A fond farewell to Rosenblatt

OMAHA, Neb. -- The Queen of Rosenblatt Stadium arrived at precisely 6:01 p.m. local time Tuesday, blanket under her arm, ready for the second game of the College World Series championship series.

Thirty-nine minutes before the first pitch, Ann Walters, she of the age of "don't even ask me that," emerged from the cramped concrete tunnel behind home plate and began her descent to Section J, Row 3, Seat 14.

The first time Walters made this walk, she was a young woman, accompanying her father. That was June 15, 1951, the opening weekend of just the second College World Series played at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium -- back when it was simply Municipal Stadium. In 1951, Johnny Rosenblatt was a ballplayer-turned-dairy salesman-turned-city councilman and was still three years away from becoming Omaha's mayor and more than a decade from having his name over the ballpark gate.

From that day until the end of the 2009 Series, a total of 59 years, there were 621 CWS games played at Rosenblatt. Walters missed 10 of them. She hadn't missed a single one before 1999, when she had to skip the opening weekend to attend her daughter's wedding. The only reason she missed the first series in 1950 was because she was pregnant with the same daughter, the one that now guided her mother to their seats, Miss Ann easing gingerly down the slick metal stairs on two still-new knees.

As people realized that the queen had arrived, they offered their assistance, including a couple of ushers, a policeman and me.

"I haven't made it to many games this year," the retired schoolteacher admitted as she tapped her knees. Then she smiled and winked. "But I wasn't missing this one. Not the last one."

For some inexplicable reason, that's how the whole day had felt throughout Omaha. Sure, UCLA might win to force a third game. The Bruins were, in fact, favored by most. But if one took the time to take a walk around the ballpark, to take a stroll up 13th Street or even just flip on the local sports talk radio stations, there seemed to be a prevailing funny feeling that Tuesday, June 29, 2010 was going to be the last College World Series game played at Rosenblatt Stadium.

"There are a lot of local people here tonight rooting for South Carolina," Walters said as she took my hands and welcomed me back to her section. It had been a year since we'd last talked, but it was like we hadn't missed a day. "But I think a lot of those people would like for them to wait and do it tomorrow night."

Lambert Bartak was not one of those people.

The 91-year old stadium organist had arrived an hour earlier than Walters, bounding off the elevator but leaning on a walking cane as he nursed shoulder and back injuries suffered over the winter. Everywhere he went in the press box people shouted to him, "Emotional night, eh, Lambert?"

"Nope," he replied matter-of-factly. "It's just another ballgame."

As he flicked the buttons and twisted the knobs that whirred his 1935 Hammond Organ to life, he did so under the watchful eye of his wife, Geraldine. They'd met when she was the receptionist at Omaha's WOW radio. He was the station's accordion player for hire, fresh home from World War II.

"That was 64 years ago," Geraldine said as she watched her husband effortlessly glide through song after song, ignoring the stacks of sheet music around him. "We've been coming to this stadium ever since. And that's why we decided to let this be Bart's last College World Series. He wanted last year to be his last, but they really wanted him to come back. They want him to come to the new stadium next year too, but saying goodbye now just feels right."

As she talked, the love of her life kicked off his shoes and threw one leg over the front corner of the organ, his fingers dancing over the weathered yellow keys, wrapping up the tune at just the right moment for a video promo to hit the big video screen in left field.

Geraldine smiled and clapped her hands.

"That was a nice song, Bart," she said. "What was that?"

"Oh, I don't know, babe," he answered. "I just made that one up."

As the sounds of the Hammond echoed off the big blue rafters of the Rosenblatt grandstand, the seats around and behind Walters began to fill up. Game time was just 30 minutes away.

Watching it from the field, standing on the warning track between the infield and the stands, was Dennis Poppe, the NCAA's managing director for football and baseball. For three decades, Poppe has overseen the College World Series. It was Poppe who directed the event through its explosive period of growth in the 1990s, and it was Poppe who broke the news to Omaha officials that their seemingly endless renovations of Rosenblatt were no longer enough. They would have to build a new ballpark in order to keep the Series.

The debate that ensued cut the city in half. It led to shouting matches at town hall meetings, an unsuccessful attempt to undermine the new ballpark proposal through grassroots marketing and an ad campaign narrated by Kevin Costner, and the political destruction of Mayor Mike Fahey, who agreed to build the park in exchange for a 25-year contract extension.

What the public didn't see were all of the sleepless nights Poppe endured as he wrestled with the decision. What they didn't know was that his children, all now adults, had grown up at Rosenblatt, spending every June in Omaha while their father worked.

