, or all of my college football experiences, have I seen the crowds and activity like I did there. Like Lambeau Field, parking at the field is insufficient and nearby residents charge a ridiculous fee for them to park on your lawn. I read a lot of articles about how neighbors are glad to see the CWS leave Rosenblatt, but for making $100-200 a day in parking fees for two weeks, I'd put up with the madness. Like Yankee Stadium, there are merchandise tents, stores, and bars lined all up and down Bert Murphy Drive and 12th Streets, interspersed between and in front of houses. And like a college football Saturday at Ohio State, Notre Dame, Iowa, or any other big university, the crowd is electric. People tailgate and drink on their porches from first pitch to the last out. Thousands of students wander the streets supporting their schools with the little clothing they have on. Lines form around the stadium and onto the street.

The College World Series experience combines the most insane atmospheres of the NFL, MLB, and college football all in one, packed into 10 days. On top of that, throw in that people converge from all over the country to see this event, and you have a scene that will likely never be fully recreated after this year. A downtown ballpark may provide much deserved revenue and development opportunities, but will never recreate the neighborhood feel and chaos that is present every June at the Blatt, and that to me is a big loss. Having now attended the CWS at Rosenblatt, I will (as a lifelong Cubs hater) finally reverse my stance on tearing down Wrigley Field. Yes, the stadium will crumble and require significant structural renovations, but who cares? It's all about the fans and the neighborhood. Having that gameday aura in Chicago, or Omaha, or anywhere else, is something very special. The Yankees had the opportunity to rebuild their new stadium across the street, but the Cubs and CWS unfortunately do not have that luxury.

After finding my way through the crowd and the muck from the overnight rain, I finally arrived on the hallowed Rosenblatt grounds. The College World Series and the NCAA host a FanFest outside the ballpark every year, which was kind of like the scene outside the Winter Classic at Wrigley. There were tents selling food and merchandise, some bands playing, fan activities, and just a general gathering spot before and after the games. The festival led me to the front gate, and I tried as best I could to get some unobstructed photos of the "Road to Omaha" statue and the front gate signage, but the crowd was very thick. Flags of the 8 schools flanked both sides of the statue - TCU, Oklahoma, Florida, Florida State, UCLA, South Carolina, Clemson, and #1 ranked Arizona State. By this time it was an hour to first pitch, and I thought I had time to circumnavigate the park quick. I made my way through the makeshift "ESPN Camp" past left field, and discovered two things: (1) you can't circumnavigate a park perched on a hill, and (2) I'd better get in line right now! They had set up a line with ropes and posts, not unlike waiting in line at a roller coaster park, and I snaked my way through it as fast as I could and got into the park at about 3:00. At the CWS, general admission ticket holders like myself are not guaranteed entry - only about 5800 per game - so getting into the stadium was an accomplishment in itself. OK, I found parking, and I got in - now to find a seat. Being there alone, I was able to wedge in at the top row of the lower section in left field to take in an elimination game between Florida and Florida State.

Just as with being outside the park, inside was no different - no glitz and glamour, but still distinctly original, and the fans totally made the experience. Rosenblatt appears much more massive than the web frame and metal bleachers seen from the outside would indicate. It's a very tall one-deck park, with seats surrounding all sides, and a small standing area beyond the batters eye. All of the concessions were under the bleachers offering a limited palette, but most importantly lots of water, soda, and frozen treats on this hot day. The only bad part of my day was that the GA sections and the reserved seating areas were separated, so I was not able to see the entire park. The afternoon game was just under capacity, probably because of the 90+ degree heat and the threat of rain. Eventually the skies turned partly cloudy and the rain held up, so it turned out to be a relaxing game, despite its nearly 4-hour length. Amidst the constant confiscation of beach balls and taunting of the right field fans - "Right Field Sucks! Right Field Sucks!" - I was able to witness Florida State edge out Florida 8-5, thus making the Gators the first team eliminated from the CWS. Brian Busch overcame a shaky start for the Seminoles, giving up a tape measure shot to the first batter of the game, but ended up going 5.1 innings for the victory. Florida made it interesting in the 9th with a 3-spot, but Mike McGee came in from left field for the 'Noles to pick up his 13th save of the season. The star of the game was undoubtedly McGee. He not only hit the tie-breaking 3-run homerun in the 3rd, but as I said also picked up the save. McGee is not surprisingly a finalist for the John Olerud award, given each year to NCAA baseball's top two-way player. Austin Maddox was the big-name player I recognized in the game, and he went 2-5 with an RBI as the Gators' DH.

