Road to Omaha: Hits, Hopes and History at the College World Series available in Hardcover
- Pub. Date:
- St. Martin's Press
Every summer, college baseball teams from around the nation come to Omaha, Nebraska, to play pure move-the-man-over, run-manufacturing baseball in a series that’s part college bowl game, part county fair. In the spirit of 3 Nights in August and The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, veteran sports writer Ryan McGee goes behind the scenes, into the stands, and onto the field to reveal an exciting yet personal look at one of the hottest sports championships in the country-the College World Series.
In 2008, the ten-day, eight-team tournament was the scene of one of the greatest series in its illustrious history. And Ryan McGee puts the reader behind closed doors with the underdog champs, the Fresno State Bulldogs, as well as with their seven opponents, from the first batting practice session, to bus rides to the ballpark, to the locker room and the dugout. It’s the CWS as few ever see it.
But The Road to Omaha goes far beyond the 2008 season. It’s an in-depth look at the managing strategies and playing style of college baseball, as well as a series of profiles that examine the people behind and around the CWS-the players, coaches, and fans who keep that feeling of good-old-days innocence alive through their reverence for the Great American Pastime.
McGee also takes up residence at Rosenblatt Stadium itself, reliving its rich history and tapping into the electricity around it, from the tailgating fans to the surrounding neighborhoods. “The Blatt” is America’s last real connection to the baseball belief that Field of Dreams can actually happen: a wooden-framed ballpark with cramped concourses where teams share locker rooms, change clothes in the parking lot, and sign autographs for kids until their fingers cramp. “The Blatt” is a monument to tradition-and the last of its kind to keep that tradition alive.
Thanks to Ryan McGee’s quick eye for play-by-play action, as well as his deep love for sports, The Road to Omaha is a rare glimpse into the kind of baseball our grandfather’s knew-a snapshot of the one of the last remaining vestiges of pure Americana: a hometown, baseball, and the people who shape it and are shaped by it in turn.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.38(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
RYAN MCGEE has covered motorsports, college baseball and football, Major League Baseball, the NFL, NBA, PGA and action sports for ESPN and FOXSports.com. He is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine and has worked as a writer and producer for NASCAR Images. He was nominated for a Sports Emmy five times, winning in 2006 for his work on the film Dale, the only authorized biography of Dale Earnhardt.
Read an Excerpt
Friday, June 13, 2008 Opening Ceremonies
At 3:00 p.m. on Friday, June 13, 2008, the eight head coaches of the NCAA Division I Men’s College World Series strolled one by one into the Hall of Fame Room of Omaha’s Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium. On the field their teams were being rotated through a continuous gauntlet of batting practice, team photos, media interviews, and mandatory all- hands-on- deck autograph sessions. Tomorrow the games would begin. Today was about acclimation, atmosphere, and smiles.
The eight men greeted one another, smiled, shook hands, and took their seats. No one ever actually enjoyed these press conferences, but on a day like today it didn’t feel like the hassle that it usually was. Scattered throughout the United States were 278 other coaches who were sitting at home dreaming of being so inconvenienced.
Since June 14, 1950, every first day of the College World Series looked and felt just like this one.
God bless America.
Every coach knew what was at stake and what had to be done. Their teams had been divided into two four- team double- elimination brackets. Lose twice and you were out. The winners of those two brackets would get a clean slate, erasing any losses from their record, and face off in a best- of-three series for the national championship.
Now they were just anxious to get on with it.
Six hours earlier, Florida State was the first team to hit the field, the much- hyped Seminole sluggers taking their turn in the day’s heavily regimented National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) schedule. Then every hour on the hour until 5:00 p.m. the remaining seven schools made their rounds—Stanford, Miami, Georgia, Rice, Fresno State, North Carolina, and LSU. Team photo, ten minutes of stretching, fifty minutes of hitting and fielding, twenty- minute presentation on the dangers of sports wagering, one half hour of autographs, barbecue dinner at 7:00, opening ceremonies at 9:00, fireworks at 9:40, don’t be late.
What happened if they were?
