PAPILLION, Neb. -- The Omaha Royals said goodbye to Rosenblatt Stadium in grand fashion on Thursday, a gala evening at the ballpark that included a pregame fan fest, celebrity guests, replica seat giveaways and a fireworks extravaganza.
Now, it is time to start saying hello.
The Omaha Royals will begin a new era in 2011, relocating from Omaha proper to nearby Sarpy County. They'll compete in a brand-new, yet-to-be-named facility, an intimate 6,200-seat structure that will serve as the centerpiece of what the county hopes will be a premier dining and recreation area. The ballpark is slated to cost $26 million, with a third of the money coming from the O-Royals and the remainder provided by the county via a variety of funding methods.
"This is the merging of two dreams into one reality," said Sarpy County board chairwoman Joni Jones at the ballpark's 2009 groundbreaking.
For Sarpy County, that dream is to transform a fast-growing but still largely rural area into a 21st-century entertainment destination. And it allows the O-Royals to realize their dream of establishing themselves as a truly unique standalone sporting attraction. For, though Rosenblatt Stadium has always been a crucial component of the O-Royals experience, the team has had to share the facility with the College World Series. This led to a host of unique operating challenges, from unwieldy road trips scheduled around the annual event to the difficulty of creating an intimate Minor League experience within a cavernous and somewhat impersonal multi-use facility.
Therefore, Sarpy County Ballpark represents a very different day-to-day reality for the O-Royals and their fans. But that reality isn't quite here yet -- right now, there's a whole lot of mud and a whole lot of cornfields.
If you build it, they will come
Cliché as it may be, it's hard not to think of Field of Dreams when driving west along State Route 370 in the town of Papillion, Neb. (Sarpy's county seat). Looking to the left, set far back from the road itself, one sees a bank of light towers hovering far above the state's signature crop. This, then, must be the site of the new ballpark. It is indeed being built, and in April of 2011 the fans will come.
There is still a lot of work to be done, however.
Turning off of Route 370, a winding gravel road leads to a ramshackle parking lot filled primarily with banged-up, mud-splashed pickup trucks. Michael Keller, the ballpark's project engineer, emerged from a nearby trailer and jovially exclaimed that I've "picked the worst day to come out here." It was easy to see why -- a recent spate of intense precipitation had turned the construction site into a veritable mud pit. But the exceedingly gloppy conditions were secondary to what surrounds them: the exoskeleton of a new Pacific Coast League facility.
Keller works for the Weitz Company, a general contracting firm hired by the county to be the ballpark's overall construction manager. His job is to oversee all aspects of construction while facilitating communication among his company, architectural firm DLR Group, the Sarpy County government and the O-Royals. Though Keller has headed up large projects in the past, this marks the first time he has overseen the construction of a baseball stadium.
"It's a whole new ballgame," said Keller, smiling as he realizes just how literal that expression can be taken in this case.
The playing field has largely taken shape at this juncture, with the pitcher's mound and basepaths clearly discernible. A large mound of red dirt, looking like it was just trucked in from Mars, was situated beyond the eight-foot outfield wall in right-center. Soon, it will be spread out onto the warning track. Sod will be laid out within 2-3 weeks, weather permitting, on the playing field as well as on two separate grass berm seating areas. A bleacher section capable of seating 275 fans was constructed in left field last month, but the stadium's 6,200 permanent seats have yet to be installed.
The stadium features short distances down the left- and right-field lines (310 and 315 feet, respectively), while the 402 feet to center field is in honor of the region's area code. The wall sways and curves unpredictably from foul pole to foul pole, however, creating what Keller described as an "undulating" effect.
"It's going to result in a real homefield advantage, that's for sure," he said.
Both behind and beyond the playing field are standalone buildings in various stages of completion, 10 in all. Keller said that enclosing these buildings is the project's main priority at the present moment, so that work may begin on internal fixtures. The buildings include administrative and ticketing offices, concessions, luxury suites, a two-tier bullpen and home and visiting clubhouses.
The clubhouses are unique in that they are located beyond the outfield wall, with players entering and exiting the playing field from a ramp adjacent to the left field bleachers.
The more things change...
The Sarpy County Ballpark won't be the only major change the Omaha Royals undergo in 2011, at least potentially. Throughout the final homestand at Rosenblatt, the club staged a "Name the Team" contest in which it asked fans to suggest a new moniker.
An update on the contest was released Wednesday, with the club reporting, "Names relating to the weather and to the military have been leading the way so far...[such as] Storm, Hail, Heat, Blizzard, Twisters, Bombers and Commanders. Some fans have just tweaked the name to vary slightly from Royals, suggesting Monarchs and Kings. Other fans, no doubt sad to see the demise of Rosenblatt Stadium following the 2010 season, have submitted the team name Blatts for consideration."
The team will hold a multi-round voting contest to determine the winner throughout September and October, with the winner announced in November.
But, even if the club no longer calls itself the Royals, it'll remain inextricably linked with its long-time parent. Omaha has been Kansas City's Triple-A affiliate ever since the latter joined the American League in 1969, and this relationship shows no sign of ending.
On Thursday afternoon, just hours before Rosenblatt's gates opened to the public for the final time, the team announced that it had renewed its affiliation with Kansas City through the 2014 campaign (extending what is now the second-longest affiliation in all of professional baseball, behind Double-A Reading of the Eastern League and the Philadelphia Phillies).
But, whereas fans used to watch Kansas City's future stars amidst sprawling, urban Rosenblatt, now they'll be able to do so among the cornfields of Sarpy County.
"First and foremost, we get to keep Triple-A baseball here in the metro area," said O-Royals GM Martie Cordaro during Thursday's finale at Rosenblatt. "The second thing is we're giving the area a Minor League Baseball-appropriate facility, and what that means is a basketball court, wiffle ball field, carousel, kid's area, berm and very intimate seating, close to the field. ... We're very excited for April 15, 2011."