Published May 28, 2010
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Greg Pivovar is a one-man welcoming committee for College World Series fans.
The attorney owns a sports memorabilia shop across the street from Rosenblatt Stadium, and for almost 20 years he's greeted (legal age) customers with free cans of beer and home cooking — barbecue, Italian sausage and brats or, when LSU is in town, seafood jambalaya.
"Showing them some Omaha hospitality," Pivovar says.
Sure, the College World Series decides the Division I baseball championship. It also is an excuse for what's evolved into Omaha's biggest summer party.
After this year's CWS, which starts June 19, the lights will be turned out in the blue-collar neighborhood that surrounds 62-year-old Rosenblatt. Next year, the revelry will move downtown, three miles away, to the new TD Ameritrade Park. By then, Rosenblatt very well could be demolished to make way for a zoo parking lot.
The new stadium, promised to the NCAA in exchange for its commitment to keep the CWS in Omaha at least through 2035, is testament to the city's longtime support of the event.
Where else would locals come out en masse, as if it's their civic duty, to cheer players they've never even heard of before?
Thousands of out-of-town visitors come each year, too. They're mostly fans of the participating eight teams, but there also are a good number who just love the event and have no real rooting interest. Creighton University economist Ernie Goss has estimated the CWS' 10-day economic impact each year is $41 million.
Some folks don't even go inside the stadium. They just soak up the atmosphere along 13th Street, where barbecue smoke wafts, music blares and the T-shirt-and-shorts crowd mills around the beer gardens, souvenir stands and tent parties that pop up around Zesto's ice-cream shop, Starsky's Bar and Pivovar's Stadium View Sportscards.
Former Mayor Hal Daub once said Omaha mayors have two great fears: losing the triple-A bond rating the city has had since 1941 and losing the College World Series. Mike Fahey, who followed Daub in office and shepherded the new stadium project before leaving office last year, quipped: "I'd rather lose the bond rating."
Omaha is far removed from the college baseball hotbeds of the Sun Belt, yet for 60 years the city's name has represented the holy grail of the sport.
"It is an absolute celebration," he said. "I mean, if you just played the games, it would be special. But what they do, what Omaha does, they've embraced it so that it's not just a memory, it's like a lifelong experience."
Omaha is the third site for the College World Series, originally called the NCAA Baseball Championship.
Western Michigan in Kalamazoo offered its campus field for the first best-of-three championship in 1947. California swept Yale for the title.
The championship returned to Kalamazoo the next year after organizers secured $5,000 from the NCAA to run it, but interest waned and the tournament moved to Wichita, Kan., with a four-team field in 1949.
Omaha came along the next year, boasting a new 10,000-seat stadium that was the biggest and best baseball venue between Chicago and the West Coast.
The CWS grew to eight teams and drew an average of 1,781 fans for 10 games at what was then Municipal Stadium. Average crowds didn't crack 5,000 until 1963, and the CWS lost money nine of its first 14 years in Omaha.
"When I was a kid, you would sit where you want," said Pivovar, who grew up near the stadium and started attending the CWS in the early 1960s. "You could pick a seat right on top of the dugouts. In the '70s, it got a little bigger, but not much."
Years ago, recreational vehicles and campers would dock for the duration of the CWS in a vacant lot south of the stadium known as "Dingerville." That gave way to tailgate parties that lasted late.
ESPN began televising games in 1980, making Omaha synonymous with the College World Series in the nation's sports consciousness. Stadium renovation and expansion began in 1987, and average attendance hit 20,000 for the first time in 1996.
Service clubs traditionally have adopted teams, helping players and coaches with anything they need while they're here and entertaining them during their down time.
Some 45 years after he pitched brilliantly in the CWS for Ohio State, one of Steve Arlin's best memories is taking the team bus to a barbecue in the backyard of one of those service-club members.
"We had two or three of those great Omaha steaks apiece," he said.
Other cities have tried to wrestle the CWS away from Omaha. Former Southern California coach Rod Dedeaux tried to have it moved to Los Angeles in the early days. San Francisco made a push for it in the 1970s, and New Orleans and Orlando, Fla., put out feelers in later years.
Former LSU coach Skip Bertman, who won five national titles, said he couldn't imagine the CWS being anyplace else.
"I don't think you can do this in New York or Los Angeles," he said. "It has to be in a big city but not too big, and you have to have people with a lot of warmth. Everybody loves everybody here. It's a lovefest for two weeks."
And it's the biggest game in town.
"You come to Omaha, there are other things happening now, but the College World Series still remains a two-week festival-slash-entertainment time frame for baseball purists as well as for people who want to sit in the sun and have a good time," said Jack Diesing Jr., the president of the CWS' local organizing group.
The fun begins anew, but for the last time at Rosenblatt, in a few weeks.
Pivovar hasn't decided whether he'll set up shop in a location near the new stadium next year. He knows the mood will change once that last pitch is thrown across the street at Rosenblatt.
"It's going to be a tearfest," Pivovar said.
Take heart, Diesing says: The party's just moving downtown.
"We have 25 more years to get this thing right if we haven't got it there yet," Diesing said. "As long as we keep that approach in Omaha, the baseball championship will be here a long time."
AP Sports Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed to this report.
College World Series: http://www.cwsomaha.com/
Greg Pivovar's Stadium View blog: http://stadiumview.wordpress.com/
(This version CORRECTS to 60 years in headline sted 62.)