"We’ve never really had to worry about that," said NCAA official Damani Leech, surprised that someone even dared to ask the question. "Nobody ever is."
As one team hit away, the next in line entered the ballpark through one of the bullpen tunnels down each foul line. It was the exact same stroll through the exact same tunnel that had been walked by Zimmer, Winfield, and Mike Mussina. At the top of that tunnel waited the same Omaha sunshine that once washed over the not- yet- inflated shoulders of Bonds, Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, and Mark McGwire. Long before their names became identifiable to so many as symbols of everything wrong with the game, they were innocent kids experiencing the same initial reaction to their new surroundings as these, the innocents of 2008.
Unfailingly, as each first- time CWS participant spilled onto the field, he would simultaneously drop both his equipment bag and his jaw, awed by the sight of the ballpark known lovingly as The Blatt, the home of college baseball’s best since the Truman administration. A typical twenty-year- old collegian’s entire baseball life had been played out in front of crowds of dozens, hundreds if he was lucky. Even a baseball- addicted school such as the University of Miami was lucky to draw a sellout crowd of 5,000.
Rosenblatt seats 24,000.
"Dude," one Stanford player said to a teammate, "it looks so much bigger than it does on TV."
Above those slack- jawed players, scattered throughout the red, yellow, and blue seats were already several thousand of those fans, each section of the stadium providing its own Norman Rockwell painting. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, school groups, youth baseball teams, and at least a dozen folks who looked as though they had slept beneath the bleachers since the final out of the 2007 Series, waiting fifty weeks for their next CWS fix.
Some were attending the College World Series for the first time. Others were arriving for their tenth, twenty- fifth, or fiftieth. And holding with CWS tradition they had all entered the park to watch the day’s opening ceremonies for the very reasonable price of free.
Just beyond the left- field wall a pillar of smoke rose from the trees lining Bob Gibson Boulevard, a thick white cloud produced by a small city’s worth of purple- and- gold- clad LSU fans. They waved and threw strands of Mardi Gras beads to the conga line of cars that crawled by, slowly snaking its way along the two- lane road, gawking at the tent- sized geaux tigers flags and rounding the block around The Blatt searching for a parking spot. The stop- and- go traffic, mostly stop at this point, crept left onto Thirteenth Street, the main conduit from downtown Omaha to the nearly sixty- year- old ballpark. Overhead stood a massive fiberglass gorilla, adorned with a banner reading, WELCOME CWS FANS, FROM KING KONG BURGERS, PHILLIES, STEAKS, AND GYROS.
A few blocks south, the marquis at Chop’s Bowling Alley flashed in giant red letters:
CLOSED TODAY. GONE TO SERIES.
The fortunate fans who’d found a place to stow their cars were already strolling the uphill climb of Thirteenth Street to buy T-shirts and caps and consume cold beverages, from the throat- sharpening brews of Starsky’s Beer Garden to free bottles of fan- labeled "Jesus Water" handed out by a Christian group known as the Ninth Inning Ministry.
They stood in line at Zesto, a self- proclaimed "nationally known" ice cream stand, they shot baskets and threw strikes in the NCAA’s interactive Fan Fest, and they filed in and out of the neighboring Henry Doorly Zoo to see the tigers and owls before going inside the ballpark to see the Tigers and the Owls.
"It’s like going to the state fair," said one red- faced girl as she attempted to slurp down some Zesto strawberry soft serve before the sun got to it first. "But it’s even better because there’s baseball."
Inside The Blatt, the grown- ups felt more than a little like the young slurper. And why not? The sky was cloudless, the temperature perfect, and Top 40 hits blared through the concourse, occasionally punctuated by the sounds of... what was that? Organ music? Did they still play that at ballparks?
The batting cage was sprawled out over home plate like a dark green opera clamshell. From deep within it came the repetitive, unmistakably metallic sound that has become the instant audible signature of June in Omaha.
Four hundred feet away, the bleacher creatures leaned over the outfield wall, screaming each and every time a ball came sailing their way off the barrel of the aluminum bats, which happened much more often than not. Those same fans bellowed even louder when a smash fell short and the unfortunate fielding player was faced with Rosenblatt’s eternal on- field decision: Do I throw this ball back in for more BP or do I be a hero and toss it into the stands?
