A Tale of Two Stadiums

Why Omaha tore down one of its most recognizable landmarks to make a play for the future.
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In late September, 2011, a Nebraska-based retailer of farm equipment held a public sale on a large vacant lot in South Omaha. Prospective buyers were treated to live demonstrations of raw horsepower, as yellow-and-green frontloaders churned up weedy soil and scraped off dusty layers of the patchy turf.

It looked like just another tractor sale in Nebraska, but dolly back and take a wider view of the scene. Behind a hastily erected John Deere banner rose an amphitheater without seats, painted in broad horizontal stripes, blue, red and yellow. Above that, a denuded steel superstructure and a curving glass facade. Only one wing of the stadium—for that’s what it is, or was—still contained rows of colorful seats. The rest were removed over a long, quiet summer from this place once dubbed The Diamond on the Hill. The sign perched over the outfield bleachers gave the place its official name: Rosenblatt.

Imagine a herd of bison loosed in a UNESCO world heritage site and you’ll understand the waves of dismay that coursed through parts of the baseball community when photos of a denuded and desecrated Rosenblatt Stadium hit the internet. Hall-of-Famers Bob Gibson and Stan Musial played minor-league ball there as young Cardinals prospects. George Brett passed through in 1973 on his way to Kansas City. Dave Winfield, Roger Clemens and Huston Street had memorable collegiate postseason appearances on the same diamond. Rosenblatt had been the home of the College World Series for more than six decades, before Omaha’s city fathers and the NCAA agreed in 2009 to build bigger and supposedly better digs for the event.

The Henry Doorly Zoo, the state’s top year-round tourist draw, was Rosenblatt’s next-door neighbor, and was growing unhappy in the building’s shadow. Money talked, as it always does, and the shining Diamond on the Hill was soon doomed. A new stadium would be built at a downtown site three miles directly due north of Rosenblatt. Ground was broken in January of 2009, and a gleaming, 24,000-seat glass and steel structure began to rise in a former industrial zone, bounded by the booming Old Market district to the south, Creighton University on the west, the Iowa border to the north, and the hyper-modern layer cake of CenturyLink Arena dominating the eastern view. Economic development, trendy condos, airy offices and public light rail transportation—the four horsemen of stadium-building happy talk—were dangled in front of the city’s voters to sweeten the taste. Naming rights were shopped, and the new arena became TD Ameritrade Park Omaha.

For those who follow LSU, Arizona State, Texas and other near-perennial CWS qualifiers, Rosenblatt became a beautiful summer vacation home. But it had a much deeper meaning for the people of Omaha. For them, the polarizing decision to raze the ’Blatt and relocate its tenants has felt more like a high-stakes battle for the soul of a modest midwestern city.

“This is Omaha trying to pretend that it’s a big city by building a new stadium,” says Omaha native Paul Fiarkoski, proprietor of RememberRosenblatt.com. “But it’s not.”

The first College World Series was played in 1947 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 1948, Omaha broke ground on a civic stadium that was intended to host minor-league baseball. By 1950, the NCAA had signed a deal to move the series there. For the first 14 years of its existence, the series ran a deficit, but a group of Omaha businessmen agreed to cover the costs. In 1964, the edifice was named after former Omaha mayor Johnny Rosenblatt, and in 1969, the expansion Kansas City Royals put their AAA affiliate—also named the Royals—in Rosenblatt as well.

Money for improvements was a frequent theme for Rosenblatt, which debuted as 12,000-seat Omaha Municipal Stadium and remained relatively unchanged until ESPN began to televise the series in the early 1980s. The first major overhaul came in 1987, after then-NCAA president Walter Byers issued the first hint that Omaha must pony up or lose the series. $3.4 million was raised through a public initiative called ‘Batting for the Blatt’, allowing for the addition of better lights and the signature red and yellow outfield bleachers. The new press box with its peaked blue roof—reminiscent of an International House of Pancakes—was installed in one retooling, along with a new playing surface, even more color-coded seats and bigger dugouts. In 1999, the Road to Omaha statue, created by local sculptor John Labja, was added to the open plaza outside the front gate. A $7 million upgrade in 2001 added 10,000 new seats, bringing capacity up to 23,145.

The iconic desert dome at the Doorly Zoo, visible behind the bleachers down the first-base line, became part of a familiar scene. Fans stood in polite lines beneath a marquee proclaiming ‘Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium’, posing for photos beside the dogpiling bronze players depicted in the Road to Omaha. Flags representing each season’s eight participating teams hung on tall metal poles. Tailgaters filled the air of the wrap-around parking lots with footballs, alma mater chants, bean bags, suds and savory tendrils of BBQ smoke. Local organist Lambert Bartak began entertaining the crowd in 1955 and kept going as long as Rosenblatt did.

