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'The Midwest vibe': What Omaha reveals about the state of baseball

Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Once upon a time, the Midwest was the heart of baseball in America. This was about 100 years ago, after the game had spread out of the major eastern cities across the country. Many of baseball's greatest stars emerged from some of its most remote regions, and from agrarian backgrounds -- Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Dazzy Vance and Sam Crawford, just to name a few.

Bill James wrote about this in his "Historical Baseball Abstract." In his chapter on the 1910s, he noted, "The Irish tone of the game continued to wash out, and the game became to a considerable extent the property of Midwestern farm boys who came out of cow pasture Sunday leagues." James added that his father played in such leagues, as did my grandfather, a second baseman in southwest Iowa during the 1920s. I remember asking my grandfather which level he played at and him saying it rated about "Class D ball" and that every town had a team. Baseball was all over the Midwest.

Over the past year, it seems like we've gotten at least a couple of "what's wrong with baseball" think pieces every week. I keep them in an Instapaper folder dubbed "Baseball Obits." To be sure, there are some unusual things happening at the big league level. Year-over-year attendance is down. The style of play has become unbalanced. Games are probably too long, at least if you take in most of your baseball on television. These aren't issues we should ignore. Baseball has its challenges, but then again, it always has. And it has always overcome them.

I've written about a number of these issues, while trying to maintain a steady optimistic tone. After all, this year's average attendance (27,096) might be a bit lower than last year, but it's still a higher figure than any season before 1993. It's twice what it was in, say, 1955 or 1965. Plus, revenues are at record levels and local television ratings remain strong. It's a modern tick that we fixate on trend lines and perpetual growth. But when we do so with baseball, we lose track of some essential truths: The game remains an essential part of American culture, and as a global entity, it has never had more reach.

I have worked out of Chicago for the past 10 years. Before that, I was in Kansas City, a very different but equally vibrant baseball market. But before any of that happened, I grew up in rural Iowa, about 50 miles from Omaha, Nebraska. I grew up surrounded by corn and soybean fields blanketing the land in every direction. Yet I felt every bit as immersed in baseball then as I do now, when I attend about 130 games per season and spend my professional life puzzling over the sport.

For years, my only access to big league baseball came through the weekly delivery of the Sporting News, Kansas City Royals games on the radio (the St. Louis Cardinals were on a different station and would do in a pinch) and a weekly national telecast on NBC. But there was minor league ball nearby at Rosenblatt Stadium, men's softball in my hometown (Red Oak), the little leagues in which I played, all of the teams at school. There were also collegiate summer-league teams -- circuits in which players would come to our towns for a few months, staying with host families, and hone their skills. Baseball was everywhere.

"What a life experience that was," said Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black, who played two summers in Clarinda, Iowa. So did many other big leaguers, from Ozzie Smith to Andy Benes. "There are so many great memories. I stayed with a host family, and they were wonderful. I worked in a ball bearing factory, and that was a great life experience. And the baseball, playing for [Merl Eberly], with players from all over the country, it was really the starting point for me in getting into minor league baseball and learning how that all works. The caliber of baseball was awesome."

There was also always the College World Series, which called Omaha home long before I was born and in many ways has become that city's calling card. In fact, you could argue that Omaha is the capital of the non-big-league-baseball universe. It all comes together there, on the banks of the Missouri River -- college ball (the CWS, Creighton University and the University of Nebraska-Omaha), minor league ball (the Omaha Storm Chasers), the local high school leagues and numerous youth leagues and tournaments. At the outset of every summer, the days in Omaha are intoxicated with baseball.

The only thing lacking from this rustic puzzle was the major leagues. Last week, that changed, and it provided the perfect chance to see how baseball looks in that region, and at this time, when so many want to fixate on the sport's problems. When the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers met at TD Ameritrade Park, it provided the opportunity to look at baseball in 2019 from the vantage point of home.


THE BIG LEAGUES

You don't often get to see a "first" in baseball, a sport that has been played at a big league level since 1871. I was at the first regular-season game at SunTrust Park in Atlanta. That was memorable. I saw the Houston Astros clinch their first World Series crown in 2017. But for me and my particular set of biographical circumstances, this one was special: The first big league game in the state of Nebraska.

It was less than a year ago that MLB announced the Royals-Tigers game, dubbed "MLB in Omaha." It's part of an ongoing effort to showcase big league ball in non-MLB markets, such as Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Bringing the game to fruition meant that MLB, minor league baseball and the NCAA all had to come to an accord. It was truly a showcase of the game rather than a league. Commissioner Rob Manfred said in that media release, "This represents another significant step in our efforts to showcase the solidarity that links each level of our great game."

The night before the Omaha game, I attended the Royals-Tigers game in Kansas City to do a couple of preliminary interviews. One look at the standings tells you that's not a marquee matchup. But there was a nice crowd on hand at Kauffman Stadium (19,870) and it was a good atmosphere considering the limited stakes of the contest.

