It has been nearly 90 days since Omaha had its guts ripped out.
It happened at 3:07 p.m. CT on Thursday, March 12. That’s when the email and tweet went out from NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.
It read: “Today, NCAA President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors canceled the Division I men’s and women’s 2020 basketball tournaments, as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships. This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat …”
While the world was screaming over the shuttering of postseason basketball less than a week before March Madness was supposed to have tipped off, the citizens of Omaha, Nebraska, home to the College World Series, were focused on the last section of the announcement’s first sentence and the longer-range impact many had missed: “… as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships.“
“I think we all had that moment where we all said, ‘No NCAA basketball tournament! That’s impossible!'” said Kathryn Morrissey, executive director of CWS of Omaha Inc., the local organizing committee of the NCAA Division I Men’s Baseball Championship. “And then we all had a second moment that was even worse. ‘All remaining spring NCAA championships?!’ Wait … was the College World Series just canceled too?”
Morrissey is on the phone from a way-too-quiet corner of downtown Omaha, in her office adjacent to a way-too-empty TD Ameritrade Park. She should be in the throes of preparation, happily sleepless as her staff of four is perpetually on the phone, readying for the arrival of eight college baseball teams and the first of more than 300,000 fans, there for nearly two solid weeks of baseball.
Instead, Morrissey has spent her time since March 12 on those same phones with season-ticket holders and corporate partners, people who either want their money back or are expressing their frustration that the natural rhythm of their lives has been wrecked. The College World Series, which would have started Saturday, was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Omaha has hosted the College World Series every year since 1950. During that time, families have handed down their CWS season tickets as heirlooms, grandparents sitting with grandchildren in the grandstand until one day making the grand gesture of transferring ownership of those tickets through last will and testament.
New Year’s … Valentine’s Day … spring break … Memorial Day … College World Series. Now they call their old friends at CWS of Omaha Inc. asking how the NCAA could have canceled this so long ago and what in the world they are supposed to do now with the entire second half of June.
Morrissey handles them all with grace and understanding. The understanding comes easy for her. She knows how they feel because she is one of them. She sits beneath a framed yellowing pennant that reads: “One Millionth College World Series Fan.” It was given to her grandfather as he passed through the turnstiles of the old Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in 1972, there to watch USC and Fred Lynn defeat Arizona State and Bump Wills. She has her grandfather’s pennant because she had gone to so many CWS games with him and loved the event so much. That love extended into her adulthood, joining the CWS of Omaha board in the late 1980s and ascending to executive director.
“I grew up just across the [Missouri] river, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. You could see the lights from Rosenblatt Stadium glowing off the hill at night,” she says of the ballpark that hosted the College World Series from 1950 to 2010.
“That’s why in my wildest dreams I never thought we would be where we are today. If history has taught us anything, it’s that for 70-plus years this event is going to happen, come whatever. We have had heat waves, tornadoes, cold snaps. We had a hundred-year flood just recently. It’s always there. Every June. It has been my entire life, like a member of the family. That’s how it is for everyone here. So, yes, there is a lot of emotion attached to this for so many.”
There is also a lot of money. When Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert held her post-cancellation news conference in March, she pegged the economic loss at $70 million. On opening day of the 2019 College World Series, the 15,000 hotel rooms in Omaha were at 95% capacity. TD Ameritrade Park and the surrounding Omaha Baseball Village, a pop-up city of baseball-themed shops, bars and fan fun zones, each employs hundreds of part-time workers for nearly a month, beginning with the Big Ten baseball tournament and rolling into the CWS. This year was bringing the added bridge event of the 2020 MLB draft, scheduled for June 10-11 in Omaha’s Holland Center, a few blocks south of TD Ameritrade. But that too was taken away by the coronavirus pandemic and made into a virtual event.
The U.S. Olympic swimming trials were scheduled to begin June 21 at the CHI Health Center, the arena that shares the parking lots with TD Ameritrade, the fourth time those trials crossed over with the CWS. Now they have been rescheduled for 2021. That same building was also to have hosted first- and second-round NCAA men’s basketball tournament games in March.
“All of those cancellations came so fast, all over the top of one another, that it was just overwhelming for the entire city of Omaha, and it came right in the middle of what we were all having to come to grips with in adjusting our personal lives too,” says ESPN baseball analyst Kyle Peterson.
Peterson is an Omaha native. He grew up attending games at Rosenblatt Stadium with his family and came back home to play in two College World Series as a Stanford pitcher. While he was fielding fly balls prior the Cardinal’s opening game of the ’97 CWS, he found out he’d been drafted 13th overall by the Milwaukee Brewers. He ran in from the outfield to celebrate with his family in the stands.
Now, in addition to calling the CWS for ESPN, he serves on the board of CWS of Omaha.
Having had so much time to prepare for it, “I think that maybe you won’t see a lot of emotional anguish among Omaha residents this weekend when the Series would have started,” Peterson says. “We’ve had three months to get that out of our systems, so the shock of that wore off a long time ago. Now it will just be sadness. I think what you’ll feel if you are around town is just a sense of people being lost. Their equilibrium will be off. A big piece will be missing from our lives for a couple of weeks.”
