29th of May | Story

The perfect storm


PAPILLION, Nebraska | Specific dates are seared into Martie Cordaro’s head and roll right off his tongue.

The president and general manager of the Omaha Storm Chasers has been a numbers guy since he collected baseball cards and organized neighborhood games as a boy in Louisiana. “Numbers are a big thing to me,” he says. “Dates are, too.”

Now, sitting inside the front office at Werner Park, one of the newer stadiums in minor league baseball, he recalls three days in three different months in three different years – all of them as if they happened yesterday. “This is a very important project for us,” he says. “All of those dates mean something because they were the step from Rosenblatt Stadium to our new facility here.”

Aug. 5, 2008

After nearly four decades in Omaha, the Omaha Storm Chasers, still known then as the Omaha Royals, declared themselves free agents for any city that would welcome them with a new ballpark. Their own city had plans to shut down historic Rosenblatt, the home to Omaha baseball since 1948, and build a state-of-the-art, 25,000-seat stadium downtown in efforts to continue hosting the NCAA College World Series. If the Storm Chasers moved to the new site, their role would be just as it was at Rosenblatt. They’d have no control over facility design, finances, even the facility itself. And with an average of fewer than 5,000 fans per game, they were tired of trying to provide a minor league experience in a stadium that felt cavernous and empty, and was nearly twice the size of any other in the Pacific Coast League.

“A lot of history was there, but it wasn’t right for minor league baseball.” Martie Cordaro, Omaha Storm Chasers

“A lot of history was there,” Cordaro says, “but it wasn’t right for minor league baseball.”

Just two years prior, under new management and ownership, the team had subscribed to the growing philosophy of minor league baseball more as a fun and entertaining atmosphere than just a place for a ballgame. They had built momentum and their fan base. Now they needed a stadium to continue the growth.

March 17, 2009

After a long search process and long discussions, the team signed an agreement with Sarpy County, which only moved them 19.5 miles southwest of Rosenblatt and kept them in the Omaha metro area. Five months later – Aug. 12, 2009 – the digging started south of I-80 in a young suburban area full of families, the fastest growing county in the state.

“We went to a more minor league-centric fan experience,” says Rob Crain, the Storm Chasers assistant general manger. “If we didn’t start turning it around at Rosenblatt, the community may not have been behind the new ballpark.”

Werner Park went up in the tradition of other Midwest parks, with a low profile and a steel frame. It has a modern design with a walkway 360 degrees around, berms, open concourses and a towering scoreboard that draws attention to leftfield. Paying homage to Omaha’s baseball roots, the first base concourse is named Rosenblatt Way, with banners and photos of decades past. The Wiffle Ball diamond behind centerfield is even a replica of their old stadium. Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson, an Omaha native, is honored along the third baseline.

Instead of trying to fill a stadium for nearly 25,000 people, the Storm Chasers now had a capacity of 9,023.

“Everything was a complete 180,” Crain says. “I’ve been here six years and the first three or four, we were not very good. Every dynamic has flipped and it’s been a lot of fun to be a part of.”

April 15, 2011

Four months to the day after the Storm Chasers front office staff moved out of Rosenblatt, they were supposed to open the gates for the first game at Werner Park.

“I’ve been here six years and the first three or four, we were not very good. Every dynamic has flipped and it’s been a lot of fun to be a part of.” Rob Crain, Omaha Storm Chasers

Cordaro, Crain and the rest of their staff had been working more than 12 hours every day. Now running their own ballpark, the full-time staff nearly doubled and they hired nearly 500 part-timers. Every detail had to be considered, down to how season ticket holders’ seats translated to the different section and row configurations of the new stadium.

They dropped the name of their Major League affiliate and, following the wave of new minor league name changes, opted for something that grabbed attention. “Very few teams hold the name of their affiliate,” Crain says. “Once the ballpark got done, that started some momentum building, and then you’re able to change the team name. We were always in the news, even in the off-season.”

Momentum built toward opening day, when even the Weather Channel was on hand to broadcast from Werner Park. Unfortunately, the perfect storm of planning and building a new stadium was matched with a literal storm that canceled the game before the gates opened.

Opening day was moved to April 16 and a new chapter in the franchise began.

“One of the highlights of my career was to close Rosenblatt down, and we did that,” Cordaro says. “Dug up home plate, sent it to Cooperstown, where it belongs.”

The first year in a new stadium with a new name undoubtedly provides a team with a surge in attendance and revenue. In 2011, overall attendance jumped by about 4,000. So far, 2012 is expected to be an even better year and the team is tracking to top this year in 2013.

“Let’s face it, if this team left, there’s no true professional sports team in the state of Nebraska,” Cordaro says. “Among the other cities, we wanted to make sure that we put all efforts to stay here. That’s one of the other reasons why the dates are so important.”

Carolyn@AMinorLeagueSeason.com  @CarolynLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

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