Back when the Skip Bertman era began at LSU, the Tigers still played the occasional day game.
It was a quaint idea, a fun reason to ditch that afternoon class across campus or cut out of work early when a gorgeous spring day made it impossible to tolerate staying inside.
As the program began to take off, though, day games at Alex Box Stadium became a relic of the past, something few, if any, remember anymore. Not many folks took advantage of those daytime starts — like many LSU games back in the early ’80s they usually drew an intimate gathering of a few hundred diehards. Soon night games were a necessity to accommodate the thousands of fans who were drawn by the success of Tigers baseball.
College baseball has been on a parallel upward arc of popularity over the past 25 years or so as well. The NCAA tournament has expanded from 48 to 64 teams, now includes both regionals and super regionals, and every single game is televised on one or more ESPN platforms. The college game now has a sparkling new palace to call home, TD Ameritrade Park Omaha, the beacon that draws every team beginning in February.
But progress is rarely all positive. Even when much is gained, something is invariably lost.
Consider ESPN showing every NCAA tournament game this year. “Every game” meant some contests, like every one from the Baton Rouge regional, were on ESPN3 or WatchESPN. For LSU baseball fans that was a step backward from the days when an entity like Ronny Rantz’s Jumbo Sports Network bought the rights to televise the regional to LSU fans who couldn’t squeeze in to Alex Box.
As for the College World Series’ new home, there is no question the ballpark is an upgrade over old Rosenblatt Stadium, a collection of jigsaw pieces the NCAA and the city of Omaha assembled into a 24,000-seat ballpark over the years.
TDAPO is clean, has a broad, sweeping main concourse that allows you to keep up with the lack of offense on the field from any concession or souvenir stand, much improved locker room facilities, indoor batting tunnels and state-of-the-art media facilities.
What it doesn’t have is charm, something the College World Series has lost in the quest to be bigger and better.
Rosenblatt wasn’t the best ballpark in America. It had claustrophobic, dark concourses, few of the all-important club seats and cramped clubhouses for the participating teams. It was the kind of place where you had to go outside to change your mind.
But what it lacked in modern amenities it made up for with buckets of homey ambiance. It fit into the slightly gritty South Omaha neighborhood that grew up around it like a ball in a well broken in baseball glove. The ballpark was like a beloved weekend retreat on False River — not the place where you would want to entertain heads of state, but where you wanted to visit over and over again.
TD Ameritrade Park shiny and new and is surrounded by shiny new restaurants, watering holes and eateries. As an example of urban renewal, it’s top notch. Who knew Omaha could look so slick and refined?
But the new ballpark has the feel of something valuable behind glass that is to be admired but not touched, and certainly not a place where you would feel comfortable putting your feet up on the furniture. It’s a place you would like to visit, but sort of like going to the White House. You’re afraid if you sit on a chair the Secret Service is going to come repelling out of the rafters and hoist you away.
Another thing TD Ameritrade Park probably has over Rosenblatt: big walk-in freezers. In that respect, the new CWS ballpark is in keeping with the warm and fuzzy feeling that everyone gets from the NCAA.
At least TDAPO accomplishes one very important thing: it kept the College World Series in Omaha with an unprecedented 25-year contract. If a new home that leaves everyone with a bit of a chill is the Faustian bargain necessary to guarantee that the city which nurtured the CWS – which loved it before rest of the country figured out it was cool — then it’s worth the loss of rough-hewn folksiness that was Rosenblatt. But just barely.
Here’s a suggestion: bring in the TDAPO outfield fences 10 feet and allow parents to take their kids down into the space between the outfield wall and the bleachers to watch through some old-fashioned knotholes.
And while you’re out there, kick a little dirt on the place.