OMAHA—Martie Cordaro knew that there were not going to be any do-overs when, in 2011, it came time to relocate Omaha’s Triple-A franchise from a historic stadium on a hill to one being in built in a cornfield south of the city.
Get it right, and the Storm Chaser had a chance to start building a wonderful new chapter in Omaha’s baseball history. Mess it up, and Cordaro knew it would take years for the franchise to dig out of the hole. Equally sobering was the inkling that he wouldn’t be around to do the digging.
The fact that Baseball America has named Cordaro its 2013 Minor League Executive of the Year is testament that he took what could have been a train wreck and put it on the fast track to success.
“What Martie did was masterful,” said Rob Crain, now the general manager of the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees but then Cordaro’s top lieutenant in Omaha. “He did it by making sure we had a vision, that we knew what change was going to look like.
“He gave us a story, and then told us to go out in the community and tell it. He did a tremendous job of rallying the troops and making sure we were all on the proverbial same page.”
Cordaro became the Omaha Royals’ general manager in 2008, taking over a franchise that in 2006 ranked 12th in attendance among the 16 Pacific Coast League teams. He immediately set about to rebuild some of the trust that the previous regime had let slip.
Putting backsides in the seats wasn’t the only challenge Cordaro and his staff were facing. Omaha had decided in 2008 that it was going to build a new ballpark downtown to replace Rosenblatt Stadium as home to the College World Series. Rosenblatt had also been home to Omaha minor league teams since 1949 and the Royals since 1969.
The Royals’ ownership group considered making the move downtown but, when negotiations with the city broke down, decided to go in another direction. It entertained offers to relocate the franchise to other cities and one from officials of the county located just south of the Omaha city limits.
Sarpy County officials wanted the Royals, and offered to build the team a $25 million, 6,000-seat stadium in the Omaha suburb of Papillion. The Royals accepted the offer, and Werner Park opened in 2011.
Spurred by the nostalgia that accompanied Rosenblatt’s final year, the franchise drew 406,276 fans in 2010. The next season, the team, now known as the Storm Chasers, drew more than 410,000 for Werner’s inaugural season.
The franchise attracted almost 416,000 fans in 2012 and 390,000 during a weather-challenged 2013 season.
The numbers are nice, but what was more important was how Cordaro kept the move within the greater Omaha community from becoming divisive.
“It would have become a splintered thing: We Sarpy and you Omaha,’’ said Branch Rickey III, the longtime PCL president. “But the bottom line is this franchise is shared by everybody.
“I think that this is a dramatic element to the psychology of how he goes about his business. This franchise belongs to the larger community of Omaha.”
That, Cordaro said, was his vision when he set out to engineer the move to the suburbs. It was a vision crafted from the opinions of the team’s fans and its sponsors. Focus groups and consultants helped define priorities.
“It’s all about planning,’’ said Cordaro, who came to Omaha in 2007 as the team’s assistant general manager. “I’m a planner, I’m an organizer and I’m a talker-to-deather. It’s about creating a vision and then knowing what is the road map to get to that vision.”
Cordaro’s vision was to give the community something Omaha’s minor league teams had never enjoyed: a ballpark of its own. Rosenblatt also had been home since 1950 to the College World Series, and the event had grown over the years into the city’s premier baseball event.
Werner Park filled that void, giving the Storm Chasers all the bells and whistles that weren’t available at Rosenblatt or wouldn’t have been there at the new downtown stadium.
“I’m a little bit competitive,’’ Cordaro said. “Minor league baseball is an industry of excellence, and we want our place in it. We don’t want to just be that Omaha is a good market. We want Omaha to be a top market.
“I think we’ve started our path towards that. We have benchmarks that we haven’t attained, and we’re going to continue to work harder and smarter to accomplish those things.’’
What Cordaro has been able to accomplish off the field has been complemented by the franchise’s unprecedented run of success on it. After missing the PCL playoffs by a game in 2010, the Storm Chasers won the league championship in 2011. They made it back to the championship series in 2012 before losing to Reno.
They won the title again 2013 as well as the Triple-A National Championship, doing it in the most dramatic fashion. Omaha qualified for the playoffs by winning on the final day of the regular season and, in spite of a losing record during the regular season, claiming playoff series with Oklahoma City and Salt Lake City.
The Storm Chasers then knocked off International League champion Durham to claim the Triple-A title.
It was a memorable three-week run, Cordaro said, but pales in comparison to what happened more than a month after the season’s final pitch.
That was when Cordaro learned that Mike Jirschele, the minor league lifer and Omaha’s manager for the past 14 seasons, was being promoted to Kansas City’s coaching staff for 2014.
“We all do this for varying reasons but a player and a coach do it to go to the big leagues,’’ said Cordaro, choking back tears. “To see Jirsch realize his dreams at 54 years old, I was really happy for him.’’
Does Cordaro share similar big league dreams?
“No, I don’t,’’ he said, laughing. “I learned many years ago to never say never but our family is happy in Omaha and I’m a minor league baseball guy.’’