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College : : Story
Omaha's new crown jewel
David Rawnsley        
Published: Wednesday, April 20, 2011

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OMAHA, Neb. -- I’m not a native Nebraskan, having moved to Omaha in 1999, but it’s unmistakable to any resident that there are three things that someone who identifies with the state and city takes pride in.

Those would be, in no particular order, Nebraska football, Warren Buffett and the College World Series.

The first two are a product of fanaticism and celebrity association, respectively. But the third, the College World Series, is a true product of civic pride, even among those citizens who might not have more than a passing interest or knowledge in the sport of baseball.

The irony tonight, at the opening game at TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha, is that Omaha fought tooth and nail for what they saw as the abandonment of venerable old Rosenblatt Stadium. They still haven’t fully embraced their new “diamond”, in both senses of the word.

And make no mistake. Add 16-18K worth of seats in the upper tier and in the outfield and this ballpark isn’t materially different from small downtown ballparks in big league cities such as Minneapolis, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh. It has countless Major League amenities, from a crystal clear video board to spacious dugouts and locker rooms to the ring of luxury suites. Except perhaps that it smells like a new house or car, with ushers holding maps to direct people to places they’ve never been themselves. Local media has complained that they didn’t even have access to it until earlier this week. But it’s first class, gorgeous and “only” cost $131 million.

Much of the hesitance is simply because Omaha is a fiscally conservative community that is slow to change if they either don’t understand the reason for change or have to pay for it. Buffett has made his tens of billions on much the same principal. The city’s investment in the Qwest Center in the last decade, a 17,000 seat facility, convention center and hotel just beyond the centerfield fence, was similarly fought but has proved to be a huge asset for the community.

What was really surprising about Omaha’s reluctance to embrace TD Ameritrade (I apologize, I still refer to it as “New Rosenblatt” frequently) is the collective naiveté about the NCAA and their needs for a new modern ballpark.

Rosenblatt originally was built in 1947 as a minor league park for the then Class A Omaha Cardinals and acquired its renowned name in 1964 to recognize Omaha mayor Johnny Rosenblatt, who was instrumental in bringing the CWS to the city. It underwent almost continuous renovation over the years but was sorely outdated despite that. There were virtually no suites, concession areas were cramped under the stands and parking problems in the old blue collar neighborhood around the stadium were legendary. And those issues were just the ones at the surface.

The NCAA, which is a business in much the same way that Major League Baseball, the NFL or the NBA are except without constant labor issues, made it clear to the Omaha civic leaders that they needed a new modern ballpark. Lacking that, Indianapolis or Oklahoma City would be happy to become the new host.

Omaha’s mayor at the time, Mike Fahey (the stadium’s address is 1200 Mike Fahey Street), wasn’t an especially popular leader at the time but he was able, with the business leaders in the community, to convince the populace to support building a new stadium and retaining the College World Series. It’s hard to believe but it was definitely an uphill battle to get the support and funding. Omaha as a whole didn’t understand the fundamental business aspect; it was the NCAA’s decision, not the city’s, as to where to hold the event.

There is no question, though, that Fahey and his fellow politicians and businessmen made the right decision. Omaha is synonymous with the College World Series, as Cooperstown is with the Baseball Hall of Fame. Both would have lost pride and luster without each other.

THE GAME

Yes, there was a game. Actually, a very important game that had implications not only in the local baseball community but in the big picture of college baseball as well.

Nebraska emerged with a hard fought 2-1 victory.

Nebraska and Creighton, which are about 55 miles apart along I-80, deserve credit for playing each other three times a year when many natural in-state rivals avoid each other in every sport. Part of this is practical, as both teams need quality out of league opponents for their RPI ranking, something that is difficult for a northern program. The series is always highly competitive and has drawn huge crowds in the past to Rosenblatt, something that is sure to continue at TD Ameritrade. Nebraska won the first meeting this year on April 5, 8-5.

The game officially was a sellout hours after tickets were made available last month, in part due to a mass giveaway to all the workers who helped build the stadium. Actual attendance was 22,197, with approximately 4,200 no-shows in the brisk 40 degree weather. That gave the Creighton-Nebraska series four of the top 20 regular season attendance marks in NCAA baseball history.

Creighton is in the midst of an outstanding season with a 26-7 record going into the game and an RPI ranking of 38. Nebraska is more talented than it has been over the past couple of years but is young and had a 24-14 record with an RPI of 76. A win would have been a big boost for Creighton as it builds a resume as a potential at large team for the NCAA tournament should it not win the Missouri Valley tournament. Nebraska, which still hasn’t played Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma in Big 12 play, has an uphill road to post season play and couldn’t afford to lose a midweek game.

The two teams each took a different approach with their pitching staffs, with Creighton electing the wholestaff method, throwing eight different pitchers, including ace starters LHP Ty Blach and RHP Jonas Dufek (a combined 12-0 this year) an inning apiece to start the game. Nebraska countered with their top two “young prospect” pitchers, sophomore RHP Tom Lemke and freshman LHP Logan Ehlers.

The star of the game was unquestionably Ehlers, who threw 5 1/3 shutout innings of relief to get his first collegiate win in only his second appearance. His performance was highly ironic in the NCAA’s marque baseball stadium, as the Nebraska City, Neb., native was controversially declared ineligible by the NCAA for the first 60 percent of the season.

The game hinged on one at bat in the bottom of the 8th inning when Ehlers faced star Creighton cleanup hitter Trevor Adams (.400-10-44, 18 game hitting streak) with two outs and the bases loaded. With Nebraska head coach Mike Anderson pumping his fists in encouragement from the top step of the dugout instead of removing his prize freshman, Ehlers struck out Adams on two nasty change ups to end the threat.

I’ve seen Ehlers pitch numerous times since early in his junior high school season and had never seen him throw a change up, so his doubling up at the key point of the game with a new pitch was a revelation and speaks highly of Ehlers aptitude and of the Cornhusker coaching staff.

NOTES

TD Ameritrade, which is paying a reported $750,000/year for the naming rights to the ballpark, has another close tie to baseball. The Ricketts family, which founded the company in Omaha, are the new owners of the Chicago Cubs……One of the highlights of the game was not the RBI Girls, the Creighton cheerleaders who performed on top of the home third base dugout between innings. At least not for a baseball purist……Creighton’s three errors, two of which made Nebraska’s runs unearned, are highly uncharacteristic. The Blue Jays are annually one of the nation’s top defensive teams and had committed only 26 errors (.980 fielding %) coming into the game as compared to 56 for their opponents. Nebraska, and particularly SS Chad Christensen, were the superior defensive team this game……Everything has a price. Many of the seats is the perhaps overly spacious press box were sold, undoubtedly to boosters, creating far more noise and an unusual “cheering in the press box” atmosphere…… Cameramen and technical staff could be heard frequently remarking in the press box “Boy, ESPN is going to love this place!”



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