Rosenblatt demolition begins

OMAHA, Neb. -- The backhoe rolled up to the west end of Rosenblatt Stadium's entrance and pushed into a pillar.

The venerable stadium stood fast at first. It took a couple blows to get the first bricks to budge. Then a red steel beam atop the column came down, shaking the ground.

So began the bit-by-bit demolition of the former home of the College World Series.

Russ Mapes was among some 50 people who showed up Wednesday to pay their respects to the 62-year-old stadium that has stood mostly idle since 2010. The retired police officer, who watched his first game at the stadium in the early 1960s, took a few pictures and left before the backhoe showed up. He said he couldn't bear to watch.

"A lot of good memories. A lot of good times," he said.

Rosenblatt opened in 1948 and hosted the CWS every year from 1950-2010. Dave Winfield, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are among the greats that came through.

While Rosenblatt was known nationally for deciding the Division I baseball championship each June, the venue also was used for minor-league baseball, football games and concerts. The city spent $35 million on renovations in the 1990s, and the stadium gradually expanded from its original 10,000 seats to more than 23,000.

Known locally as "the diamond on the hill," Rosenblatt's days became numbered in 2008 when Omaha promised the NCAA a new stadium in exchange for a 25-year agreement to keep the CWS here.

TD Ameritrade Park, a 24,000-seat downtown stadium, hosted its second CWS last month and has drawn good reviews. That didn't make Wednesday any easier for city Councilman Garry Gernandt, who grew up nearby and represents the district that includes Rosenblatt.

Gernandt started going to the stadium in the late 1950s to watch the old Omaha Cardinals minor-league team. Wearing a St. Louis Cardinals jersey and cap, he regaled people about the days when kids could get into the stadium for free if they were with a paid adult and wearing a Cards' T-shirt.

"I would truthfully have to say it's a sad day," Gernandt said. "We're going to lose an icon here."

The Omaha Zoo Foundation bought the property to expand the adjacent zoo. Some 900 parking spots will occupy the space at this time next year. In a nod to history, a small park also will be built, with a miniature baseball field paying tribute to the stadium named in honor of former Mayor Johnny Rosenblatt.

The stadium is coming down piece by piece over six months rather than by an implosion that lasts seconds so the zoo's operation isn't disrupted. Cost for demolition and site preparation is about $2.5 million. Seats and other stadium fixtures were sold to the public.

Don Goers, project manager for Anderson Excavating, said the estimated 4,000 to 5,000 tons of steel will be recycled along with masonry.

Just before the backhoe began its work, Gernandt pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. He paused when asked if he needed it for allergies or for tears.

His eyes fixed on the stadium, he said, "I'll take the fifth on that."