In the concourse, the twenty- five- man Miami Hurricane roster was seated at a ridiculously long line of tables and each player was handed a Sharpie marker. As fans began to work their way down the line to collect autographs, the Canes began to bang out a hip- hop beat on the tabletop. Before long the fans joined in with handclaps and foot stomps. Even the concessionaires got into the act, rat- a-tat- tatting with their tongs on the side of the hot- dog cookers.
On the top step of the third- base dugout, LeRoy Swedlund’s sixty- oneyear- old grin managed to out- gleam his mirrored sunglasses, spectacles that reflected the spectacle around him. Swedlund had earned the right to stand here as a representative of the Omaha Rotary Club. Standing alongside was fellow Rotarian Jim Stewart, who first attended the College World Series as a preteen batboy in the 1950s.
As long as anyone in Omaha could remember, the eight participating College World Series teams had been assigned hosts from local civic organizations and ser vice clubs, from the Lions Club to Kiwanis to Offutt Air Force Base. Prior to the event, they sold books of general admission tickets to raise money for their favorite charities. Once the Series began, anything a team desired—Gatorade, donuts, dinner reservations, Band-Aids, whatever—they only had to ask their designated hosts and it would materialize. There is no greater symbol of the relationship between the event and the town than the one between the teams and their host.
During the mayhem that followed Cal State Fullerton’s title- clinching victory in 2004, catcher Kurt Suzuki became so mobbed by fans that he couldn’t make his way through the parking lot to attend the team celebration across the street. So Optimist Club ambassador Fred Uhe threw the 200- pounder on his back and gave him a piggyback ride through the masses.
Six years earlier, Long Beach State starting pitcher Mike Gallo stood frozen in the club house, refusing to take the mound until he’d scarfed down his ritualistic pregame snack of precisely one orange and one apple. A heady 49er coach placed a call to Concord Club member and financial adviser Terry Devlin, who sprinted out of his office, raced through a local grocery store, and produced the produce in the nick of time.
Good luck finding any of the above at the Final Four or the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) title game.
So far Swedlund and Stewart’s assignment of looking after Rice University had happily lacked such drama. The Owls were making their seventh trip to Rosenblatt in twelve years, so they had the Series routine down pat. But just in case, the Rotarians would be at their beck and call from the moment they’d landed on Thursday until they loaded up and went back home to Houston, either the elated owners of their second CWS championship trophy or a crushed bunch of college kids.
Either way, standing in the dugout with the sun on your face beat the hell out of working in the electronic document imaging business, which is what Rotarian host LeRoy Swedlund did before what he called "semiretiring."
"I don’t throw the word ‘perfect’ around very much," he said as Owl assistant coach Mike Taylor walked by and slapped him on the shoulder. "But you know what this is right here? This is the perfect day. No winner or losers today. Just perfect weather, good old- fashioned baseball, and smiles all the way around."
The perfect day. Back in the Hall of Fame Room, Mike Batesole was missing it.
As the eight head coaches began addressing the assembled media types, the forty- four- year- old skipper of the Fresno State Bulldogs put on a brave face, but was already feeling the pinch of being in charge of the what- the-hell- are- these- guys- doing- here team of the 2008 tournament. Who else would have a damn mandatory head coach’s press conference scheduled at the exact same time of his team’s first session of batting practice?
As Batesole had taken his seat at the far left side of the NCAA’s trademark high- and- long, blue- and- white table, he was greeted by Mike Martin of Florida State, who was bringing his thirteenth team to Rosenblatt and ninth in the last eighteen seasons. To Martin’s left sat Mark Marquess of Stanford, who had recruited Batesole as a player out of high school and who was here for his fourteenth CWS; then Jim Morris, practically a citizen of Omaha after eleven trips in his first fifteen seasons at the University of Miami. And so it went, all the way down to the far end of the table. In all, the seven coaches joining him on the stage had participated in fifty- nine editions of the College World Series, four of them as both a player and a coach.