Before the game, I strolled around the main concourse of the K and toured the Royals Hall of Fame. There, you can see the usual kind of artifacts you see in a baseball museum, along with looped video productions of the Royals' high-water moments, such as the championships in 1985 and 2015, and George Brett's run at .400 in 1980. As Royals fans bide their time waiting for another contender, it's a nice reminder of what Kansas City baseball is like at peak moments. No one has provided more of those peak moments than Brett, whom countless young players in the Midwest worshiped for some 20 years. A native Californian who retains a beach boy look to this day, Brett still resides in Kansas City.

"I just kind of liked the Midwest vibe," Brett said. "That's why I chose to stay here."

As someone who grew up in the Royals' footprint and remains a fan of the franchise, it has always been evident to me just how much of a regional franchise it is. I've seen this mapped out in different ways in recent years, but here's a good one from Business Insider. That article recognizes the Atlanta Braves as having the most regional reach of any club based on ticket-sales data from SeatGeek, but adds, "Behind the Braves are the Kansas City Royals, who, at 6:1, have the highest ratio of out-of-state counties to in-state counties. The team plays in Missouri, where it holds 34 counties, but Royals fandom extends west into Kansas, north into Iowa and Nebraska, and south into Oklahoma and Arkansas."

Before last week, the only one of those states to actually host a game was Missouri. In fact, before last week, only 29 of the 50 states had hosted a big league ballgame. That's what was so great about the Omaha game. It served as a tangible reminder that teams have many fans beyond their primary markets, and it also gave a number of those fans a wonderful reward for their loyalty.

"Omaha is an unbelievable baseball town," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. "Baseball has been celebrated there for many years. Not only is it home for the College World Series, but during that period of time, they have three to four weeks of youth league tournaments and games. It's really a magical baseball place, and you have kids of all ages, they play baseball during the day and go to the College World Series at night."

The Royals' region has had a rough spring battle with mother nature, with excess rainfall, tornadoes and, especially, flooding causing all sorts of havoc. This was evident Thursday, as we made our way from Kansas City to Omaha. The Missouri and other rivers remain swollen to capacity and everywhere there was water where it shouldn't be. People have lost homes and businesses and farmers are racing against the clock to salvage the planting season. Interstate 29, the primary connector between Kansas City and Omaha, remained closed north of St. Joseph, Missouri, until the day before this story was published.

In Omaha, the show goes on. The presence of the College World Series is impossible to miss. Banners fly along the streets. Numerous baseball-themed businesses display the colors and logos of this year's participants. The sidewalks teem with CWS players, walking around to take in the scene while wearing school caps and T-shirts. Even blocks away, near the Old Market area of Omaha, from which you can't even see the ballpark, you are well aware that something different is happening in town because of the crowded seating areas outside of restaurants and bars, with fans wearing a panoply of school colors.

"Omaha is an unbelievable baseball town. Baseball has been celebrated there for many years. Not only is it home for the College World Series, but during that period of time, they have three to four weeks of youth league tournaments and games. It's really a magical baseball place, and you have kids of all ages, they play baseball during the day and go to the College World Series at night." Royals GM Dayton Moore

The pessimist in me wondered what the actual scene at the ballpark would be like for the MLB game. Would the stadium actually fill up to see two second-division American League Central teams? If it did, who would be there? Would the crowd be dominated by early-arriving NCAA fans, or would it actually feel like a partisan Royals crowd? How strong is this parent-affiliate thing?

"Omaha is very similar to Kansas City," Moore said. "In terms of demographics, in terms of values, and people that enjoy the game. But more than that, they want to connect with players. Probably more so than other places I've been. That's the uniqueness of it, and Omaha is very similar to Kansas City in that regard. If [our affiliate] was in New Orleans, or Portland, or Sacramento, that's different. That's the thing that ties Kansas City to Omaha."

It turned out that there was no reason for pessimism. TD Ameritrade Park has a listed capacity of 24,000. The announced attendance was 25,454. And it was definitely a pro-Royals crowd, with blue-clad fans significantly outnumbering the rest. But there was a good mix in the venue, including a number of Tigers fans who were likely also in town to catch the Michigan Wolverines in the CWS.

Before the game, all eight CWS squads were introduced and they gathered on the infield. One member of each team then threw out simultaneous first pitches to eight members of the Royals and Tigers with some Omaha and/or CWS ties. That was an amazing sight -- eight of college baseball's best teams sharing the diamond with two big league clubs. Then to top it off, Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Barry Larkin also threw out first pitches. (I heard a rumor that another Hall of Famer, Omaha native Bob Gibson, was in the stands but I did not actually see him.)

Cool scene at TD Ameritrade Park. All eight College World Series teams on the field, with a player from each team throwing a first pitch to former CWS participants with the Royals and Tigers.

