Beyond the ACCtion: A Salute to the Stadium at the #CWS

June 19, 2010

Steve Phillips, Assistant Director of Communications for the Atlantic Coast Conference, takes you Beyond the ACCtion in Omaha for the 2010 College World Series. Check theACC.com daily for more entries.


A SALUTE TO THE STADIUM

Eight teams begin competing for the College World Series championship in Omaha on Saturday, a quest that runs for nearly two weeks and will literally seem like a second season to the two teams that advance to play a deciding best-of-three title series.

But regardless of who emerges from the dogpile as NCAA Division I champion on June 29 or 30, they will be at least partially upstaged by the venue that showcases their achievement.

This is the curtain call for Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, which is hosting its 61st CWS but will give way in 2011 to a new downtown stadium.

It seems that Omaha has always been home to the College World Series, but that isn’t the case. The first two were held at Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1947 and 1948, and Wichita got a taste of it for one year before it set up shop near the Nebraska-Iowa border in 1950.

Omaha embraced the event, and Rosenblatt became the ultimate symbol of the city’s passion. Even before expanded national television coverage in the 1990s captured the spectacle in its entirety, the word was already being spread by those lucky enough to make at least one June pilgrimage: A CWS at Rosenblatt belonged on any true fan’s bucket list.

Like other venerable structures from the Major Leagues on down, Rosenblatt became antiquated in spite of all best efforts. Over $4 million went toward a bigger and better press box in 1996. A $7 million dollar renovation took place in 2001. Those were just two of several seven-figure projects undergone over the years at the stadium, which can now seat over 23,000 spectators.

Ultimately, it wasn’t enough. TD Ameritrade Park is set to open next year. Unlike Rosenblatt, which sits a few miles south of downtown Omaha in a neighborhood area, TD Ameritrade is going up near the heart of the city. It will hold capacity crowds only slightly larger than Rosenblatt at first, but long-range expansion plans could eventually mean more than 35,000 seats.

In exchange, Omaha is guaranteed of continuing to host the College World Series through at least 2035.

In the long run, the horror of traditionalists will likely subside. College baseball fans, locally as well as beyond, will surely grow to love their new stadium.

Rosenblatt’s once-sacred baseball ground will become part of the neighboring Henry Doorly Zoo, where those in charge there vow to maintain the home plate area and display other stadium artifacts. The names of surrounding streets – Bob Gibson Boulevard, College World Series Boulevard – will remind future animal gawkers that there used to be a ball park there.

Those who played and coached at Rosenblatt won’t need to be reminded

Billy Ray Barnes, who recently was named an Atlantic Coast Conference “Football Legend’ and also starred on the Philadelphia Eagles’ 1960 NFL championship team, ranks playing on the 1955 Wake Forest baseball team that won the league’s only CWS title to date as his most cherished sports memory.

“They inducted the whole Eagles team that won the (1960) NFL championship into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame,” Barnes said. “Some reporters said, ‘I guess that was the biggest thrill you ever had.’ I told them, ‘Afraid not – not even close. My biggest thrill was winning the College World Series with Wake Forest.’ “They looked at me kind of funny, but that’s the way I felt.”

North Carolina set an ACC record by reaching four straight College World Series from 2006 to 2009. After their Super Regional victories each of those last three years, Tar Heel upperclassmen predictably spoke of their desire to win a national title. But as one talked to those players at length, it became obvious that they equally were driven by the knowledge of the Omaha/Rosenblatt experience that lay ahead. It almost seemed as if that itself willed them to win.

And for Clemson head coach Jack Leggett, who played on the 1976 Maine team that reached Omaha, being able to coach a team in the final College World Series at Rosenblatt this year makes an already extraordinary season doubly special.

“(I was) fortunate many, many years ago to come here as a player, and to be here as a coach before, I know how special it is,” Leggett said Friday. “To be here in the last year of Rosenblatt Stadium makes it even greater. (We are) very excited about being part of the Omaha experience for the last time here in Rosenblatt Stadium.”

The first notes of the swan song will be played Saturday at 2 p.m. Eastern Time, when Florida State opens the 2010 College World Series against TCU. The “Last Blast At ‘Blatt” as the Omaha World-Herald so aptly described it, is officially under way. Here’s hoping it is a blast to remember.

MORE MEMORIES FROM LEGGETT

Asked to elaborate on his memories of taking part in a College World Series as a player, Clemson coach Jack Leggett responds in surprising detail.

He remembers the final scores of the games in which his 1976 Maine team participated. He remembers the names of players he played against – not just future major leaguers such as Bob Horner, Bob Welch and Floyd Bannister, but others as well. He remembers opposing coaches. He even remembers specific plays.

“The great thing about the Omaha experience and playing in the College World Series (is that) it’s indelible in your mind forever,” Leggett said.

The city’s version of the red carpet treatment 34 years ago pales in comparison to the reception and accommodations provided the players today, but Leggett and his teammates were appreciative nonetheless.

“Tremendous experience,” Leggett marveled. “I remember staying at the hotel. At that time, they picked us up in these little yellow school buses and brought us to the ballpark. (I’ve) still got some great pictures, and of course the stadium didn’t look anything like it looks now.”

Leggett said he received 79 text messages following the Tigers’ Super Regional win over Alabama earlier last week. Many were from former Clemson players who were members of his five previous CWS teams as a coach.

“One of them struck home with me,” Leggett said. “It was from Adrian Casanova and said, ‘Coach, just tell these kids how important this is. Tell them that for the rest of their lives people will be asking them what it was like in Omaha.’ “

PLENTY OF WORDS FOR HOLT

Florida State junior All-America outfielder Tyler Holt is among the Seminoles contingent with prior CWS experience, having played in the event as a freshman in 2008. In fact, Holt has never missed a game as a college player.

Asked on Friday to describe his team leader, FSU coach Mike Martin was more than happy to expound – in ways he considered flattering.

“He plays with a chip on his shoulder,” Martin said. “And he’s one of a kind, is about the only way I can say it. He’s a dirt bag, a fireball, a redneck. Take your pick.”