By Greg Johnson
College baseball said goodbye to a grand old stadium when the last out was recorded in Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium at the 2010 Men’s College World Series in Omaha.
This year’s event bridged the nostalgia of the past 6 0 years at Rosenblatt to the excitement of the CWS transitioning to its new home at TD Ameritrade Park Omaha in 2011.
Omaha has hosted the CWS every year since 1950, and the decision to build a state-of-the-art stadium in downtown secured a 25-year agreement that the Division I Baseball Championship will continue to be played in the city.
“We often associate the venue with the event, and it’s good when those things blend together,” said Dennie Poppe, the NCAA vice president for Division I baseball and football. “But this is really about Omaha being more synonymous with the event than the venue. It was a tough decision, but for the future of the championship, it had to be made.”
Poppe compared the change in venues to a young family outgrowing its first house. As time passes, the family grows and has to either renovate or look for another place to meet its needs.
“It doesn’t mean you don’t have great memories from the time spent in the old house,” said Poppe, who has worked the past 24 championships. “The cost effectiveness of the deal to repair Rosenblatt wouldn’t have been a good business decision. This was the right decision, and it will serve the College World Series and Omaha well into the future.”
Emotions were high in Omaha as the reality of the CWS moving from Rosenblatt neared. Many people in the community remember attending with their family and friends, and the thought of the games being played somewhere else was hard to fathom.
“This year was emotional and somewhat bittersweet,” said Jack Diesing Jr., the president of College World Series of Omaha Inc. “It is important to remember that this is called ‘The Road to Omaha,’ and what started in 1950 isn’t going away. Certainly, Omaha’s connection to the College World Series will continue to grow even stronger.”
A true ballpark
The family atmosphere at Rosenblatt makes it a hard place to leave. Every aspect of the park says baseball, or more importantly, college baseball.
“Rosenblatt smells like you’d expect a ballpark to smell,” said NCAA Director of Statistics Jim Wright, who was the CWS media coordinator from 1979 to 2004. “You can smell the funnel cakes, the burgers and all the other things. As a kid growing up, that is what I remember a baseball stadium smelling like.”
Poppe oversaw the many renovations at Rosenblatt, starting in the early 1990s. The entire playing field was replaced in 1992, and permanent outfield seats were added later.
The press box was reconstructed in the mid-1990s – a project that caused consternation. During a site visit in January, Poppe was stunned to see how little progress had been made. But that was because much of the world’s steel supply was headed to Japan, which was reeling from an earthquake.
“It was one of those icy and snowy days, and there was no press box,” Poppe said. “It was completely gone. I remember looking around, and finally I asked the project manager, ‘OK, what’s Plan B?’ I just didn’t see how they were going to have it all done.”
Its completion was another example of the people of Omaha coming through for the CWS.
“You knew no matter how hopeless the situation seemed, you knew it would get done,” Wright said. “That doesn’t mean you didn’t get nervous, but deep down, you knew the staff at Rosenblatt would get things done.”
TD Ameritrade Park Omaha will seat 24,000, making it larger than many Minor League Baseball parks. But it will be more intimate than Major League stadiums.
“It will be the best college baseball facility in the country,” said Bruce Rasmussen, who is the director of athletics at Creighton. “It’s built specifically for college baseball.”
The Missouri Valley Conference baseball tournament will be played there in May.
“I’ve been at Creighton for 30 years, and we have never hosted the conference baseball tournament,” Rasmussen said. “This facility will have amenities such as the suites and club seats. And there are a lot of seats that are protected from the elements. There will be a heating element underneath the field so that it will be ready to play on earlier than other facilities in the Midwest.”
TD Ameritrade Park Omaha will also have four clubhouses and more batting cages.
Roger Dixon, the president/CEO of Omaha’s Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, is in charge of managing the facility. He had a similar role when the Scottrade Center opened in St. Louis and when the Qwest Center opened eight years ago in Omaha.
“I listened to people in St. Louis who said they wouldn’t go downtown because it wasn’t safe and there was no tradition,” Dixon said. “It was similar in Omaha when the Qwest Center replaced the Civic Auditorium. Now, people are excited to go to both of those venues. Once people get used to the fact that TD Ameritrade Park is the new home for the College World Series, it will develop its own tradition.”
Mike Fahey, who was mayor of Omaha when the decision was made to transition the CWS to the new stadium, believes people will quickly adapt to the change.
“Most of the credit for the success of the College World Series goes to the people of greater Omaha,” Fahey said. “We have so many volunteers who help this event run smoothly, and they go above and beyond what is expected. We made the right fiscal decision as well as it being the right thing to do for the fans and the student-athletes who play in the event.”
Poppe said everyone wanted to retire Rosenblatt with the dignity and respect it deserved.
“The new stadium has to earn its own spurs,” Poppe said. “I’m sure the first time a walk-off home run is hit in the new stadium, someone will say I was there when that was hit.”