OMAHA—When it comes down to it, Dennis Poppe was the driving force behind TD Ameritrade Park Omaha.
Poppe, the NCAA's vice president for baseball and football, initiated conversations seven or eight years ago about formulating a long-term plan for the home of the College World Series. After seeing the pricetag of renovating venerable Rosenblatt Stadium, it was Poppe who first broached the notion of building a new downtown ballpark to house the CWS with former mayor Mike Fahey.
Poppe was there to sign his name on the steel beam that was driven into the ground where home plate was to be located, establishing the focus point for the $131 million construction project. Poppe and his entire family had their pictures taken at the construction site while wearing hard hats last June, and the photo adorned the Poppe family Christmas card. Over the last 18 months or so, Poppe visited the new site once or twice every month. He is as invested in and as familiar with the sparkling new ballpark as anyone.
At 6:42 p.m. CT on Tuesday, Creighton's Ty Blach delivered the park's first pitch to Nebraska's Kale Kaiser, who lofted it into right field for the park's first out. And that's when it hit home for Poppe.
"You know what was funny: We all wanted to see the first pitch," Poppe said. "My immediate reaction was, 'OK, now it's a ballpark. Now it's real.' So he threw a pitch, somebody hit it, it was an out. Now it's real."
Now it's real.
Even for those of us who took time to say our final farewells to Rosenblatt Stadium after Scott Wingo scored the final College World Series run there last June—even for those of us in the media who returned to the park late the following night to pose for one final photograph on the Road To Omaha statue sitting outside Rosenblatt's grand entryway—it wasn't real until Tuesday.
There is no going back. There is no longer any use bemoaning the loss of college baseball's charming cathedral on the hill. The Road To Omaha statue sits at the foot of the steps leading up to TD Ameritrade Park now, at the corner of Cuming and 13th streets.
Even before we knew Rosenblatt's days were numbered, I used to cherish those late nights at the old ballpark, after our stories were filed and it was time to pack up and leave for the night, when nobody remained except Jesse Cuevas' grounds crew on the field, the cleaning crew picking up trash in the stands, and the handful of reporters still pecking away at their keyboards. Looking out over the iconic red and yellow and blue seats and the distinctive Desert Dome at the Henry Doorly Zoo beyond the right-field bleachers, looking out over the rolling hills and twinkling lights beyond, I would often find myself taking a deep breath and feeling completely at peace, just thankful to be spending another June night at Rosenblatt.
When the park emptied after Tuesday's inaugural game at TD Ameritrade, I scanned the dark blue seats and the cool blue neon lights of the Qwest Center beyond, and I felt a pit in my stomach.
Now it's real. But it's going to take some time to develop the sense of attachment that so many of us felt for Rosenblatt.
The new ballpark is impressive—there's no denying that. I love the gentle curvature of the seating bowl, which offers excellent sight lines from seats all the way down the lines. The open-air concourses are a huge, huge improvement from the cramped, dark, sometimes dank concourses in the bowels of the old stadium. I won't miss fighting against the current of humanity making its painfully slow way out of Rosenblatt as I tried to reach the Hall of Fame Room for postgame interviews—and fans won't miss those sweaty, claustrophobic egresses, either.
The playing surface is immaculate and the downtown location is unbeatable for convenience. The video board in right field is massive and crystal-clear. I like the light standards, which have a crisscross pattern similar to what Oregon did with its light standards at PK Park. The greenish-blue facade of the press box and club level is sharp, and so is the light-brown brick of the stadium's exterior.
But there is no truly distinctive, iconic feature of the interior. Rosenblatt felt larger than life, unique to Omaha and to college baseball. This park, as beautiful as it is, doesn't feel a lot different than many other state-of-the-art 21st-century ballparks.
It's going to take some getting-used-to, even for Poppe, who had his own long history with Rosenblatt, of course. There are a million small details Poppe and his staff are still ironing out, and so many adjustments to make from the old park to the new. At Rosenblatt, for instance, a net ran down from the press box facade to the top of the protective net behind home plate, and balls would trickle down the gently sloping overhead net, where they would be fielded by ballgirls who emerged from gated areas just behind the plate.
"Where are we going to put the ballgirls? There's no gate right behind home plate now," Poppe said. "Where's the red-head girl? We don't have a net over it now where the ball goes down; that's one of the traditions I might miss. You remember, the ball girls used to get booed unmercifully if they dropped the ball, which is tradition, and everybody would cheer if she caught it. Well, we don't have that now. It's a little thing, but it was fun. But there are going to be other fun things to create fun for the fans here."
Just give it some time.
The action on the field will help. The players create memories for the fans as well as for themselves, and it felt fitting that TD Ameritrade Park picked up right where Rosenblatt Stadium left off: with a tense 2-1 ballgame that went down to the wire. Instead of South Carolina's Matt Price earning the win with brilliant relief work, Nebraska's Logan Ehlers earned the win in relief Tuesday, limiting the Bluejays to just two hits over 5 1/3 shutout innings to lead Nebraska to a big victory over its rival.
"It's great to get the first win at this park," Nebraska shortstop Chad Christensen said. "That's something you'll take for a lifetime, be able to tell your kids and your relatives for the rest of your life. So we're all pretty happy that we got the first win."
Creighton loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth inning, and cleanup man Trever Adams—he of the .400 batting average and 10 home runs—stepped to the plate. Nebraska coach Mike Anderson opted to stick with his freshman lefthander, and Ehlers rewarded him by striking out Adams on a filthy back-foot slider.
"I looked at it and said, 'We've got a Nebraska kid on the mound that understands this fight and understands this rivalry a little bit. I'm going to go with the Nebraska kid,' " Anderson said. "And we stuck with him, and he proved us right."
It was a fun game and a great atmosphere, despite a first-pitch temperature of 40 degrees and gusting winds that kept the park from filling up completely (the official attendance was 22,187, the ninth-largest regular-season crowd in NCAA history).
"This place was electric tonight," Adams said. "I kind of stopped talking through about the fourth inning in the outfield because I couldn't really hear myself talking to the pitcher anymore. It was unbelievable—this is the nicest park I've ever played in in my life. I kept looking back up at the scoreboard—that thing is unreal."
Anderson called the ballpark "spectacular" and said the state of Nebraska has a lot to look forward to. Not just during those two weeks in June, either. Creighton said goodbye to the Creighton Sports Complex and its locker room at the Kitty Gaughan Pavilion last week—the Bluejays will now play all of their home games at TD Ameritrade. They moved into their spacious new clubhouse during an open house on Monday, and they were suitably awed.
"From the looks, it looks like about four times the size of what we had over there at the Kitty Gaughan," Adams said. "It's definitely a big league facility."
Poppe regretted missing the moment when the players first set foot in their new digs, but he hopes to be there when players first arrive for the College World Series in June.
"I really want to see the looks on these players' faces when they come in and see the clubhouse and their lockers," Poppe said. "I want to see the coach when he sees his office—these are first class. We only have two outfitted right now, but in the future we'll have four of them. So a team could come in and hang out all morning in the locker room if they want to. Somebody said facetiously, we'll have trouble getting them out of the clubhouse because they're so nice."
The College World Series is about the players and the fans, and the NCAA has worked hard to enhance the CWS experience for both groups. When it comes to amenities and comfort, TD Ameritrade is a huge upgrade over 60-year-old Rosenblatt Stadium—obviously.
When it comes to character, there is no competition—obviously.
But it's time to stop comparing the new ballpark to its predecessor. TD Ameritrade is college baseball's new reality.
We all think it's impressive. Maybe in time, we'll all come to love it.
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