My house sits a half-hour from a ballpark, or…what used to be a ballpark. It wasn’t just any stadium, either—it was a home. When it was torn down, Omahans didn’t go quietly, they rarely do. The irony of living in a state removed of any professional sports team is that Nebraska still somehow found a way to make sport its nexus.
We’re bred on protein and treeless prairie, railroads and blue-collar workers—friends from out-of-state still ask me if we have running water.
Rosenblatt Stadium was home to the College World Series for six decades. And when Mayor Mike Fahey and city officials told the community it would be torn down to pave an avenue for municipal development, all hell broke loose.
We thought they were tearing down our home, and Nebraskans will let you know if they feel defied.
An organization known as “Save Rosenblatt” was born, and the group nabbed two-time Academy Award Winner Kevin Costner—the guy who heard voices coming from a field in Iowa—to try and save it. The grassroots faction fashioned a website, they contacted state senator John Synowiecki to introduce legislation; they even filmed a commercial with Costner.
“The College World Series calls Rosenblatt its home,” Costner said in the commercial, which he made for free. “It’s a tradition as strong as baseball itself.”
But it was no use and the plans for development were solidified.
When the wrecking crew demolished the stadium—deteriorating blue and yellow bleachers cracking beneath the weight of antiquity—fans even tried to stand in front of the park. Bases, players’ lockers, stadium seats, and the bricks that thousands walked upon on their way into the stadium were sold. In a way, we made sure the stadium never left.
The College World Series started as an experiment and grew into a culture, a lifestyle for those of us calling this place home. It didn’t even start in Omaha—which has now grown synonymous with the two-week tournament—it started in 1947 in Michigan. It was hosted there again the following year, before jumping to Wichita in ’49. A year later, it found a permanent home in Omaha—attendance was a shade under 18,000.
In 10 of the first 12 years it was held in Omaha, the tournament failed to accrue revenue. Many considered whether or not it was worth it, but four Omahans felt it was worthwhile: Ed Pettis, Morris Jacobs, Byron Reed, and Mayor of Omaha Johnny Rosenblatt. The quartet cultivated the event until it became what it is today: a staple of our culture.
No other sport has the longevity that the CWS holds with Omaha. In 2008, when the city’s contract with the event was set to expire, the NCAA agreed to a twenty-five year agreement to keep the ubiquitous ping of aluminum bats in Omaha. It’s a special relationship, one that won’t change for the foreseeable future—or at least until 2035.
Pressure from the NCAA to update Rosenblatt Stadium appeared to be the catalyst for Mayor Fahey’s proposal. The $128 million pitch became a beautiful downtown stadium—TD Ameritrade Park. Seating for 24,000 fans, 9,000 parking stalls, 26 luxury suites and 1,000 club seats. In essence, we built a contemporary castle for eye-black painted faces and dirt-filled cleats.
Although the process of making the tournament has changed drastically decade after decade, the two, four-team playoffs outlined in 1948 still remain today. A double-elimination bracket is played, and the two winners meet in a best-of-three championship series to decide the national championship.
As is the case with most sporting events, the CWS is marked by memories.
Robin Ventura will be forever affixed to the annals of the CWS. Ventura extended his hitting streak to 57 games in 1987, passing Joe DiMaggio’s 56—a record that quite possibly will never be broken in the major leagues—and added another one in the following game. The 58-game hitting streak still stands today, but Ventura’s Oklahoma State Cowboys fell just short in the national championship game. Ventura became a broadcaster for the tournament in the years prior to his hiring as Chicago White Sox manager, and continues to make it back to Omaha in for the tournament.
In 1996, Warren Morris—Louisiana State’s No. 9 hitter—stepped in to face the fourth-best program in college baseball history. The Miami Hurricanes held an 8-7 lead in the bottom of the 9th. Morris whacked a breaking ball over the right-field porch to win the CWS—his first homerun of the season. Rosenblatt Stadium shook like thunder as the Tigers won their second title in four years.
Southern Cal played the antonym of small-ball and defeated Pacific-10 rival Arizona State in 1998. In a matchup of the No. 2 and No. 3 most successful college baseball programs of all-time, the Trojans notched a 21-14 victory over the Sun Devils in the championship game. It was their 74th national title. They haven’t won since.
You can’t walk more than a few feet without seeing scarlet and cream in Nebraska. If you live here, you’re a part of the loudest, proudest, and most steadfast quilt you’ve ever seen or heard. When the Nebraska Cornhuskers made their first appearance in the tournament in a decade in 2001, fans flocked in droves. It didn’t matter that they lost the two games they played because the electricity was tangible—a frenzy unlike any other.
Oregon State is as close to college baseball royalty as you can get. In 2007, they became the fifth team in CWS history to repeat as champions—and the Beavers never lost in Omaha. It didn’t matter that they were a No. 3 seed, they transcended the level of play over the two-week stretch that matters most, and became back-to-back national champions.
Fresno State rode the underdog train all the way to a national championship in 2008. Pegged as a No. 4 seed, essentially the lowest you can get, the Bulldogs became the lowest-seeded team to win a national title in any NCAA sport. Their record still stands today.
The 2010 CWS was bittersweet and nostalgic. Omaha knew that it would be the final time Rosenblatt Stadium would be home to the tournament. It was emotional for the fans that annually spent each June for most of their lives at the park. South Carolina provided them with the nail biter they deserved. In the bottom of the 8th inning, the Gamecocks tied UCLA 1-1. Three innings later, Whit Merrifield’s walk-off RBI single closed the stadium and won the Gamecocks a national title.
In less than ten days, the 2014 College World Series will begin. Never-washed hats will compliment uniform-staining defense and screeching aluminum pings that can be heard for miles. We don’t know who will make the win the make or win the tournament. What we do know is that it won’t be short on memories.