It’s the Omaha Storm Chasers’ home opener and the first professional baseball game at Werner, with the first pitch coming a few hours after the final whistle at Memorial Stadium. The PA system cranks out classic rock as those of the 6,500 fans in attendance more interested in playing a game than watching one check out the on-site children’s carousel, basketball court and Wiffle Ball field. Officially, it’s a sellout, but there is room for a few more on the grassy berm beyond the outfield wall, considerably more comfortable than bleachers and perfect for picnicking.
It is a far cry from Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, which is precisely the point. Rosenblatt was the right size for the College World Series, but Werner affords an intimacy designed to keep folks coming back, even if they’re not serious baseball fans. For college games, Rosenblatt has been replaced by TD Ameritrade Park, a downtown facility that can hold nearly three times as many fans as Werner and serves as the home field for the Creighton University Bluejays. The new stadium was the catalyst for a new deal with the NCAA, which has agreed to keep the College World Series in Omaha for the next 25 years.
Like the afternoon football contest, tonight’s game at Werner Park is close, ending in a 2–1 Storm Chasers victory over the Nashville Sounds, with the obligatory couples-breaking-balloons-without-using-their-hands contest and a race between giant packets of taco sauce between innings. Former Kansas City Royal George Brett threw out the first pitch, and Bob Gibson, St. Louis Cardinals legend and an Omaha native who returned to his hometown after retirement, caught it.
“I’m not surprised he came back here,” says Llyle Sinnett, a retired Union Pacific depot operator and former construction-company owner who got a job at Werner checking tickets outside luxury boxes simply because he loves baseball.
Like Gibson, Sinnett is an Omaha lifer; the golfing is good here, and there’s plenty of baseball. He’s a regular at the College World Series where, he says, kids who play for nothing often outwork the pros. But while Werner Park is nice, opening night wasn’t quite what Sinnett was expecting.
“I was disappointed,” he says. “I only saw four people I know.”
It’s but one minor growing pain of a thriving town.