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The Road Back to Omaha

It has been said that people tend to return to their roots. A couple weeks from now I will be returning to my roots for an experience of a lifetime: helping cover the final College World Series baseball tournament at Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium.

What’s remarkable about this journey is that I didn’t plan it. There is no way I could have. In a way, it just happened. When this journey ends I will surely have feelings of bitterness, yet I’m counting on the memories to be sweet. I doubt you need me to tell you about how it came to be that the stadium where the championship team of college baseball has been decided for 60 straight years will meet its fate. My own story is similar.

Growing up in South Omaha
The son of a twenty year military veteran, I began to put down roots in South Omaha at the age of seven when my dad retired from the Air Force. The home I was raised in sits on 24th and D Streets, about three-quarters of a mile west of the main entrance to Rosenblatt. From the bedroom I inhabited, my view was over neighboring rooftops and a distinct valley dense with trees. Protruding from the treetops across the narrow valley were Rosenblatt’s stadium lights.

I could always tell if something was going on at “the Blatt” just by peering across the horizon. If it was a concert, I could hear it. Baseball games were evident by the long pauses between announcements and cheering. Fireworks were unmistakable and always inspiring to watch.

My exposure to Omaha politics
Like so many kids who grow up in South Omaha, I moved west when I outgrew Mom and Dad’s house – all the way to 35th Street (still in South O). That’s where I bought my first home – eleven blocks west and about five blocks south of my childhood home. Shortly afterward, in 1994, I learned first-hand about the city’s power of eminent domain to take property from individuals and turn it over to businesses. Where my starter home once sat, now sits a parking lot for the employees of a meat packing plant – a mainstay industry in South Omaha.

Although it was an entirely different mayor and city council than was behind the decision to demolish Rosenblatt, I learned in 1994 the same thing advocates for saving Rosenblatt learned in 2008: you can’t fight city hall. Well, you can, but it does no good.

With my settlement from the City of Omaha in the bank, I picked up and moved even further west and further south. This time to neighboring Sarpy County, just like the Omaha Royals (the MiLB tenant of Rosenblatt) will in 2011. Some have bagged on the Royals for not moving downtown to the new $130 million tax-payer funded stadium, but I don’t blame them for making a decision that wouldn’t support the city’s decisions. I know how bad it stings to be forced out of your home, especially when you have been a good citizen and member of the community.

Save Rosenblatt
New adventures lured me from the Omaha area to Colorado in 1996, where I have lived ever since. Years passed without me missing Omaha one bit. Then, on a trip back to visit family in the Rosenblatt neighborhood for Easter, 2007 a yard sign caught my attention: “Save Rosenblatt”. Nostalgia hit me like a ton of bricks. “Nobody is foolish enough to destroy Omaha’s crown jewel,” I assured myself. Or were they?

Save Rosenblatt sign from the unsuccessful 2007 campaign

And so the story goes, big money trumps tradition. The city wins (what they won I don’t know), Rosenblatt fans lose. Thanks for playing. Heartache began to set in for fans of the stadium and the world series of college baseball.

For me, the road back to Omaha in June 2010 will leave a great big check mark on my proverbial bucket list. I will experience the championship series in a way few will ever get to: from the perch of the press box, attending as many games as I can handle, taking notes, taking pictures and sharing the whole experience with anyone who wishes to follow it.


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Royal treatment made for a classic experience at Rosenblatt Stadium

Over the past several decades, Rosenblatt Stadium has become synonymous with the College World Series. Every June, sportscasters and former baseball standouts were shown calling the championship games with periodic pans of the packed house crowd and the infamous desert dome at the zoo in the near distance over the right field wall.  That was the world view of Rosenblatt.

The experience I had with my family at Rosenblatt in the summer of 2007 was more consistent with the experience most locals have had at Rosenblatt. It occured on a balmy Saturday night in August. The Omaha Royals, farm club of the team in Kansas City, were playing a AAA opponent that wore uniforms of a color I cannot remember. Honestly, I don’t have a clue who they played. None of that mattered to us really. Sure, we knew there was a game being played on the field. But there were far too many distractions around us to pay attention to the game. Who can focus on baseball when you have snow cones, cotton candy, popcorn and hilarious fan contests diverting your attention?

No draw, no crowd
With the exception of a few appearances by George Brett when he was still playing, the O Royals were never a big draw. Tack a special event such as a country music star or fireworks on to the final out and a respectable number of fans (rarely more than 10,000) would show. (By comparison, College World Series games often draw around 20,000.) Personally, the most memorable draw for me was The Chicken, the bright red and yellow feathery mascot formerly known as the San Diego Chicken. My older brother took me to a Royals game to see The Chicken when I was about twelve years old. I was in stitches watching him repeatedly abuse the umpires.

My daughters at an Omaha Royals game in 2007.

On the occasion of our family outing in 2007, there was apparently no such draw. If the official fan attendance was recorded at 3,000 I would argue stadium workers inflated the number. So we did what many locals do. We gained entrance with our $5 general admission tickets and picked up a few goodies at the no-waiting concession stands.

An out or two into the bottom half of the first inning we emerged from the tunnel just to the first-base side of home plate and made our way to some seats. They weren’t our seats, but it was clear they belonged to nobody else either.

Our VIP package
After one quick scan of the stands, it took me only a few seconds as our gang’s leader to conclude we could pretty well choose any seats we wanted. There was that little voice of guilt in my head that whispered, “don’t do it.” Quick to overpower that pesky noise was the logical voice, “Out of respect for the players, fill up some seats behind home plate.” Logic won out.

We took our places in the red seats about twenty rows behind the first base side on-deck circle. A group of twelve of us – myself and Wendi (my wife), our two girls, their cousins, some friends and their kids. We created our own group VIP package right there, all clustered up close to the stairs and in the rows immediately above the walkway that separates box seat ticket holders from everyone else. The view of the field and the horizon was great! We didn’t need the benefit of the stadium announcer. We could hear the players, coaches and umps just fine.

Since we were back in Omaha for only the second day of our week-long summer vacation, it was a great opportunity to chat and catch up on how everyone was doing. The kids kept themselves entertained by making up chants and cheers and trying out different vantage points of the game from other seats in our immediate vicinity. It was a great night for baseball. I couldn’t tell you what the score was, or who won for that matter, but the memories stuck.

The kids posing with CWS statue

My kids and their cousins still talk about that night. How the ushers, vendors and even Casey (the mascot) kept coming to harrass us – in a good way. How they took turns climbing up on the legendary statue to have their picture taken. How we giggled and tried to avoid the sidewalk cracks as we treked three blocks back to Grandma’s house after the game. A classic night at Rosenblatt, indeed.

I love this pic too much not to share:

My daughter Caymen posing as Casey, the O Royals mascot.

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