Fans show mixed reactions to park move

By Max Olson

Mack Covell has clearly had a bit to drink, and he’s proudly carrying around a 42-ounce styrofoam gas station cup full of some sort of concoction.

It’s nearly 7 p.m. on the opening night of the College World Series, and the Shreveport, La., native is joking around with friends and being generally jovial while tailgating outside Rosenblatt Stadium.

“Let me tell you, this has been some of the best times of my life right here,” he said. “I’ve been here three years, and it’s the best time of my life.”

But when asked for his thoughts on the future of the CWS, Covell’s mood quickly changes.

“This is so special. They have everything down here and everyone has a good time,” Covell, 52, said. “I don’t know why they want to change it.”

Covell’s certainly not the only one. This is the last year the CWS will be played at the legendary 61-year-old stadium before it’s torn down. Next year, the tournament will move to the brand-new TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha.

And as much as many tailgating fans want to celebrate the memories and have one final great year, they can’t help but wonder why this has to be Rosenblatt’s last hurrah.

“If it works, don’t fix it,”  Covell said, shaking his head.

Covell’s LSU Tigers, last year’s national champions, didn’t make it to this month’s College World Series. But that didn’t matter – he and his 16-year-old son, Tyler, still made the 14-hour drive. They had to be here for Rosenblatt’s last year.

“We come here because LSU fans have a good time,” he said. “And you know what’s so great? Omaha people give us high fives and just have a great attitude all the time.”

Among the people Covell is partying with is his daughter’s boyfriend, 27-year-old Omaha resident Alan Sarka. While Covell is sad about leaving Rosenblatt, Sarka is just plain mad.

“What’s better than this? What’s better?” he asks. “Are we improving by moving downtown, or are we just satisfying the corporate sponsors? Are we really improving the fan experience?”

The way they see it, the only person who wanted TD Ameritrade Park was former Omaha mayor Mike Fahey. He’s the one who pushed for the $128 million stadium to be built near Qwest Center Omaha, they say.

In their eyes, Fahey just wanted to inflate his legacy. He cared about the money, not the fans.

That’s also how Papillion residents Mike Mallory and his daughter, Beth Garcia, perceive things.

“They didn’t ask us,” Garcia said. “I was thumbs-down from the very beginning. I like it as it is.”

The CWS season ticket holders have attended at least 10 tournament since 1991.The reason they keep going back is as much about the baseball games as it is the people they’ve met over the years.

“You become friends with people you only see once a year,” she said. “You come back every year and you see them again. It’s really neat, and I just don’t think it will be the same.”

The benefits of moving downtown have been clearly laid out by CWS and city officials: better ballpark, better parking and more upscale restaurants and hotels.

But those features aren’t really meant to appeal to the people drinking beers and playing lasso golf in Rosenblatt’s parking lots.

They don’t want five-star restaurants. They want the burgers on their mini grill and some Zesto ice cream.

Mallory has toured TD Ameritrade Park and admits it’s going to be a pristine baseball facility that will still aim for a fan-friendly experience.

“But a lot of this atmosphere is going to go away,” Mallory said. “I think they’re going to be catering more to a more corporate crowd. It’ll be more like an NCAA tournament event, like the Final Four.”

For TCU fan Mark Mourer, being in Omaha is a dream come true. His Horned Frogs had never made it to the College World Series prior to this season.

So when TCU upset traditional power Texas in its three-game super regional series earlier this month, Mourer knew he had to follow the squad to the tournament.

His wife surprised him with CWS tickets for his Father’s Day present, so Mourer gladly made the 12-hour drive from Fort Worth, Texas. He has no regrets so far.

“For me, on that bucket list of things all sports fans have to do, the College World Series is on there,” said Mourer, who serves as the director of development at TCU’s communications college. “I couldn’t be happier.”

Mourer drove by TD Ameritrade Park on his way into town. Seeing it, he said, reminded him of the new Cowboys Stadium and the New York Mets and Yankees ballparks that opened last spring.

They’re masterpieces, no doubt, but there’s also something that’s just too sterile about them.

“This right here is the essence of Omaha and of baseball,” Mourer said. “This is a really special event.”

The regulars say they’re still planning to attend next year’s CWS. They’ll give TD Ameritrade Park a chance. But they’ve talked to their fellow friends and fans, and a strong sentiment emerged this weekend.

“There are going to be a lot of people like me who are going to try it one year and see if they can make the adjustment,” Mallory said. “Some will and some won’t.”

Year one at the downtown park for CWS devotees, Sarka said, will be a make-or-break experiment in fan experience and atmosphere.

“Either it’s going to be Rosenblatt-esque, or it’s going to be corporate hell,” he said.

For now, though, the tailgaters will push those worries aside. They don’t want to spend the next two weeks dwelling on where they’ll be this time next year.

For now, they’re having too much fun, and they have to make this last.

“I’ll be back,” Covell said, “but the best memories and camaraderie will come from this year.”

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