OMAHA — The best stadium in college baseball opened its doors to the Missouri Valley Conference on Monday. All eight MVC teams practiced at TD Ameritrade Park on Monday in preparation for the conference tournament that starts today. While Creighton played 12 regular-season games in the 24,000-seat stadium, this tournament will give the stadium its rehearsal for the College World Series in June.
“We feel like we’re breaking it in,” Evansville third baseman Cody Fick said. “It’s a great-looking ballpark. We joke that it’s a deck away from being a big-league ballpark.”
Many players arrived at practice with their cell phones out, filming and taking pictures.
“I snapped a couple pictures — it’s definitely Facebook eligible,” Indiana State pitcher Jason Van Skike said. “It’s not a ballpark you play in every day, so it’s something you want to capture.” TD Ameritrade Park, which replaces Rosenblatt Stadium as the home of the CWS, is in downtown Omaha, close to the Qwest Center. It seats 24,000, most of them in blue chair backs. There are 30 luxury suites and 2,500 club seats.
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The signature “Road to Omaha” statue of players celebrating relocated to the new park from Rosenblatt. Around the concourse are banners recognizing the national champions. Construction crews are working at several sites nearby, rushing to get bars and restaurants open before the money starts flowing in June. By next summer, CWS favorite Zesto _ a popular drive-in restaurant _ will open a two-story hamburgerand-shake joint by the stadium.
“It’s an honor to get to play here,” Wichita State shortstop Tyler Grimes said. “We knew it was going to be spectacular.”
In its early days, TD Ameritrade Park is developing a reputation much different than Rosenblatt. It surrenders home runs grudgingly, especially when the wind blows in. In Creighton’s 12 games, nine home runs were hit. Creighton played MVC series against Southern Illinois, Bradley and Missouri State, so the park isn’t new to everyone in the field. With lots of foul ground, it appears to be friendly to pitchers.
Creighton swept Missouri State to end the regular series, holding the Bears to four runs and two extra-base hits in three games.
“Over the weekend, the ball didn’t carry much,” Missouri State second baseman Kevin Medrano said.
The infield, with bluegrass cut short and hard-packed dirt, allows ground balls to move quickly.
“Everything is perfect,” Grimes said. “It is a fast infield, but we’re used to it.”
The dirt is well-groomed, but it will play differently than the artificial surfaces used in some stadiums. Infielders can’t wait on the true hop that an artificial surface offers. That rewards aggressive infielders who go get the ball to lessen the odds of a bad bounce.
“Faster, a lot faster than turf,” Indiana State third baseman Koby Kraemer said. “You’ve got to come get it and go get the good hop. If you wait back on it, you may get the bad hop.”
Some of the park’s best features are hidden from fans.
Behind both dugouts, underneath the seats, are batting cages (with pitching machines) and smaller swing rooms. The swing room is paradise for a designated hitter or pinch hitter. It is just a few steps from the dugout and features a net so a player can warm up during the game. The batting cage is down the hall, and is big enough that a pinch runner could use it to stretch his legs.
“When you have a batting cage and a place you can swing, that’s great for the life of a DH,” WSU’s Preston Springer said. “When you’re the DH, you’ve got be focused on your next at-bat. I can go in there and get my mind right and get my swing right.”