Diamond on the hill

OMAHA, Neb. — I’ll never forget the first time I saw Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in person. Warren Morris’ walk-off home run to give LSU the 1996 national championship and Miami’s hidden-ball trick to preserve a 1982 national championship were long in the past and witnessed on television. So for me, it was something special to see it with my own eyes.

My first look at “The ‘Blatt” actually came Wednesday.

There’s no question Tim Casey and I were road weary. It was a long day that started while getting quotes from Florida baseball practice in Gainesville. We drove to Orlando, flew to Des Moines, Iowa, and completed our trek with a two-hour drive to Omaha.

We wound our way through bean and corn fields in Iowa, expecting to see “Field of Dreams” character Ray Kinsella around every turn. The large, haunting windmills that lined the roads gave us no comfort. Tim’s lead foot didn’t, either.

But with a right turn onto an off ramp and another sharp right turn, our moods changed. Exhaustion turned to elation. Frustration to fervor.

Up on a hill stood the pinnacle of college baseball. Rosenblatt Stadium sure knows how to rejuvenate travellers after a long day.

We darted into the first open parking lot, which we still think may have actually been closed. As I opened the passenger door of the car, I had flashbacks to Christmas mornings as a kid. It took everything within me not to run.

In some small fashion, that captures what Rosenblatt Stadium is about in its truest form. There’s a sense of excitement and anticipation around the stadium that is rarely felt at any stadium in the country. It’s about a community that embraces baseball, something that they fell in love with long before the Council Bluffs casinos that can be seen from the press box even existed. Because there is no pro football or major league baseball team nearby, most of the allegiances to professional sports are split.

But for these two weeks, something is different. The community joins together to promote a common cause, something that has truly become bigger than the city itself.

That can’t be more perfectly displayed than what happened Friday night in Omaha. The Olympic opening ceremonies are well known for their flare, and while the College World Series opening ceremonies certainly have a lower budget, the same passion is there.

There weren’t many open seats in The ‘Blatt, as it is affectionately known. All to welcome teams and fans that will be spending the next two weeks in the backyard of the Omaha faithful. Loud cheers echoed from the crowd as TCU, the only program making their first appearance in the College World Series this year, was introduced. These fans want to see a story.

It’s hard to sit in the press box and overlook the definition of passion, then justify tearing Rosenblatt Stadium down, as they will when this College World Series is over.

The residents of Omaha struggle to justify it too, evidenced by Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle being booed at the opening ceremonies.

TD Ameritrade Park offers more seats, easier parking and a beautiful downtown view. It has the looks of an upper-level minor league stadium. There is no doubt the revenue will be greater, but the atmosphere will be hard to duplicate.

The fear is that it will be too done up. What makes Rosenblatt so special is the old time baseball feel that is personified by the blue, yellow and red seats. It’s the dark blue press box that hosts a live organist. The tiny concourses and even smaller bathrooms give a feel to a time when baseball was all the Omaha residents needed.

“The fans that have come out and supported this event, they’re going to continue to support this event,” said Tom Weiser, the chairman of the Division I baseball committee. “It’s a great event. It may be in a new home, but we’re going to have a continued great atmosphere because we’re still going to have great baseball coming here.”

And he’s right. The move may only be three miles to the north, but in the hearts of Omaha residents, it feels like the new stadium will be on another continent.

They’ll keeping coming, though. There’s no doubt about that. Because as the college game increases in exposure and popularity, the quality of play will continue to improve.

But for two weeks, the Omaha natives won’t think about TD Ameritrade Park. Their focus will be, one last time, on The ‘Blatt.

And it all starts Saturday at the diamond on the hill.