For years, I've enjoyed going to see AAA minor league games at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, the longtime home of the NCAA College World Series. While Rosenblatt was unusually large for a minor league ball park, it was getting pretty old. The concourses were narrow, the seating was antiquated and the fan amenities were few. The NCAA had considered moving the College World Series to another city, so the City of Omaha built a $128 million dollar ball park in downtown Omaha - TD Ameritrade Park - to house the College World Series. It's a 24,000 seat (expandable to 35,000 seats), state of the art medium sized stadium that will be home to the College World Series through the year 2035. And I thought it was also going to be the home of the Omaha AAA baseball team.
But I was wrong about that. It turns out that the Omaha Storm Chasers, the AAA team for the Kansas City Royals, balked at the city's high price for leasing the stadium for a season and sought another venue to play. (The land on which Rosenblatt Stadium sits is being absorbed by the Henry Doorly Zoo and the stadium will be soon torn down.) Sarpy County commissioners voted to build a $36 million dollar stadium near the corner of Nebraska Highways 50 and 370 in Papillion, a surburb on the southwest side of Omaha (see map). This is the first year for the Storm Chasers (formerly the Omaha Royals and more recently known as the Omaha Golden Spikes) at Werner Park, which is named after Werner Enterprises, a global transportation and freight provider whose world headquarters is located literally down the road from the new ball park.
It was a warm, windy evening when I drove out to suburban Papillion to catch a Storm Chasers game versus the New Orleans Zephyrs, the AAA affiliate for the Florida Marlins. The Storm Chasers are regarded as having one of the best baseball squads in AAA ball as the Royals have the best minor league system according to Baseball America. In fact, five of the top 30 minor league players that are ranked by Baseball America play for the Omaha Storm Chasers.
As you go to the stadium, you'll find that it is literally in the middle of nowhere. There are no other businesses, no housing, no other development anywhere near Werner Park. I'm sure this will change in time as Omaha continues to amaze me with the amount of growth that goes on in the city. Recently, the online magazine The Daily Beast named Omaha as the second best city in terms of job prospects for college graduates, trailing only Fayetteville, N.C. And five of the top Fortune 500 firms are located in Omaha - which is a large proportion when you consider the metro population of Omaha is about 850,000 people.
Parking is plentiful and spacious at Werner Park. In addition to a V.I.P. lot, there is a $2.00 parking lot that is easy walking distance to the front entrance of the stadium. For those who don't want to spend the 2 bucks to park, there is a free parking lot area that is a little further walk. I parked in the 2 buck lot and walked up to the ticket office to get a ticket.
Since I like to walk around stadiums, especially new stadiums, I bought a $6.00 berm ticket for the game that evening. The berm tickets allow for general admission and for sitting on a grass berm in right field. They also have a left field bleacher area called the Home Run Porch where tickets are $6.50. Box seats are $10.00, while Field Box seats - the closest to the field - are $12.50. Not to show my age, but I used to buy $5.00 Field Box seats back in the 1980's when I used to go out and watch the Omaha Royals play at Rosenblatt Stadium. But I guess that was about 25 years ago...
After walking into the spacious concourse area as you enter Werner Park, you can walk about 30 feet and catch a wide view of the new ball park. The first thing that struck me was how close everyone was to the field. The capacity of Werner Park is only 6500 people (but can handle up to 9000). And that makes a lot of sense considering the team couldn't draw much more than about 3,000 per game at Rosenblatt. However, they were on pace to break attendance records this season as they had 10 straight games (up to this game I attended) where they had at least 5,000 people in attendance. I was told that never happened when the Royals/Golden Spikes would play at the old Rosenblatt Stadium. I'm sure that not only the fact that so many major league prospects are playing for the Storm Chasers this season, a lot of people have been coming out to take a look at the new park.
The ball park is clearly set up for families. Out in the left field area, they have what amounts to a small amusement park complete with a merry-go-round and bounce-house. I'm sorry, I have a fundamental problem with a carousel and a bounce-house at a ball park. But I suppose you've got to have things like that if you need to attract the younger families. Also, there is an area beyond the center field wall where kids can play basketball and the ball park even sports its own "wiffle ball" field - the Borsheims Diamond, named after the somewhat famous Borsheims jewelry store owned by Berkshire-Hathaway, the investment firm headed by Omaha native Warren Buffett. Get it? The Borsheims Diamond?
Of course, there's the requisite mascots that roam the park. Actually, the Storm Chasers have THREE mascots - Vortex, who is pictured above right; Stormy, who is this sort of furry green, grotesque looking fellow with a weather vane on his head; and Casey, a blue lion who was the original mascot of the Omaha Royals when they first started play in 1969. Given how hot it was that evening, I wondered how uncomfortable it was in those costumes.