When Batesole walked into The Blatt a few minutes earlier, it was for the very first time.
Twenty- four years earlier he’d nearly made it here it as a shortstop at Oral Roberts University, but twice his teams fell one game short of clinching a CWS berth, losing to superpowers Oklahoma State and Wichita State.
In 1996, his first season as an NCAA Division I head coach, he took upstart Cal State Northridge, a program he’d saved from execution by a budget- conscious administration, and once again stood on the brink of Omaha. The Matadors stunned Marquess and his Stanford team on their home field, but ran out of steam in their seventieth game of the season, falling to Martin’s Seminoles. Yet again, he’d come up one game shy.
Batesole turned the sting of those losses into motivation, vowing not to attend his sport’s penultimate event until he had earned it. Every time he received his invitation to the American College Baseball Coaches Association meetings that coincided with the Series he gave away the CWS-emblazoned freebies that came with the invite and threw what was left in the trash.
Now, finally, he was here. Rosenblatt f’ing Stadium. And here he was, stuck in a press conference, sitting behind a microphone under blinding TV lights while his team was out there, tinking out big flies and bigger smiles in the sunshine.
In truth, the Hall of Fame Room was merely a large, generic rectangular conference room, buried behind the first- base concourse. Because of the stadium’s full- time tenant, the Class AAA Omaha Royals of the Pacific Coast League, it was decorated with the jerseys and mementoes of the greatest names in Kansas City Royals history. Sadly, that history boiled down to only three men—George Brett, Frank White, and manager Dick Howser. And as with all things pertaining to the Royals, everything in the Hall of Fame Room remained frozen in time, its calendar permanently stuck on October 27, 1985, the night the big club earned its lone World Series title as well as its last real moment of relevance in the baseball world.
"Why is all this Royals crap in here?" one out- of- town writer asked another, pointing to the three framed jerseys, along with a fourth, number 1/16, belonging to Omaha icon Warren Buffett, annual contender for richest man on planet Earth and coowner of the O Royals.
"I’m not sure," his colleague replied. "I think there used to be a minor-league team here that had something to do with Kansas City. And the other jersey must be Jimmy Buffett’s. Is he from Omaha or something?"
For the next hour, the coaches went through the routine of the pre-Series presser. Each coach gave an opening statement and Batesole was allowed to deliver his first so that he could be dismissed early and get back to his team.
He cracked jokes about pitcher Justin Wilson’s wild ways, saying, "He makes me go through a pack of Marlboros every time he starts a game."
He thanked Rice head coach Wayne Graham for leaving the Western Athletic Conference for Conference USA, opening the door for schools like Fresno to finally have a chance to win the league’s baseball championship. "We played Rice about fifty times when they were in our conference and I don’t think we scored a run against them."
He even hearkened back to the Omaha- or- bust game against Arizona State in Tempe, a contest his team won in extra innings just five days earlier: "They hit fifty balls out of the park in batting practice. We’re still working on our first bucket from the start of the season."
The room of college baseball scribes was more than a little stunned. Batesole wasn’t exactly known for his witty rapport with the media . . . or for that matter, anyone else. Oh well, they thought collectively as he was excused to join his team on the field, he can be as funny as he wants. Fresno won’t be here more than two games anyway.
With Batesole gone, the questions to the seven remaining coaches began in rapid- fire succession. They were asked about individual players, about the sudden increase in parity across the 286 schools playing Division I baseball, and about recent NCAA rules changes regarding shortening the season, tightening schedules, and potentially reducing the number of baseball scholarships.
North Carolina coach Mike Fox was asked about the pressure of bringing back a team for the third consecutive year ("I’d rather have that problem than not"). Mark Marquess and LSU head coach Paul Mainieri were asked about the relief of getting their storied programs back to Omaha after unusually long absences (Mainieri: "I’ll guess they’ll let me keep my job a little longer"). Fox, Morris, and Martin were asked to explain how their league, the Atlantic Coast Conference, had managed not to win a College World Series since, of all schools, Wake Forest had taken the crown in 1955 (Morris, conveniently forgetting his twelve seasons at Georgia Tech: "It’s not our fault, Miami joined the ACC just five years ago").
