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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saying Goodbye to an old friend . . .

I remember Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska. I sat there with my dad in the 1950's and watched Buddy Holly and the Crickets perform before an Omaha Royals professional baseball game.

Here is a very well written summary of Rosenblatt Stadium, the College World Series and this here game of . . . baseball:

By Steven Pivovar

Skip Bertman felt the first hint of a wind of change on a June evening in 1991.
Bertman had been coming to the College World Series since 1977, first as an assistant coach with Miami and then as Louisiana State's coach. When he returned in 1991, he remembered thinking how the event hadn't changed all that much since his first trip to Rosenblatt Stadium.

But as he sat in the stands that June night, watching Creighton and Wichita State battle it out in what would become an instant classic, Bertman sensed something different.

When Wichita State center fielder Jim Audley threw out the tying run at home in the 12th inning, “the stadium shook,'' Bertman said. “I had never felt anything like that before in Omaha.''

Bertman's team left town that year with a national championship. He left with the feeling that the CWS was on the brink of bigger and better things.

Bertman returned to win four more titles. Each time, the crowds were larger, the excitement more intense, the atmosphere in and around the stadium more festive. Once Omaha's quaint little baseball tournament, the CWS has evolved during the past two decades into a sporting event of national significance.

But growth can come at a cost.

In this case, it would be the stadium that has served as its home for 60 years.

In 1950, Omaha's stadium was new. Now it is creaky. It lacks modern touches like open concourses and wide aisles and seats. It sits mostly empty for much of the year.

But none of that touches on the real reason that the 2010 CWS will be the last at Rosenblatt. Here's the real reason: The event that the grand old stadium nurtured to maturity ended up eating Rosenblatt.

It's easy to forget that the CWS wasn't always one of the NCAA's headlining events. In 1950, when the tournament was looking for a home and found it in a grand stadium in Omaha, the CWS was a balance sheet loser.

Now it's part of the tournament that produces more revenue for the NCAA than any except the men's basketball tournament.

And for all those saddened by the CWS' move in 2011 to Omaha's new $128 million stadium downtown, a question must be asked: Wouldn't it be sadder if there were no need to move?

“This is being done for all the right reasons,'' said Mike Fahey, who was mayor when the decision was made to build downtown rather than renovate Rosenblatt again. “The people of Omaha and the surrounding areas have helped make the series what it is today.

“If it weren't for them and the Diesings and all the other volunteers, this thing might not be in the city of Omaha, and it might not be the success it is. And we might not have been in position to secure the series for an extended period.''

That was the tradeoff. In exchange for a new home, the NCAA has agreed to keep the CWS in Omaha for the next 25 years. And if the price to be paid is Rosenblatt's demise, Texas coach Augie Garrido said, so be it.

Garrido, like many of his peers, loves Rosenblatt. He played there in 1959. He's won five national championships there. He'll come back this year, even though his team did not qualify, to say goodbye to an old friend.

“But this event is not just about the facility,'' Garrido said. “If you're a sports fan, you need to attend the College World Series because of the festival that it is. It's right up there with the Kentucky Derby or anything else you can name. It's pretty damn special.

“And the fact that it is staying in Omaha for a long time overshadows the loss of Rosenblatt. That's the saving grace in this. We'll all shed a tear for Rosenblatt, because it has meant so much to so many. But at the end of the day, we can be happy because we'll still be coming to Omaha.''

When Garrido played here with Fresno State, the CWS drew 33,607 fans, an average of 3,361 for its 10 sessions. By 1967, when Mark Marquess made his first trip here with Stanford, attendance had jumped to 63,906, a figure that had local organizers giddy.

The CWS drew 260,091 in 2003, when Marquess' team played for a national championship. Attendance cracked the 300,000 mark in 2006, and last year's CWS drew a record 336,076.

Such numbers boggle the mind of Marquess, who has made 15 trips to Omaha as a player and coach.

“The event has really taken off since I played there,'' he said. “Back then, you hoped it would someday become the event that it has, but I think that was more a dream than anything.

“What's happening in Omaha reflects what's happening everywhere else. The college game has never been healthier. People are building million-dollar stadiums all over the country. We're getting more exposure than we ever have.''

Marquess said he will miss Rosenblatt, but he points out that the stadium today is much different from the one in which he played in 1967. Omaha has pumped millions of dollars into renovating the facility. Its seating capacity has been expanded from about 13,000 in 1967 to more than 23,000 today.

Omaha's new stadium will seat more than 24,000. It will have wide concourses and easily accessible concession stands. The seats will be more spacious, the aisles more navigable.

It will provide a bright and sparkling future home for the event that basically outgrew a stadium that has served it so well for six decades.

“When you want to take an event to the next level, sometimes the bricks and mortar get in the way,'' Fahey said. “That's kind of what happened here.''

One of Bertman's final projects at LSU before he retired as athletic director was overseeing the construction of a new baseball stadium. Tiger fans loved Alex Box Stadium, but like Rosenblatt, it was cramped and creaky.

LSU just finished playing its second season at the new Box Stadium, a state-of-the-art, 10,000-seat facility with all the amenities that make a fan's visit pleasurable.

“When I go to games there now, I've never had anyone come up to me and say, ‘I miss the old Box,''' Bertman said. “They'll come up and say, ‘Hey, remember when we beat USC?' or remember when we did this or that.

“I think the same thing is going to happen with Rosenblatt. They're going to enjoy the new stadium, and they'll make new memories there. Memories aren't about wood and steel. And the thing is, they'll get to make those memories in seats that are a little wider.''

Contact the writer: 679-2298,

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