Wednesday, June 19

College World Series finale at Rosenblatt Stadium heralds the end of a baseball dream

Redshirt sophomore pitcher Brandon Lodge lifts his hat in celebration after the Bruins' 10-3 win over TCU Saturday.

Redshirt sophomore pitcher Brandon Lodge lifts his hat in celebration after the Bruins' 10-3 win over TCU Saturday. Kimberly Lajcik

OMAHA, Neb. “”mdash; “They’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes.”

Sure, “Field of Dreams” ““ the appropriately named 1989 film in which James Earl Jones’ character, Terrence Mann, utters the above words ““ took place in Iowa, but its application to the College World Series, held in Omaha, Neb., is apt. After all, nothing but a zoo and a river separates Rosenblatt Stadium from the Hawkeye State.

Baseball just feels right here in the Midwest, and nowhere more so than at the venue named for former Omaha mayor Johnny Rosenblatt. Shoeless Joe Jackson and Co. may not have emerged like Gandalf from the afterlife to play at Rosenblatt like they did in the ’89 movie, but Rosenblatt has been the site of dreams ““ and of nightmares ““ in its 61 glorious years of hosting the College World Series.

The three-game series between UCLA and South Carolina that begins today will be the beginning of the end for the stadium. 2010 is the last year that Rosenblatt will serve as the tournament’s host.

“They’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.”

The heartland that is the Midwest is often referred to as the crossroads of America, so perhaps it’s only natural that there’s a sense of anything-can-happen, things-can-go-any-direction around Rosenblatt.

“This place is an adventure of its own,” TCU pitcher Matt Purke said after he led his team to a win over UCLA on Friday. “You never know what’s going to happen here.”

A combination of draconian heat, tricky winds, crowds of 20,000-plus and the grandeur of the stage make for an unparalleled baseball experience. Not that the future site of the event ““ the sickeningly corporate TD Ameritrade Park ““ won’t feature those things, but at Rosenblatt it just feels proper. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the name itself evokes an image of spring. Indeed, for 61 memorable fortnights, the stadium has flourished. It blossoms into something brilliant. It becomes a Rose-in-bloom.

“The one constant through all the years … has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”

It certainly does in Omaha, where the entire city pulses with action when baseball descends upon it. At its epicenter is Rosenblatt, atop a grassy knoll, its blue girders still appearing as strong as ever and giving little evidence that they have held fast for six decades.

Recently passed coaching legend John Wooden would probably agree with Terrence Mann’s assessment of the game; it has long been said that Wooden’s favorite sport was baseball, which makes sense considering he was born in Indiana. If this is the heartland, the red stitches on a baseball are the primary arteries.

Little has changed in America’s game since Wooden was born in 1910; the two most significant alterations have been the creation of the designated hitter and the banning of beer sales at ballparks after the seventh inning (and I would argue that the latter was probably a reaction to the former).

In “Field of Dreams,” the man who builds a mystical ballpark in his Iowa cornfield does so at the behest of a heavenly voice, and a supernatural journey promptly commences.

So maybe ““ just maybe ““ this series serves as one of those magical moments unique to baseball. Since Wooden’s passing, the UCLA softball team won their sport’s championship, held in Oklahoma, and now their male counterparts are on the cusp of a title of their own. Is the Wizard still working his magic from above? Only in baseball, and maybe, only here in the Midwest.

Rosenblatt Stadium is perfect in that it is both a salute to baseball’s enduring past, and a launching pad for its future stars. Crossroads of America, definitely.

“This field, this game, it’s a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again. People will come … People will most definitely come.”

For 61 years, people have come. This year, they came from California and Arizona and Texas, from Oklahoma and Florida and South Carolina. They come to Rosenblatt and they spend two weeks filling their bellies with steak and their minds with baseball. If they had a day or two to spare, they could drive east and soon find themselves at the eponymous Field of Dreams, where legends live on and magic is reality.

But why take the drive when there’s something just as good right here at Rosenblatt? Sixty-one years of dreams later, it will be bittersweet to awaken.

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