He first worked alongside local businessman Jack Diesing Sr., the man who had reorganized and saved the College World Series from being taken away from Omaha more than four decades ago. Then he worked with Jack Diesing Jr., who became one of his best friends. They have raised their families together and, yes, argued plenty over the future of Rosenblatt.

At the start of this year's Series, immediately following the June 18 opening ceremonies, Poppe's youngest son, Ryan, who spent his childhood working every CWS grunt job there was to work, led his girlfriend out to left field, took a knee in the grass and proposed. Among the first to congratulate him were the Diesings.

As he told me the story, Poppe, never an outwardly emotional person, was downright melancholy.

"The new facility is really going to be spectacular," he said, pointing to where the nearly $130 million TD Ameritrade Park is being built just a few miles north on 13th Street, the main thoroughfare that lines Rosenblatt. "And we need it. This old girl has taken us as far as she can take us. But there is no one who will feel stranger about walking in there next June than I will. The Series and Omaha and this stadium are part of the rhythm of my life."

Then he turned and placed his hand on my shoulder.

"And it's part of the rhythm of your life," he said. "And everyone here in this ballpark and in this city."

Ten minutes to game time.

As the national anthem was sung by the Sarpy Serenaders (it's always performed by local artists), the crowd stood at attention in a sea of color, the fans all adorned in some sort of CWS souvenir apparel. Nostalgia reigned as the two schools in this year's championship series had to take a backseat to what amounted to a living, breathing College World Series museum.

Walters wore a T-shirt from the 1996 Series. Two rows back, a man donned a Creighton University baseball jersey and a hat from the 1991 CWS, when the hometown Bluejays' near-title run turned a football town into a baseball town.

Players from previous editions of the Series could be spotted throughout the crowd, seated in sections like family reunions, including a few holdovers from the previous night's honorees, the 1950 inaugural Rosenblatt CWS champion Texas Longhorns.

One woman sported a tattered Citadel shirt from 1990, her friends in the ever-present colors of usual (though not this year) Rosenblatt residents LSU, Texas and Miami.

Asked where she scored the shirt, she pointed through the main gate and across 13th Street.

"I got it at Stadium View Sports Cards. You know, the guy that gives out the free beer."

That would Greg Pivovar, owner of said establishment, who jokingly acted as if he was none too happy to receive a visit from me -- aka "the dude that wrote the story on ESPN.com last week that's cost me about $1,500 in beer".

Standing on the curb outside his shop, wearing his ever-present Hawaiian print shirt, handlebar goatee and a grin to match, the man they call Piv has long reveled in his unofficial title as Mayor of 13th Street.

As fans filed by on the sidewalk headed to Starsky's Bar and Grill, Zesto and all points in between, Jerry Bergman churned by on his bicycle, frantically trying to redirect traffic over to his house on 14th Street. His homemade T-shirt read "$10 PARK FOLLOW ME" on the back and "JERRY'S SAFE PARK 21 YEARS STRONG" on the front.

"People in this neighborhood, we've put our kids through college parking cars," he said, stopping his bike to wipe his brow and shout to a car crawling by. "The people that have been parking in my yard for the last 21 years are my friends. Next year I guess I'll have to go downtown to see them."

Piv, who also managed to squeeze in some parkers behind the store, handed markers to passers-by and asked them to inscribe their farewells onto the white board on the outside wall of the century-old house. There were hundreds of signatures, covering the building from foundation to roof. Some fans climbed a ladder to find signing space. Pivovar has long made it known that, like Bartak, he likely won't be moving Stadium View downtown with the Series. (But he clearly hasn't completely ruled it out, selling T-shirts that say, "To Hell With Rosenblatt, Save Stadium View.")

"Read what I wrote here on the wall," he said as he placed his hand on his daughter's shoulder and pointed to the corner of the building that faced the street. It read, "To all who have touched my life and the lives of my family for the last 19 years I say: 1. Thank you. 2. You'll need to bend your own damn hats [which he always did to any youngster who came in wearing a flat bill] …"

Before I could read the third item, he did it for me.

"Wanna beer?"

Yes. Yes, I do.

Once the game finally began, everyone settled into their natural Rosenblatt rhythm. The action unfolded into nearly the perfect tribute, an accidental all-encompassing look back at the greatest moments and themes of Series' past.

There was classic West Coast small ball, with bunts, steals and manufactured movement, a nod to the great Southern California teams of the 1970s. There was solid defense up the middle, echoing former Rosenblatt infield greats from Bob Horner to Nomar Garciaparra. The starting pitchers were strong and the bullpens followed suit. Writers in the press box began to talk of Ben McDonald and Huston Street. UCLA even attempted a hidden ball trick, a nod to Miami's legendary 1982 Grand Illusion.