For the last game, I had to exit the park and re-enter for an 8:00 first pitch. Since the afternoon game did not end until 7:15, lines were already very long to get into the TCU-UCLA nightcap. At first glance at the gathered crowd, I thought that there was zero chance I'd get back in. But with nothing better to do on a Monday night in Omaha and with ticket already in hand, I gave it a shot, and was literally in the last 20 or so people to gain entry. I walked down the concourse to get a burger, and when I walked back past the gate, the people behind me in line had not yet left. Security was actually letting in handfuls of people at a time as people exited throughout the game. I tried to sit in right for this game so that I could see the jumbotron, and to see if right field did in fact suck. I searched for about two innings all across the outfield for a seat and finally decided to just stand in the aisle illegally in right-center with about 2,000 screaming TCU fans. This game was much more rowdy than the first, and it seemed to be mostly TCU fans aside from a section behind the UCLA dugout. There were a lot of shirtless guys walking around with Bruins caps on, but being from LA they probably weren't at the park to watch the game anyways and were no doubt leaving early. Again surrounded by a sea of beach balls, bleacher bums trying to start waves and chants, and security removing people left and right, I was able to see an amazing game. Gerrit Cole completely dominated the Horned Frogs for 8 innings in a gutsy performance. Aside from the 7th in which he loaded the bases and gave up a bases-clearing triple to Taylor Featherston, he had TCU hitters looking foolish all night. The best half-inning of the entire day was when Cole, a first-round draft pick this year of the Yankees, remarkably came back out for the 8th after looking to be tapped out in the rocky 7th. He proceeded to strikeout the side on mid-90s fastballs, making it a total of 13 for the night on 122 pitches. After heading for the dugout with a fist-pump following the 3rd out, a barrage of beach balls and inflatable animals engulfed the entire outfield in one final act of defiance towards the beleaguered security crew. Players including Cole himself came out to the outfield to help restore order, and after a strategic playing of "Sweet Caroline" by PA guy, the crowd was distracted enough to let the final inning play out and UCLA to prevail 6-3. The Bruins' leadoff hitter Beau Amaral was the offensive star of the game, going 3-3 with 2 runs scored and an RBI.

I would conclude this long post with a list of tips for anyone visiting the CWS, but I doubt any of the same problems will exist at the downtown ballpark next year. All I can say is to get there plenty early if you hold a GA ticket and hang on for a wild ride! I had an absolute blast and cannot wait to visit TD Ameritrade Field with Erik in the near future. My brief roadtrip will conclude today with finding a good brewpub to watch the World Cup this afternoon, and a 90-minute drive to Sioux City to watch the Explorers.

park stats and rankings:
aesthetics - 5
views from park - 2 (some views of the zoo through the back fence)
view to field - 6 (obstructions in the gaps, behind the plate, and from massive crowds)
surrounding area - 4 (zoo, residential - bump it up to a 9 for CWS FanFest)
food variety - 2
nachos - 4 (standard)
beer - not sold at NCAA event
vendor price - 5 ($4 for water)
ticket price - 9 ($10 GA is pretty good for a championship event)
atmosphere - 10
walk to park - 9
parking proximity - 3 (relatively close, but $15-20 per game on surrounding lawns)
concourses - 3
team shop - 7 (pts deducted for almost everything in & out of park sold out by end of gm 2)

best food - Omaha Steak burger
most unique stadium feature - "Road to Omaha" statue
best jumbotron feature - Rosenblatt CWS memories
best between-inning feature - beach balls in bleachers

field dimensions - 335/408/335
starters - Hudson Randall (FLA) v. Brian Busch (FSU); Kyle Winkler (TCU) v. Gerrit Cole (UCLA)
opponent - Florida Gators v. Florida State Seminoles; Texas Christian Horned Frogs v. UC-Los Angeles Bruins
time of game - 3:33; 3:18
attendance - 19500+; 23100+
score - 8-5 FSU, 6-3 UCLA
Brewers score that day - off

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