OMAHA, Neb. —The College World Series offers compelling story lines with newcomer Vanderbilt, defending champion South Carolina and a California program that was voted out of existence last fall only to return with a vengeance.
But the main attraction of the 65th annual event, at least early on, is the venue.
For the first time since 1950, the Division I baseball championship won't be staged at Rosenblatt Stadium. It's moved two miles north into downtown Omaha. The $131 million TD Ameritrade Ballpark makes its College World Series debut today.
"It's beautiful," said Omaha's Linda Johnson, standing on the concourse in an autograph line with her 8-year-old son Corey. "And it's cool."
Cool, as in good?
"Yes," Johnson said. "But I mean cooler."
A slight breeze blew through the concourse on a sweltering afternoon, the operative word being "through."
The openness of TD Ameritrade Park with the field views from the concourse is as good a place to start.
"That makes a huge difference," said Joe Spear, a founding senior principal at Populous, the Kansas City-based architect firm that joined Kansas City's DLR Group and Omaha's HDR on the design team. "Fans aren't going to have to stay glued to their seats the entire time. They can get up, move around and still see the game."
But if they choose to stay glued, TD Ameritrade accommodates with 3 feet of leg room.
"Comfort level was a driving factor," said Populous designer Matt Miltner.
That's evident throughout the park with a dozen 55-inch flat screens around the concourse and more concessions stands and restrooms than cramped Rosenblatt.
The designers were given a unique charge with this tweener stadium that seats 24,505.
"It's really a hybrid," Miltner said. "Small by major-league standards, large by minor-league standards."
TD Ameritrade was designed and built specifically for the College World Series. Creighton played home games there starting in April, and the Missouri Valley tournament was played there.
But the stadium was constructed with the idea that eight teams would be the primary occupants for nearly two weeks in June. This would be ready for the crowds and the media attention from the first day, unlike Rosenblatt, which underwent several renovations and growth spurts and now sits as a ghost stadium awaiting demolition.
"We had a great run at Rosenblatt," said Dennis Poppe, NCAA vice president of Division I baseball. "Lots of tradition, lots of memories, but we're beginning a new era."
To Poppe, who has overseen the College World Series for 25 years, his satisfaction level rose when he was told that players from North Carolina entered the locker room and started taking photographs of the new digs.
"It's hard to impress young men like that," Poppe said.
The coaches also are on board. A year ago the mood was wistful for the final championship at beloved Rosenblatt. Coming to Omaha meant an airport-to-hotel bus route past the old stadium sit ting majestically on the hill.
But new also brought out the gasps in players driving past TD Ameritrade.
"I could hear the excitement in the bus, the giddiness," South Carolina coach Ray Tanner said.
For all of the excitement of the new park, there were some somber words on Friday. TD Ameritrade sits two blocks from the flooding Missouri River. Some parking spots have been lost after a stressed water pipe burst, and sandbags protect infrastructure nearby the stadium.
Reaching Omaha from the south is a challenge. Interstate 29 is closed for about 25 miles in northern Missouri and southern Iowa.
"We've been assured there aren't any issues," Poppe said.
Still, Virginia coach Brian O'Conner, who grew up across the river in Council Bluffs, Iowa, couldn't believe what he was seeing as the teams' plane approached.
"I felt really, really sad," O'Conner said. "Just to see the farmland around the airport washed away, it's terrible for the people here."