Then the entire group was asked to address the difficulty of earning a trip to Omaha. Every year began with fall practice and a fifty- game regular season, followed by each school’s respective conference tournament. Surviving those three stages meant earning a berth in the NCAA’s grueling double- elimination bracket. Like college basketball’s much more famous tournament, baseball began its postseason with sixty- four teams. The first round was referred to as the Regionals, sixteen separate four-team double- elimination tournaments. The sixteen regional winners move on to the Super Regionals, eight two- team best- of- three weekends to determine the eight invitees to Omaha.
March might be Madness, but it used up an entire month to determine the Final Four. The crucible of baseball’s Regional and Super Regional rounds were compressed into two hit- and- run weekends.
Seventy- two- year- old Graham growled at being asked to describe the rigors of the baseball season to stand among the Omaha Eight. "It feels like a vampire got a hold of you and left you with just enough blood to live."
For a half hour everyone chatted, laughed, and yawned. Georgia head coach David Perno, despite having his team here for its third CWS in the last five seasons, wasn’t asked a single question that didn’t begin with, "This is for all the coaches . . ."
Over that first thirty minutes, the media danced around the elephant in the room, the one prominently illustrated with blueprints and architectural drawings, mounted on giant foam- board posters and displayed on a line of easels along the right- hand side of the Hall of Fame Room. A room, it turns out, that had just been earmarked for a bulldozing.
"This question is for all the coaches. How do you feel about this week’s announcement that Rosenblatt Stadium will be replaced by a new ballpark in 2011?"
That announcement had been made only three days earlier at an outdoor press conference attended by NCAA officials, Omaha municipal brass, and most of the media members in attendance at this press conference. The ribbon- cutting ceremony was held on the approximate future location of the new home plate, in parking lots C and E adjacent to the still- new Qwest Center arena and convention center, right smack in the center of downtown Omaha.
The proclamation had long been expected, yet was no less shocking to hear aloud. The College World Series would be moving to its brand- new $140- million downtown state- of- the- art home in three years. A full three miles south of The Blatt, Zesto, Starsky’s, the zoo, and the ice cream girl’s beloved state- fair atmosphere.
"I’ve been coming here about as long as I can remember," said Stanford head coach Mark Marquess, who first came to Omaha in 1967 as the Cardinal first baseman. "Over the years I’ve seen Rosenblatt grow from a little minor-league park up on this hill into what it is today. Listen, change is good. But what makes this event great is what hasn’t changed. The commitment from the city of Omaha. What I’ve always seen in those stands. The ten- year- old kids begging for autographs and then returning as adults to watch their kids do the same. When we stop seeing that, then we’ve got problems...."
"I’ll tell you this," Mike Martin added quickly. "I’m glad I’m not the one who had to make that decision."
"That decision" produced a nearly decade- long debate that at times decayed into good old- fashioned cheap- shot nastiness. The Battle of the Blatt had proved to be one of the longest, most vocal, and divisive public squabbles in Omaha history.
No small achievement by any stretch of the imagination.
The city of Omaha was originally devised as nothing more than a real-estate scheme. Residents of Council Bluffs, Iowa, were desperate to ensure that the long dreamed- of Transcontinental Railroad would someday run through their town. So on July 4, 1854, a group of enterprising locals crossed the Missouri River into the still- new Nebraska Territory and proclaimed their plans to build said town. They then frantically rowed back into Iowa, scared off by a party of Indians who had stopped to watch the drunken white people propose toasts to their own genius. Eleven years and six days later, the first rails of the Union Pacific Railroad were spiked in Omaha City.
The years in between were a constant bloody tug- of- war between those who owned land and those who wanted to. A group of particularly ruthless bastards was known as the Claim Club, known to repeatedly dunk landowners into the frozen waters of the Missouri until, on the verge of an iced- over death, they finally agreed to sign over what was rightfully theirs.