One thing that also stuck out as I walked around the new Werner Park were the number of different types of food available at the ball park. There were concession stands that featured pizza, Mexican, gourmet reubens, Omaha steak burgers and even mac and cheese for the kiddies. There was a little bit of everything to eat at Werner Park.
And as I always do at a baseball game, I have to try a hot dog. I went to the Ovations stand that was manned by a group of older people to get a hot dog and a beer. The concession stands at Werner Park are leased out to non-profit groups or fundraisers wanting to raise some money for whatever cause or organization. The beer was very cold and the hot dog was top-notch for a ball park, one of the better ones I've had at a ball game. It was plump and juicy, had a nice snap and not a very salty taste. I'd give the hot dogs at Werner Park an "A".
But I soon found my favorite place at Werner Park. Located under the large scoreboard in left-center field is the Downdraught Bar. (Downdraft - storms have downdrafts while beers are draughts, get it?) It features a rectangular bar that is covered from the elements. Although I didn't have much problem walking around to watch the game from different vantage points, the Downdraught Bar had a pretty good view (other than the people walking along the concourse) and, well, the beer was RIGHT THERE!
But what got me was the beer dispenser at the Downdraught Bar. I went up and asked one of the bartenders what they had on tap. She said they had Bud and Bud Light on tap. I didn't see any spigots, but there was this contraption that had four different flat areas with little nipple like things sticking up from the surface. She hit a button, affixed a glass to the metal nipple, and the glass filled up to the rim from the bottom. I went, "Whoa! I've seen something like that on TV before! But I've never seen one in person!" It's called a Bottoms Up beer dispenser.
She explained to me that there was a small flat magnet - the kind that you'd put on your refrigerator - that popped up when you put the glass over the receptacle. When the glass is affixed to the receptacle, the beer quickly fills up from the bottom. When it's full, you pop it off and the magnet will close against the bottom, sealing the cup. It fills a 20 oz. glass in less than five seconds without a lot of foam and spillage. She said, "Oh, yeah. I've seen videos on the Internet of this thing." I had to have my own video of it. I quickly drank my first Bottoms Up beer and ordered another, but had her wait until I could get my phone switched from camera to video.
And here it is! Click on the link for the 14 second video - Download Video (Be sure to hit your "return" arrow to return to the article. If you click the "off" or "X" on the video, you'll go back to your home page.)
The beers at the Downdraught Bar were a little more expensive - $6.00 for a 20 oz, compared to $6.00 for a 24 oz. at the other concession stands. But the entertainment of the pour and the nice little outdoor bar area was worth the slight increase in price.
Before I walked away to go roam around again, she warned me, "Don't stick your finger up through the bottom hole on the glass. It will definitely leak." And, of course, I like to place my little finger under a glass when I drink - sophisticated-like - and I absentmindedly and accidentally knocked the magnet on the bottom of the glass. A little bit of the beer poured onto my hand. I thought, "Oooohhh!! That's what she meant!"
Like most ball parks, there is an expansive gift shop at Werner Park. I went in to look around and I found a neat looking hooded pullover sweatshirt that had the Storm Chasers logo - an "O" with lightning bolts coming off of opposite sides. I thought Cindy would like something like that, it was soft and lightweight, but night for cool days and nights when she gets a little chilled. I pulled it off the rack to take a look at the price. I about dropped it when I saw the price tag - $69.95! Holy shit! No friggin' way am I buying that for my wife!
But I did see another thing that sort of caught my eye - a Storm Chasers home jersey with the name "Buffett" and the number "1/16". Actually, I'd seen a couple people wearing them around the park. I didn't check the price as I knew it would be prohibitively expensive, but I was intrigued as to the significance of the jersey. It turns out that Warren Buffett - the Oracle of Omaha, who if he isn't the richest man in the world, he's in the top three - is a 1/16th owner of the Omaha Storm Chasers. Check out the lightning bolts in the "B" and the "U" in his name and in the "6". It was actually kind of neat.
Living up to the Storm Chaser name, it was getting later in the evening and a severe thunderstorm was forming to the south and west of the ball park. The sky was getting dark and angry looking. I figured I'd had enough fun and saw all that I wanted on my first trip to Werner Park. And it was a nice place to see a game. It seemed to be overrun with little kids who had little to no interest in watching even parts of the game. But I suppose you have to have those types of amenities to attract families to places like Werner Park these days. I'm more interested in what happens between the fences on the fields. Oh, and with the Bottoms Up beer dispenser!