By Andy Gardiner, USA TODAY
OMAHA — After a 61-year run, college baseball's mecca is closing.
When Florida State and TCU meet in Saturday's opener of the eight-team NCAA College World Series, the excitement that surrounds this annual two-week championship will be tinged with melancholy.
Next June, the competition will move a few miles up 13th Street to TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha. Rosenblatt will be razed so the city's popular Henry Doorly Zoo can expand.
Most of those involved with college baseball have accepted the change and appreciate the upside that will come with a state-of-the-art, $128 million facility. They are heartened the tournament will remain in Omaha, which has become synonymous with the CWS.
But that won't hold back the sadness of knowing the end of an era is at hand.
"Rosenblatt is college baseball's Yankee Stadium, and accepting that its time is over is difficult," said Stanford's Mark Marquess, one of 12 men to play and coach in the CWS. "I mean, it's always been there, this hulking stadium on this wonderful perch up on a hill with the light stands shining.
"Even for guys in the major leagues, playing at Rosenblatt was a big deal. At that time, it was the biggest thing in their lives, and Rosenblatt was the most special place in their lives."
Dennis Poppe, the NCAA vice president for baseball and football, has been the CWS tournament director since 1987. His family holds an annual reunion at Rosenblatt, and he has experienced firsthand the attraction the stadium holds for fans.
"I don't know how many times people have come up to me and talked about how their father brought them to Rosenblatt and now here they were with their son," Poppe said.
"There is a county fair atmosphere — the smell of popcorn, the sound of the organ. It's a nostalgic slice of Americana. Rosenblatt is at the center."
The stadium also has stood as an iconic symbol of achievement.
"In college baseball, we talk about the 'Road to Omaha,' and we do it with respect because we know how difficult it is to travel that road," said five-time national champion coach Augie Garrido, whose Texas Longhorns were knocked out in the super regionals. "And that road ends at Rosenblatt Stadium."
Rosenblatt began in 1948 as Municipal Stadium, a 10,000-seat park in South Omaha built to bring professional baseball back to a city that had been without a stadium since 1936.
The CWS arrived in 1950 after spending its first two years in Kalamazoo, Mich., and one year in Wichita. Johnny Rosenblatt, a former semipro player and local businessman, was instrumental in moving the event to a city whose baseball history had been rooted in the minor leagues.
The first CWS attracted 17,805 fans over 10 sessions, and the event lost money nine of its first 14 years. But the NCAA was pleased with the city's support, and when a group of Omaha businessmen agreed to cover any deficits, a marriage was made.
Rosenblatt, elected mayor in 1954, led the enthusiasm. The stadium was named for him in 1964.
That year, the non-profit College World Series of Omaha Inc. was formed to serve as the event's local sponsor and completed a three-headed partnership with the NCAA and the city to guide the tournament. The event has turned a profit — which the NCAA and city split — every year since.
Rosenblatt remained relatively unchanged from its original structure until 1987. The lighting was improved, a new press box was built and bleacher seats were added to bring capacity to just over 15,000.
"I thought it was a huge stadium, and it was half the size it is now," said Marquess, who played in the 1967 CWS for Stanford. "I had never played on a field that special before. But looking back, I guess there was room for improvement."
The tournament continued to grow in popularity, helped in large part by exposure created when ESPN began televising games in 1980. Spurred by hints from then-NCAA president Walter Byers that it might move the CWS to another city if major improvements weren't made to Rosenblatt, the city undertook a $3.4 million expansion plan in 1987, the same year Poppe became the NCAA's point man.
"I remember it was a somewhat rocky relationship then. I was booed the first time I was introduced as the NCAA representative," Poppe said. "I soon learned that the city and the fans of Omaha were very protective of the CWS. ... I think President Byers wanted to take it to another level. So did Omaha."
Over the next decade, 8,000 seats were added, and a new press box was built along with expanded dugouts, fan suites and parking lots. A new playing field was installed with an upgraded drainage system.
Rosenblatt has averaged crowds of at least 20,000 for every day since 1996, and the last four World Series have totaled more than 300,000.
"Rosenblatt was actually a pretty dirty old stadium at the beginning," Poppe said. "Now people think of it as Omaha's 'Diamond on the Hill.' Those of us who have been along for the ride take a sense of pride in that."
Keeping it in Omaha
For Dan McConnell, who played in the CWS for The Citadel in 1990 and coached Louisville to its first Rosenblatt appearance in 2007, it was Omaha that made the event.
"The stadium was great, but what's important to me is that the World Series is still in Omaha," McConnell said. "It's not Rosenblatt that makes it special as much as the city and the people."
Omaha has joined the A-list of host sites for amateur athletic events, energized in 2003 by the opening of the 18,300-seat Qwest Center downtown.
The new arena attracted the 2008 U.S. Olympic swimming trials (they will return in 2012) and brought NCAA regional and national tournaments in volleyball, wrestling and men's basketball.
But the city's track record of support, proved over 60 years with the CWS, is as valuable as any arena.
"What separates Omaha from other sites is the community's connection to the events," Poppe said.
Warren Morris struck what is considered the most dramatic hit in CWS history when his two-out, two-run walk-off homer lifted LSU to a 9-8 victory against Miami (Fla.) in the 1996 title game.
What he remembers more than that is the people of Omaha.
"We were treated like rock stars," Morris said. "You're the big thing going on in town, and the people just embraced you. That's not going to change."
Steve Pivovar is a South Omaha native who has covered every CWS since 1982 for the Omaha World-Herald.
"Omaha has nurtured this event since its infancy," Pivovar said. "Our loyalty to it, even in the tough times when you could fire a cannon through Rosenblatt and not be in danger of hitting anyone, has helped it grow into what it has become. I think that a lot of Omahans feel that this is our event."
The 25-year agreement to play in the new park (for which TD Ameritrade paid $20 million for 20 years of naming rights), on top of 61 years of history, says the NCAA agrees.
"We've never done this with an NCAA championship before. We move those around," Poppe says. "This is so unique for us, but if anybody has earned that level of commitment, Omaha has."
The final game of this CWS will come during the best-of-three championship series. The final out will be recorded, the lights will dim and Rosenblatt's tenure as the home of college baseball's ultimate tournament will end.
"This is more than just another facility to me," Poppe said. "I'll take it in and enjoy it because how many times in your life do you have a benchmark moment that you know will change things forever?
"We hope it's going to be better, and we think it will be better. It's not going to be the same, and it's not going to be easy. The physical structure will be gone, but you'll never lose the memories."