Soon Omaha was declared the capital of the territory, but only after a series of backhanded po liti cal moves designed to slant the newly formed House of Representatives in the city’s favor. The reaction was a giant, chair-throwing, nose- breaking bunk house stampede of a brawl on the House floor, a throw- down that involved, among others, J. Sterling Morton, founder of both Morton Salt and Arbor Day. For the better part of the next half- century, Omaha slugged its way through fights between cowboys and Indians, cowboys and cowboys, railroad men and Indians, and pretty much anyone who dared to walk its streets.
When Omahans weren’t dragging one another around by the hair, they were dragging each other into court. They sued over land claims and business deals gone bad. A group of local prostitutes even tried to sue to get their well- deserved earnings from an unruly client whom they claimed was blackmailing them. He also happened to be the sheriff of nearby Lincoln.
Wrote one Kansas City paper: "It requires but little, if any, stretch of the imagination to regard Omaha as a cesspool of iniquity, for it is given up to lawlessness and is overrun with a horde of fugitives from justice and dangerous men of all kinds who carry things with a high hand and a loose rein . . . If you want to find a rogue’s rookery, go to Omaha."
Nearly a century and a half later, the iron- necked personality of Omaha’s citizenry had become more subtle. But if the situation called for it, they still had the ability to tap back into their venomous Wild West ancestry.
Just ask Mike Fahey.
"You know where it’s the worst? You should go with me to the grocery store." As the city’s forty- ninth mayor admitted it, he pulled his lips tight against his teeth and glanced down at the long conference table in front of him, looking more than a little exhausted. "The older ladies love to corner me at the grocery store and tell me everything I’m doing wrong."
Just a few days earlier the sixty- four- year- old mayor stood with NCAA President Myles Brand in the Qwest Center parking lot, just a few blocks south of his office on Farnham Street, and made the new stadium announcement. The two men also unveiled an agreement that would keep the College World Series in Omaha until 2035, a major departure from the typical short- term contracts of the past. And it was certainly a different path for the NCAA, who had publicly entertained the idea of moving the event from city to city as it did with the Final Four, Frozen Four, and nearly every major collegiate championship.
But no tax- paying, Omaha- loving citizen seemed to care about the new long- term guarantee. They only cared that their beloved stadium was going to be flattened.
Since Mayor Fahey’s election in 2001, no single issue had galvanized the city like the future of The Blatt. As early as 2004, he was being booed during civic appearances, already a victim of rumors that the NCAA was pressuring the city to raze the ballpark. Bumper stickers and yard signs began springing up around Omaha, declaring save rosenblatt and accompanied by a TV ad campaign starring Kevin Costner, who declared that the old ballpark was a "field of dreams."
The worst of it all came during three public forums held over one sadistic week in March 2008. As citizens strolled to the microphone to ask questions of His Honor, there was little honor in the darts they threw his way.
At Lauritzen Gardens seventy- one- year- old Al Italia pointed his finger at the mayor and declared, "Rosenblatt is Omaha. Rosenblatt is the College World Series. Rosenblatt is the tradition of baseball in Omaha!" A freshman at Westside High School drew a standing ovation when he wondered aloud why the mayor couldn’t push his plan back five years to raise more private money. Declared another attendee, "There’s more holes in this plan than Swiss cheese!" In the middle of it all, an Omaha citizen named Gregory Lyons fired up a Web site and filed an affidavit seeking to have the mayor recalled.
Had the Missouri been iced over, Mayor Mike Fahey most certainly would have received a dunking from the Claim Club.
But what the citizenry hadn’t fully understood was that a new ballpark wasn’t merely an option. It was the option. Two years earlier, the NCAA and the city had agreed in principal to a $26 million Rosenblatt renovation plan, merely the next stanza of a constant reconstruction process started in 1992. That plan had resulted in thousands more seats, a new press box, a total make over of the playing field, and a brand-new 27- by- 57- foot video board. In all, the additions had already cost the city nearly $50 million.
Turns out, it wasn’t enough.
On March 12, 2007, Omaha received a proposal from the NCAA titled "New Stadium," with a subtle hint that without a new facility the College World Series might go shopping for a new home, or implement a traditional Final Four–style rotation that would take it from city to city.
