New Name, New Park Give Omaha Fresh Start

OMAHA—A perfect baseball storm is brewing in what two years ago was a corn field just southwest of Nebraska's largest city.

It's the convergence of a new ballpark, a new nickname for the home team, and new hope for the major league affiliate that's been down so long that some of the organization's top prospects were still in diapers the last time the team won a championship.

The Omaha Royals are now the Omaha Storm Chasers. They've traded historic Rosenblatt Stadium for a cozy little park just west of the Omaha suburb of Papillion. And their roster will be loaded with hot-shot prospects from a minor league system regarded as the most talented in the game.

"The sky's the limit for the younger guys," Omaha manager Mike Jirschele told The Omaha World-Herald. "That's exciting. It's fun to have guys like that who you can work with."

It will be equally exciting to work with them in a state-of-the-art ballpark that will truly be the home team's stadium. No more playing second fiddle to the College World Series, Omaha's signature baseball event that required the team to spend three weeks on the road each June.

Werner Park, with its 6,434 seats and berm space for another 3,000, will host its first professional game on April 15. A series of high school contests a week earlier will give Storm Chasers personnel a number of dress rehearsals to prepare the place for Opening Night.

The $30.6 million stadium grew out of farmland and allowed the Storm Chasers to avoid moving. That would have been the franchise's fate had Sarpy County, just to the south of Omaha, not stepped up with an offer to build a stadium to keep it in the metro area.

"It came down to a question of whether we would play here or Texas or somewhere else," Storm Chasers president Alan Stein said in a recent interview at the team's new offices at Werner Park. "Those were the options. We preferred to stay in the greater Omaha area, but we could no longer afford to, nor did we want to, remain in the other relationship."

New Relationship

The "other relationship" was sharing Omaha's stadium with the College World Series. When Omaha decided in 2008 to replace Rosenblatt, which had been home of the city's minor league teams since 1949 and the CWS since 1950, with a $128 million downtown stadium, city officials tried to lure the minor league team.

When the attempt proved unsuccessful, Stein and the team's ownership group entertained other options. The Sarpy County bid won out.The Storm Chasers contributed $2.35 million to the construction costs and annual rent that will cover about one-third of the annual debt payments on the ballpark. In return, the minor league team will get a facility that better fits its needs.

"We're going to give the fans the kind of experience they want and deserve," Stein said.

General manager Martie Cordaro calls the ballpark the most "family friendly venue in the metro area, if not the state."

The new stadium's features include the expected niceties of a new ballpark, such as wider concourses, a wider variety of food and drink choices, private party areas and 15 suites. The park has a few twists as well, including a giant whiffleball field and basketball court in center field, and a 6,500-square-foot children's play area, complete with carousel, down the left-field line.

What's In A Name?

"In Nebraska, you had to have the corn," Cordaro said. "The Reuben was a natural because the sandwich was invented here. Our concessionaire offers mac and cheese at some of its other venues and says it really goes over.

"It's non-traditional ballpark fare but we think the three items will really go over."

The new gift shop should be a popular stop for fans wanting to load up on the team's new apparel. Stein announced in mid-November that the team was changing its nickname from Royals to Storm Chasers, and the club unveiled two new mascots: Stormy and Vortex. Sales have been strong, Stein said.

"We've already sold more in the last four months that we did the entire first season (2007) that we owned the club," said Stein, who declined to give a sales figure.

The name change was a result of work that started almost two years ago. With help from the fans, the team whittled the list from 1,500 names to 24 to nine and then one. The team hired Plan B Branding to help identify a new name. The company has worked with more than 30 minor league teams on names, logos and color schemes.

"The Omaha Royals brand was a strong one," said Stein of the nickname the team had used for all but four of its seasons since 1969. "We knew when we announced Storm Chasers that there would be some pushback, but this wasn't a move made on a whim."

"It's the result of two years of work. We're not so arrogant that we thought everyone would be on board from the start, but our research indicated that we would be able to overcome any initial disapproval."

While the nickname change grated on traditionalists, the construction of two new ballparks in the metro Omaha area proved controversial with some taxpayers and governmental officials—especially since many people in the area considered Rosenblatt still to be functional.

Creighton will play its home schedule at Omaha's new downtown ballpark, but the city has yet to secure another full-time tenant for the facility. Stein said it became clear during the negotiating process that the new stadium would not be a good fit for his group.

"Essentially, we're dealing with two different games," Stein said. "The 24,000 or 25,000 seats that are essential for the College World Series is not essential for us. There are elements that we need control over that we could not control."

Critics contend Omaha is building a stadium for one event that lasts but two weeks a year. Given that, the price tag is too high.

"That football stadium down in Lincoln basically sits empty for 355 days a year," said Stein, referring to the University of Nebraska's Memorial Stadium. "You don't hear anyone saying, 'Oh, my gosh!' That stadium pays for itself.

"These two new stadiums are going to pay for themselves. In our minds, there were a lot of reasons not to combine the two."

Stein, Cordaro and Omaha's expanded front office have been busily preparing for the season by working on the things they can control. They know there are two things they can't—the weather and the makeup of the roster.

Kansas City will take care of the latter, giving Jirschele, the manager, a team loaded with some of the game's best prospects, including Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas.

"A bad team isn't going to necessarily hurt you," Stein said. "A good team can help you, but given the nature of our business, we had a good idea what 80 percent of our attendance is going to be. A bad team isn't going to keep that church group or business from coming out to watch you. Now, a good team is going to create some more media buzz and that can result in a positive impact."

Omaha came within a game last season of making the Pacific Coast League playoffs for the first time since 1999.

"We saw the first wave of Kansas City's prospects make it here, maybe not for all the season but for part of it," Cordaro said. "That invigorated our team, and it's going to continue this year. Our roster has not been this prospect-laden for about the last 30 years. These are exciting times, and we're glad to be a part of them."

Steve Pivovar covers the College World Series for the Omaha World-Herald