Omaha stadium a symbol of CWS' growth and future

Jun 9 2011 - 7:25pm

OMAHA, Neb. -- The "Road to Omaha" leads to a new address this year.

The College World Series is moving to a $131 million downtown stadium that's about three miles up the street from the old ballpark where the championship evolved from a niche event supported by locals to one of the nation's great summer sports traditions.

The 24,505-seat TD Ameritrade Park is neither a minor league nor a major league stadium. Some have called it a hybrid of the two.

"I call it a College World Series stadium, built just for that," said the NCAA's Dennis Poppe, who has run the CWS for 25 years.

The 64-team NCAA tournament began Friday with regionals, and next week's super regionals will pare the field to the eight teams that will christen TD Ameritrade Park beginning June 18.

The NCAA in 2008 pledged to keep the College World Series in Omaha through at least 2035 if the city built a new stadium rather than renovate 1950s-era Rosenblatt Stadium for $26 million.

For all the modern conveniences and comfort the stadium will offer fans and participants, sentimentalists feared the CWS would lose the distinctive folksy charm for which it's famous.

That was a risk city leaders, the NCAA and people in college baseball were willing to take.

South Carolina won the last of 61 championships decided at Rosenblatt. Coach Ray Tanner said he and his players have talked about how sweet it would be to win the first one at the new stadium.

"We've seen pictures of the place on the Internet, and now we'd kind of like to see it in person," Tanner said with a laugh. "Johnny Rosenblatt has meant so much to college baseball, and it's awful hard for me to say anything bad about it. We needed some amenities for the players and the fans."

TD Ameritrade Park already has gone through trial runs. Creighton University began playing its home games there in mid-April and drew two of the top three crowds in the nation for games against Nebraska (22,197 and 17,588). The Missouri Valley Conference tournament also was played there.

"Rosenblatt can never be replaced in my heart," Poppe said, "but we're going to start a new era of the College World Series. This stadium is symbolic of the future of college baseball."

Fans who had to snake through the notoriously tight Rosenblatt concourse to get to and from their seats, concession stands and restrooms will relish TD Ameritrade Park's 360-degree walk-around concourse.

There are about 250 televisions in the stadium, including 12 55-inch flat-screens on the concourse. Most seats are 21 inches wide with a generous 3 feet of legroom.

The cramped and dingy Rosenblatt clubhouses have been replaced with spacious quarters adjacent to indoor batting tunnels and training rooms.

"I don't know if there's a stadium that has all the convenience of amenities," Poppe said.

The dimensions are the same as at Rosenblatt -- 335 feet down the lines, 408 feet to center and 375 feet in the power alleys.

Kyle Peterson grew up in Omaha, attended the CWS every summer with his family and pitched in two for Stanford in the 1990s before going to the major leagues. Now a college baseball analyst for ESPN, Peterson said it'll take time to get accustomed to the new digs.

"For those of us who grew up around it and played in it, the memories are still going to be down the street for now," Peterson said. "The first time a guy hits a walkoff home run here, the first time a guy lays out and makes a catch in a game, the memories will start building here pretty quick. For a while, everybody is going to think about the other place because that's where everything happened."

Oregon State coach Pat Casey, who won national titles in 2006-07, said he'll always remember the first time he saw Rosenblatt as the team bus rolled up 13th Street toward the stadium atop the south Omaha hill.

"I think there'll be a lot of people driving down past Rosenblatt for a good old look in memory lane for a year or two," he said.

Rosenblatt still stands, for now. The adjacent zoo bought the stadium and its land for expansion, and there are no plans to tear it down until late this year or early next.

A 6-foot chain-link fence festooned with no-trespassing signs wraps around the perimeter.

On the north side, the giant sign reading "Rosenblatt Home of the NCAA Men's College World Series" still hangs off the back of the left-field scoreboard. In the north parking lot, continuing a long-standing practice, new mail carriers are trained to drive those postal vehicles with the steering wheel on the right side.

Jason Smith led a "Save Rosenblatt" campaign for the area's neighborhood association before plans for TD Ameritrade Park were finalized.

The hand-wringing about the stadium issue subsided long ago, Smith said.

"Change is hard but change is good," he said. "When I look at it, I don't just see the memories and the great history. Part of me sees the potential for the future for that space. There's a bit of sadness. You have to let it go."

Oregon State first baseman Jared Norris, who grew up 130 miles from Omaha in Urbandale, Iowa, watched the Beavers win their back-to-back national titles in person at Rosenblatt.

A picture of the new stadium is prominently displayed in the Beavers' baseball facility. Norris said the photo is used for visualization exercises.

He doesn't wax nostalgic. He sees the future in TD Ameritrade Park.

"Yeah, a little bit of college baseball goes away with Rosenblatt," Norris said. "But the new stadium -- the seating is great, all the new technology -- the College World Series isn't going to lose anything."

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