So Mayor Fahey and the city made the only move available to them. They pushed ahead with a plan to fund and build a new ballpark. "As painful as it is to think you might be remembered as the mayor who tore down Rosenblatt," Fahey said with a sigh, "it would be worse to become the mayor that lost the College World Series."
As the eight coaches answered questions about leaving Rosenblatt, Fa-hey stepped off the elevator on the third floor of the downtown municipal building. Just as they did every morning, he and his staff strolled down a long hallway toward his office, walking past the portraits of the forty- eight mayors that preceded him. On one end hung the scowl of Jesse Lowe, Omaha’s first mayor and a man with a Lincolnesque beard who looked as though he certainly could have held his own during one of those State House brouhahas. From portrait to portrait, each previous mayor sported his own intimidating frown, most garnished by some sort of overgrown facial hair.
Then there was mayor number thirty- one, sporting a smile so big the photo seemed as if it had its own spotlight, the portrait of John R. Rosenblatt, founding father of The Blatt.
As a kid, Johnny Rosenblatt was obsessed with baseball, earning two letters as outfielder at Omaha’s Technical High, but was forced to turn down the University of Iowa’s scholarship offer because he had to earn money for his family. During the summers he was known to play in as many as six sandlot games a day, switching uniforms for a series of local semipro teams, including the Murphy- Did- Its, the Carter Lake Ball Club, and the Omaha Buffaloes of the Western League (even though he sometimes had to use the name Johnny Ross to slip in past the occasional antiSemite).
In 1927, barely one year out of high school, Rosenblatt played alongside Lou Gehrig and against Babe Ruth, when the two Yankee sluggers came to O Town to participate in an exhibition game between Rosen-blatt’s Omaha Prints and the rival Omaha Brown Parks. (After the game, Ruth was presented with an egg that had just been laid by a local namesake hen known as the Babe Ruth of Poultry, inscribed "From the Queen of Eggs to the King of Swat.") In a game against barnstorming Negro Leaguers, Rosenblatt faced Satchel Paige, who quickly put the kid two strikes down then shouted, "Now I’m going to strike you out!"—which he promptly did.
Eventually the kid was hired by Roberts Dairy, who needed some personality in the factory sales department and a glove up the middle on the factory ballclub. Rosenblatt soon rose to the job of sales director and quickly began leveraging his newfound clout to sell his city to baseball’s minor leagues. But to do his wooing he needed a ballpark, so he and friend Eddie Jellen cobbled together supporters to found the unoriginally titled Original Stadium Committee. Even after Jellen died in World War II, Rosenblatt continued his push for the park.
Residents living around the existing Fontenelle Park stadium north of downtown rejected the idea of expansion because of the lights and the noise (in retrospect not exactly the greatest move). So Rosenblatt handpicked a south- side hilltop location for a new stadium at the corner of Thirteenth Street and Deer Park. Like Mayor Fahey, salesman Rosenblatt took his lumps from the public, but he eventually broke ground with a handful of local contractors, even managing to sidestep a national coal strike by traveling to Gary, Indiana, to bring in the steel needed for construction.
Municipal Stadium was dedicated on October 17, 1949, complete with an exhibition game of Nebraska- born professional ballplayers, including Philadelphia outfielder and future Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn. Unfortunately, few local sports fans noticed because down the road in Lincoln, Frank Leahy’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish was putting a hurting on their beloved Nebraska Cornhusker football squad.
Omaha was then, as it still is, a football town first.
That didn’t matter to Johnny Rosenblatt, who’d been elected to the Omaha City Council and had dangled his new stadium to convince the St. Louis Cardinals to send their Class A ballclub back from Iowa (in their first game he promptly began the local tradition of "hitting out" the first pitch of the season instead of throwing it out).
He’d also successfully hosted the American Legion’s 1949 Junior World Series. Soon he—along with Ed Pettis, secretary- treasurer of locally owned Brandeis Department Store, and Morris Jacobs, coowner of Bozell-Jacobs Advertising—leveraged the success of the Junior World Series to convince the NCAA to move their struggling baseball championship to Municipal Stadium the following summer. It didn’t hurt that Rosenblatt and his team of diplomats had agreed to share all profits 50/50 and would also pay off any financial losses the NCAA might incur from the event.