Paul Mainieri, LSU’s head baseball coach, has led the Tigers to Omaha five times, winning the 2009 championship. He also coached Notre Dame to its second CWS berth in 2002. The best way he knows how to describe it?
“The family reunion has been canceled,” he says.
“That’s really what going to Omaha means. It’s your annual chance to see family that you don’t otherwise get to see, people you’ve gotten to know as friends if you’re fortunate enough to have been there multiple times. It’s about having the same bus driver that you had the last time you were there. Or having the same civic club host assigned to your team that you had the last time you were there. Or seeing the stadium grounds crew. Or working out at the local high school and having the people who live in the neighborhood show up with drinks for the guys, because that’s what they always do. That’s what separates this event from the others. Seeing your Omaha family.”
Family like Dennis Pate, who took over as executive director of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo in 2009, when the College World Series was literally across the street at Rosenblatt Stadium. That big glass sphere you could see in the background during every Series before 2011? That’s the zoo’s Desert Dome. Now what’s left of Rosenblatt — the foul poles, home plate, some of the old colorful grandstand seats — is engulfed by zoo parking lots. Pate, who once had to convince a group of LSU fans that, no, they couldn’t borrow a real tiger to take over to Rosenblatt, now likes to stroll over to the remnants of the old ballpark each June to talk with fans attending games at what he still calls “the new stadium,” TD Ameritrade. The zoo just reopened on June 1.
Omaha Zoo’s projected $26M in losses includes revenue from one of its big summer events: the College World Series
And then there’s Jack Diesing Jr., chairman, president and treasurer of CWS of Omaha. As so many Omahans do, Diesing made his living in the insurance business. His father held the CWS job too, when the department store manager was handed the reins of the mayor’s College World Series committee, a group founded by Johnny Rosenblatt himself. That was in 1964, the same year the ballpark was renamed for Rosenblatt.
Jack Sr. groomed his son to take his place as they sat together in Rosenblatt box seats that they gladly paid for. Jack Jr. did indeed take the job, and he also took the wrath of the public in 2008, when, his hand forced by the NCAA, he had to tell Omaha that the old ballpark was no longer good enough. Last year, Jack Jr. sat in his seats at TD Ameritrade, arms around a grandchild, and said with a smile, “This job can be so, so difficult. But this right here, the games with my family, makes it all worth it.”
There’s also Ken Kanger, deputy chief of the Omaha Police Department. Each year, along with a bus driver and civic liaison, one member of the police department is assigned to each of the eight teams as its security detail. In 2014, Kanger’s assignment was Virginia. Every June, the people of Omaha choose one team as their own, and in ’14 their choice was the Cavaliers, due in no small part to the fact that UVa’s head coach is Brian O’Connor, an Omaha native and hero pitcher of hometown Creighton University, which he led to the 1991 College World Series.
That 2014 team suffered heartbreak, losing to Vanderbilt in Game 3 of the championship series. But the Cavaliers made that run with Kanger sitting in the dugout each night, so they designated the head of Omaha PD’s gang unit as their lucky charm.
One year later, a month before the 2015 CWS, Kanger lost a member of that unit, Officer Kerrie Orozco, when she was shot and killed in the line of duty only one day before she was scheduled to start maternity leave. Her daughter was finally coming home after being born prematurely. Orozco was buried in a cemetery managed by O’Connor’s father. When the Cavaliers made it back to Omaha for the Series, they presented Kanger with a bat signed by the team and engraved with Orozco’s name. They also hung a T-shirt honoring Orozco in their dugout through the Series. But Kanger wasn’t there. He’d left for Florida on a previously planned vacation. But when Virginia made it back to the finals, he cut that vacation short and jetted back to Omaha to be on the bench as the Cavaliers won their first College World Series title.
Last week, as protests for racial equality swept the nation, Omaha was among the cities whose streets were filled with marchers and law enforcement officers assigned to monitor those marchers. Amid the periods of conflict and violence, multiple videos and photos from Omaha went viral for an entirely different reason. There was one very tall Omaha police officer calmly talking with protesters, leading those who wanted to leave peacefully from the area. He knelt with them to show solidarity, as tensions had been raised after a protester was shot and killed by a bar owner.
College baseball fans, especially those in Charlottesville, Virginia, may have recognized the police officer. It was Ken Kanger.
Kanger won’t be on a dugout bench this year. No teams will be taking batting practice at Boys Town, or touring the B-52s at Offutt Air Force Base, or dining on whiskey filets at The Drover. The eight flags of the CWS participants won’t be flown over the Baseball Village, raised and lowered after wins and losses on the eight towering flagpoles that were moved north to TD Ameritrade after Rosenblatt was razed. The grounds crew won’t be going to battle with rogue beach balls from the general admission seats. The soft serve machine at Zesto’s will be silent.
There will be a hole in the heart of the heartland this June. The College World Series will be back in 2021 to make Omaha feel whole again, to get life back to normal again. But that won’t make the next two weeks go by any easier.
“Everyone is just so disappointed,” Morrissey says. “And we should be. But we also have to support our NCAA friends on this one. You can’t fault them for making the decision that they believe was best for the student-athletes and the fans. This was the right thing to do. But it is still so disappointing.”
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