The only CWS era not imitated Tuesday night was the metal bat-crazy, Gorilla Ball football score ugliness of the 1990s. In fact, there wasn't a home run at all in the championship series, though one of the loudest ovations of the night went up for a video replay of Warren Morris' 1996 walk-off, title-winning smash for LSU.

In the eighth inning, with the game tied 1-1, the crowd of 24,390 suddenly began to sense the end was coming. Camera flashes popped with every pitch. Beach balls appeared by the dozens in the outfield bleachers. And not a single person left early. Not the little kids. Not their parents. And not Ann Walters.

As Scott Wingo crossed home plate to deliver the title to South Carolina, the Rosenblatt Roar greeted him just as it had Morris in 1996, Brad Cresse in 2003 and every other College World Series player who ran down the third-base line to score a game-winning run.

In the hubbub that followed -- setting up the trophy table, roping off the infield and pulling up the bases took roughly 45 seconds -- the crowd that had so eagerly come to its feet suddenly caught itself and fell eerily quiet.

After the decade-long stadium battle, the political rhetoric, surrender, acceptance and two years of counting down, the final run in the final game of the final Series had been scored. It was over.

As the crowd stood frozen, Walters made her exit, her knees forcing her to bend nearly completely over and grab the seats on either side to work her way back up the stairs. A teenage boy and his father were stuck on the stairs behind her and the kid huffed impatiently. His dad looked at him and said, "You know who that is? That's Miss Walters. No one leaves this ballpark until she does."

The Queen of Rosenblatt was helped into her wheelchair by an usher and disappeared back up the main concourse tunnel at 11:01 p.m., exactly five hours after she had arrived.

"Well," the usher said to me as we watched her wheel away, "I guess that's it."

It was and it wasn't.

There was the trophy presentation and a video presentation of great moments in College World Series history, from 1950 to that very night. There were fireworks and hugs and tears on the field, wrapped in "U-S-C" chants from the stands.

In the middle of it all, local trumpeter and music minister Brian Corey took his place behind home and began to play an almost taps-style version of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame." Two months earlier, he had done the same at Jack Diesing Sr.'s funeral. It had been personally requested by Jack Jr. And, of course, Poppe had flown in from Indianapolis to attend.

I watched Poppe and Diesing as they met at home plate and shook hands. Then they turned to do the same to their staffs, many of whom were stealthily filling their pockets with dirt they'd scooped up from the Rosenblatt infield when the lights were dimmed for the closing ceremony.

Outside the ballpark gates, fans were lined up to have their pictures taken with "The Road to Omaha" statue out front. Those inside the park seemed to be randomly snapping shots of nothing, standing in the aisles and flashing away.

I stopped one couple and asked what they were doing.

"We've had these seats for 30 years," the wife told me as she wiped tears from her eyes, explaining they were Chicago. "We wanted to take a picture of them because we'll never see them again."

At 12:30 a.m., the Rosenblatt Stadium scoreboard, which had been adorned with the final score, "South Carolina 2, UCLA 1," and the thick red words "NATIONAL CHAMPIONS," went to black.

Jesse Cuevas, the longtime groundskeeper who grew up just two blocks south of the stadium and has worked on its field since he was 8 years old, addressed his last Rosenblatt Stadium crew. Some would be back at work with him that weekend for the ballpark's regular tenant, the Omaha Royals, but most would go back to their regular jobs.

Like Bartak and Stadium View, Cuevas will not be moving on to the downtown ballpark. And no, he doesn't want to talk about it.

At 3 a.m., four hours after the Gamecocks' winning run, 13th Street was sparsely populated. The souvenir tents were shuttered and Zesto was locked up for the night. Cleaning crews watered down the grandstands and power washed the courtyard of bricks around "The Road To Omaha," which had kept its photo line going until well after 1 a.m.

The only lights to be found were at Stadium View Sports Cards, where Piv and a select group of family and friends sipped one last free beer, recounted the day and counted cash. He hugged me. Then he hugged me again. When he was told that ESPN had closed its final Rosenblatt broadcast with a shot of him and Stadium View, he began to cry.

"Alright," he said, adding one more hug. "I think we have to go home now."

With a click, the red, white and blue neon "Open" sign went dark and 13th Street was officially shut down. As we said our goodbyes and walked to our cars, one last couple -- one inebriated couple -- continued to slow dance on the sidewalk outside of Piv's place, in the shadow of the wall that had been signed by those who came to pay their last respects to Rosenblatt.

"Don't look at us like we're crazy!" the man yelled to me. "As long as we keep dancing, it's not over."

Ryan McGee is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Road To Omaha: Hits, Hopes, and History at the College World Series," which chronicles the excitement and passion of the CWS, is now available in paperback.