By 1954, Rosenblatt was mayor and by ’64 the ballpark was renamed Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium. Even as Parkinson’s disease began to prematurely rob him of his trademark ebullience, nothing brought a bigger grin to Rosenblatt’s face than knowing that minor-league ball and college base-ball’s biggest event was being played in his stadium, the building that people told him was a bad idea and now had his name over the door.
"It weighs on me every day," Mayor Fahey admitted less than a week after the groundbreaking ceremony that ensured Rosenblatt’s stadium would be flattened. As he talked, guests sat outside his office in a waiting area, flipping through magazines and newspapers on the table before them. Among those papers was a glossy brochure touting the benefits of the new downtown ballpark. It featured some slick artist’s renderings and trumpeted amenities such as an open 360- degree walk- around concourse, twenty-eight luxury suites, party decks, and much, much better parking.
Sitting beside the sales pitch was a local in de pen dent newspaper topped by the headline: it’s time for mayor fahey to retire.
"Sometimes," he said with a shake of the head, "it takes sacrifices in the present day to preserve the future. Listen, I used to live right next to Rosenblatt. Believe me. I’m going to miss it, too."
But for now, on this perfect Friday, Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium was still there. Still there for three more editions of the College World Series and still there sitting atop that handpicked hill and packed with more than enough Johnny Rosenblatt–like smiles to offset the mayor’s permanently furrowed brow.
As the day’s final batting- practice session wrapped up, the fans filed outside to grab another brat, another can of pop, and to watch the still-snaking traffic inch its way around the block. In the south parking lot the rock band Candlebox prepared to hit the stage for a free concert, flanked by a giant banquet tent where the eight teams would eat dinner together in college baseball’s largest cookout. Dr. Sam Phillips and a group of fellow Omaha physical therapists known as "Last Year’s Champions" had fired up the smokers nearly twenty- four hours earlier and had ribs, chicken, brisket, and "plenty of sides if you are into that that sort of thing" slow-cooked and ready to serve.
But before brisket, there was business. The coaches, finally finished with their media conference, met in the press- box cafeteria with their athletic directors, NCAA officials, ESPN producers, and stadium- operations directors to discuss the protocol for the two- week event.
"Above all, let’s respect the teams after they have been eliminated," stated Larry Templeton, outgoing Mississippi State athletic director (A.D.) and chairman of the NCAA Baseball Committee. "It is important that we stay on schedule and that we clear out the dugouts and locker rooms for the teams coming in for the day’s next game. But remember that a loss is a loss and we need to give these student- athletes their space and let them deal with that before we start trying to push them out of here. Now let’s go eat some barbecue...."
Later that evening, beneath a perfect three- tiered Nebraska sunset and in front of a perfect capacity crowd, each team was introduced as they marched in from center field, dressed in knit shirts and ball caps, lined up behind their school’s flag as if they were arriving for the Olympic Games. They took their seats on the field, lined neatly in rows of five, four teams per baseline, with underdog Fresno State taking its place alongside five-time College World Series champion LSU and North Carolina, the two time defending runner- up.
At precisely 9:40 p.m., the first fireworks cluster left its cannon, setting off a show so spectacular that the cars rumbling by on I-80 began pulling over onto the shoulder to watch, and the merchants on Thirteenth Street strolled out of their storefronts to stand on the front stoop and snap pictures.
Next door, zoo director Daniel Morris watched his animals as they paused, looked skyward to see what the ruckus was all about, and then stopped eating to take it in. Used to be, the explosions would freak them out, but they had grown as the event and the pyrotechnic display had grown with them. Now they were used to it and Morris could relax and watch it himself.
No city politics.
No demolition crews.
No charge for admission.
Yes sir, the perfect day.
Excerpted from The Road To Omaha by Ryan McGee
Copyright © 2009 by Ryan McGee.
Published by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.