End nears for Omaha's famous ballpark
By Jonathan Stempel
OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - It sits on a hill, due south of Bob Gibson Boulevard, a reservoir of memories for countless baseball players who reached the pinnacle of their sport, or were on their way there. Next year, it will be gone.
Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium opened in 1948, and two years later began hosting the College World Series which has been played there ever since.
The Omaha Royals, the top farm team for the Kansas City Royals major league team, has played there since 1969.
Rosenblatt's roughly 23,000 blue, yellow and red seats overlook what was a field of dreams for future professionals such as George Brett and Dave Winfield, as well as thousands of amateur ballplayers for whom the College World Series marked the apex of their careers.
The series outgrew it; the Omaha Royals cannot fill it, and so the 63rd year for Rosenblatt, named after a former Omaha mayor, is its last.
"I grew up with the development of Rosenblatt, and a big part of me is saddened by the departure of that great iconic stadium on the hill," he said.
Omaha is building a $128-million, 24,000-seat North Downtown stadium, TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, to house the College World Series for the next 25 years, plus the baseball team from nearby Creighton University and a United Football League team.
Expandable to 35,000 seats, it is a big stadium, especially given that the Royals will not play there. Too big, the Royals say; not enough parking, some Omaha residents say.
The team is instead moving 10 miles southwest to suburban Sarpy County to occupy a $26-million ballpark in Papillion, built on what were once corn and soybean fields.
Both parks are expected to be ready for next season.
Lou Felici, a 78-year-old retired laboratory technician, has had a prime seat for Royals games: front row, next to the visiting team dugout on the first base side. He has had Royals season tickets for all the team's 42 years but there is not likely to be a 43rd.
"The wife died nine years ago," he said. "The wife and I spent the best years of our lives right here, at Rosenblatt Stadium. We've had seats 1 and 2 here for all these years. She loved baseball, and I've probably been looking for an excuse to slow down, and this probably is it."
Rosenblatt has been modified several times, in part because the College World Series grew in popularity after ESPN began televising it. Suites, a club, a new press box and thousands of seats were added. The outfield fence was moved in.
The stadium organ is aged but still playable, draped when not in use by a green, hole-filled cloth. An umpire threw out the organist from a 1988 game for mocking a close call by playing the theme tune to the Mickey Mouse Club.
The minor league Royals, partially owned by hometown investor Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway Inc, is the main tenant and for them, Rosenblatt is less than ideal.
Unlike at many newer ballparks, the seats are not particularly close to the field. The clubhouses are tight.
In June, which is a big month for minor league teams, the Royals have to vacate the park to make way for the College World Series. During this year's series games from June 19 to 30, the Royals will be on a 17-game road trip.
"The venerable old ballpark on the hill: it's part of Omaha, or maybe it is Omaha," said Martie Cordaro, the Royals general manager.
For his team, though, "it's about providing a minor league baseball experience for our fans. You can't do that in a stadium that's not built for minor league baseball."
There is wide agreement that the stadium's passing means more to college players and coaches than professionals.
Jim Graver, 69, who has had Royals season tickets for 29 years and College World Series tickets for 26, said: "Some of the players that played here in the College World Series bring their sons back and they say: 'Now this is where I hit one out of the park.' Now they won't be able to."
Royals manager Mike Jirschele understands the difference.
"I've been here for 11 years; it's almost like home," the Wisconsin native said. "You look at how big it is and how nice it looks, it's a shame that it's going down."
Players probably felt differently, he said. "I think a lot of them, to tell you the truth, could probably not care less that this stadium won't be here next year," he said. "They're just here to get better and perhaps get to the big leagues."
The Royals rope off or cover all but 8,859 of Rosenblatt's seats for its games. Their new Sarpy County ballpark will have 6,500 permanent seats and hold 8,500 in all.
Fans are already preparing for the College World Series. For coaches, this is their last shot to win at Rosenblatt.
Paul Mainieri, who coached the LSU Tigers to a College World Series win last year, said he motivates players with big letters that spell "OMAHA" on a wall in a team meeting room.
"You walk in Rosenblatt Stadium, you feel a tingle up your spine," he said. "Your eyes get as big as softballs, and you realize, 'This is what it's all about.'"
(Editing by Clare Fallon)