The working-class South Omaha neighborhood that surrounded it also became part of Rosenblatt’s identity. Arrive too late to squeeze into the parking lot, and a helpful local would take a couple of bucks to store the family truckster on his lawn for the day. The free market roared unchecked along 13th street, anchored on the northern end by the massive cheeseburger-palming ape representing the King Kong burger shack, and on the south by the old-fashioned sign that led parched and sweaty baseball fans to the Zesto ice cream shop. In between was Famous Dave’s BBQ, which often looked more like a house party than a restaurant. The organic public festival that leapt up around the ’Blatt came to define the CWS experience nearly as much as did the baseball played inside.

To the rest of the world, Omaha is known as the hometown of billionaire Warren Buffett, the meat-by-mail empire of Omaha Steaks and the corporate home base for Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, which featured Marlin Perkins dispatching his loyal dogsbody Jim Fowler into the savannah to wrestle lions for a weekly television audience from 1963 to 1985. Thanks to Rosenblatt and the annual spectacle of the CWS, baseball has become a key part of the city’s image as well.

“I grew up in the Rosenblatt neighborhood, so it was something I literally saw every day out my bedroom window,” reminisces Paul Fiarkoski. “The city has a reputation of not only not doing things to build up that area, but of literally taking things away from South Omaha. Rosenblatt Stadium is a great example of that.”

There were several reasons for Rosenblatt’s demise. A December, 2007 letter from the NCAA to series organizer Jack Diesing, Jr., suggested that a new building might be more palatable than further upgrades of the existing stadium. With other mid-sized burgs—Orlando, Florida in particular—openly coveting the event, change was in the air. Coaches and players seemed to relish the idea of more modern facilities. Kansas City-based Populous, the architecture firm behind Camden Yards, Coors Field, and other modern icons of the sport, was called in to help solve the problem.

“It came down to two basic options—renovation of the existing venue vs. replacement,” said lead designer Martin DiNitto. “From a local investment perspective, the cost was relatively similar in either case. People who supported the zoo, and people who supported baseball put in more money for relocation rather than renovation.”

Then-mayor Mike Fahey became deeply unpopular following the decision to move the series. A recall petition failed to gain traction, but Fahey chose not to seek re-election and was out of office before TD Ameritrade was completed. The news hasn’t been all bad for Fahey. A street near the new site was named in his honor, and he is said to be a part-owner of The Mattress Factory, a new bar and restaurant that opened up across the street from the new building. Lots outside of the refurbished industrial building were rented out to independent vendors during the 2011 CWS.

The editor of Ballpark Digest, who visited TD Ameritrade in June of 2011 for the first CWS to be held in the new park, perceived a stratification that never existed in the ’Blatt:

"Really, though, we are writing about two ballparks. One ballpark is for the everyday fans, featuring comfortable seating (for the most part) and little else. The other ballpark, and the one most fans will never see, is for the NCAA, for the Omaha business elite, and for the sponsors. The suite/club level is its own world, with its own concessions, entrances and elevators. (We’d write more about this world, but the press was not allowed in.) Make no mistake: the design of the ballpark was skewed to give these folks the best views."

The decision to eschew most reminders of the past also rings a bit strange. None of Rosenblatt’s color—rainbow seats, blue trusses, IHOP roof—survived the reboot. A few interior plaques and the Road to Omaha statue are the only visual reminders of the old diamond. Brian Foley, who has covered the CWS in both stadiums for his independent College Baseball Daily, said “The statue is behind home plate outside the front entrance on a street corner,” leaving very little room for the picture-taking ritual. “If you saw the new stadium on TV, you wouldn't know it was in Omaha. There are no characteristics of the stadium that make it stand out.” Developers tout the new stadium’s view of the downtown skyline, which seems a rather dubious distinction.

But Rosenblatt lives on in other ways. The AAA Royals divorced themselves from any notion of playing in the $130 million TD Ameritrade and built a cozy 9,000 seat, $26 million love nest called Werner Park in nearby Papillion, Nebraska, re-branding themselves as the Omaha Storm Chasers in the process. The ballpark is surrounded by cultivated cropland right now, with not a single light-rail stop or refurbished brick condo building in sight. There’s beer for sale, and six bucks will buy blanket space on the grass berm, with good views of the outfield action and a shot at catching a home run ball. The seats and dugouts are a deep blue color, like Rosenblatt.

The Doorly Zoo, which gained so much from Rosenblatt’s demise, also did much to help the stadium live on. The non-profit auctioned the stadium off piecemeal, giving a good deal on multi-hued bleachers (one owner, used just two weeks a year) to a cash-strapped high school in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The chairbacks along the first-base line were purchased by the city of Wahoo, Nebraska and installed in the town’s Crawford Stadium. Lights and a high-tech scoreboard were flat-out donated to other nearby schools. The zoo will also build a little-league sized replica of Rosenblatt, blue roof and all, as part of a $174 million expansion planned for the new hilltop land they’ve so recently acquired.

TD Ameritrade might have been born in a state of original sin, tainted by the money circulating through suit pockets both local and exotic. There may yet be a spark of sincerity somewhere in the shiny box named for a sell-short day trading empire, and Omaha may spend the remaining 24 years of its iron-clad hosting deal with the NCAA looking for it. What a luxury.

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