Bradford Doolittle, ESPN Staff Writer34d ago

The Royals have three players with direct Nebraska and/or Omaha ties, veteran left fielder Alex Gordon, rookie infielder Nicky Lopez and reliever Jake Diekman. Also, Whit Merrifield stroked a CWS-clinching single for South Carolina in 2010, which was the last year the event was staged at Rosenblatt Stadium. The central figure was of course Gordon, who grew up in nearby Lincoln and played his college ball at the University of Nebraska. He also spent some Triple-A time in Omaha earlier in his career, and was part of the only Cornhusker squad to record a win in the CWS.

"There's a lot of passion that comes with [the CWS]," Gordon said. "And friendships that you take away from college. If I had gone from high school to the major leagues, I probably wouldn't be in this situation. College groomed me, on and off the field, to be where I wanted to be."

Alas, Gordon didn't play in the game after being hit in the back by a pitch Wednesday. It was a let down, and even angered me a little at first. It turned out to be the only game Gordon missed, as he was back in the lineup the next day in Minnesota. But Royals manager Ned Yost did what he felt he had to do.

That left the hometown heroics up to Lopez, who played his college ball at TD Ameritrade Park for Creighton, then his Triple-A ball at nearby Werner Field for the Storm Chasers. Lopez opened the scoring with a home run just inside the right-field foul pole. It wasn't just the first run of the game. It was the first major league run, RBI and home run ever recorded in the state of Nebraska.

"My first home run [here] was against Nebraska my junior year, right about in exactly the same spot," Lopez said. "To get my first home run here since I got drafted, it was cool."

For Lopez, it was also his first big league homer, which is memorable enough. But that it happened in his college park made it even more so. And here's the really crazy aspect of it: Lopez went 74 home games as a collegian without homering in TD Ameritrade Park. Then he homered in his 75th, and final, contest there for Creighton. So Lopez now has a two-game homer streak at the ballpark. As with so many things in baseball, you can't really make these things up.

The atmosphere at the ballpark was tremendous, even electric at times, such as when Lopez went deep. The Royals won the game 7-3, giving them their first series victory since mid-April. It has been that kind of a season for K.C., which made the getaway to Omaha a nice bit of relief.

"It was fun," Yost said. "The energy level was fun. When the energy level is like that, you sense it. You really have to stop and look around, but you sense the energy, and sense the electricity. Every time I turned around, all I saw was Royals uniforms and Royals T-shirts. It was great to play a good game for our fans here. It was special."


THE MINOR LEAGUES

With the CWS in town, the Storm Chasers are not, which is probably a good idea. I've never actually been to their current venue, Werner Park, which is in suburban Papillion. I have a number of memories of old Rosenblatt Stadium, though when I could get my non-sports-fan father to take the family on a baseball outing, it tended to be in Kansas City. The fabulous Henry Doorly Zoo is down the hill on which Rosenblatt once stood, and we'd go on field trips there when I was in elementary school. Later, in high school, my friends and I caught a summer concert there: the Moody Blues, the Beach Boys and the Fixx.

The relationship between the Royals and Omaha covers the entirety of the franchise's existence -- it's the only Triple-A affiliate the Kansas City Royals have ever had. That makes it easily the longest-standing parent- and farm-club affiliation in Triple-A. This relationship has a number of advantages.

"Obviously, [Omaha] is part of our footprint and fan base," Moore said. "A lot of great Royals fans there. A lot of Cubs fans, too, and Cardinals fans. We were proud to play an exhibition game there this year [against the Storm Chasers]. It was an amazing turnout as we really kind of celebrated our 50-year relationship, and signed a four-year agreement to extend it while we were there."

The proximity is nice, as Werner Park and Kauffman Stadium are only a little more than 200 miles apart. When the Royals' team plane flew into Omaha before Thursday's game, it was a 30-minute flight. Even more essential, however, is what this relationship means to the regional brand of the Royals. From the great George Brett-Frank White-Willie Wilson teams, to this decade's pennant winners of Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain, all of those peak-time cores played in Omaha. In fact, on the wall in the Royals Hall of Fame that displays the names of the franchise's greatest players, almost all of them played in Omaha.

"I knew that they were really loyal to college baseball and there was a huge college baseball fan base," Lopez said. He moved to Omaha from suburban Chicago to play at Creighton. "When I got there, I noticed that a lot of people were either cheering for the Cubs or the Royals. The majority was for the Royals. It was pretty cool to get drafted by the Royals. The fan base in Omaha is huge for the Royals. It's been great how it all fit."

According to ballparkdigest.com, the Storm Chasers draw approximately 350,000 fans each season, ranking about 35th the past couple of years among 160 minor-league franchises listed. It's not dazzling but solid. But because Omaha averages about 5,300 fans for its Triple-A games, it's probably best that they don't play in roomy TD Ameritrade Park.

There is another thing that should really jump ut at you about that minor league attendance list: There are a lot of minor league teams and there are a lot of people who pay to see them play. When we wring our collective hands over the attendance trends at the big league level, this is an aspect that we overlook.

According to Baseball America, while minor league patronage was down last season, attendance still topped the 40-million mark. That's a little off the peak from the past decade, but still far more than used to attend minor league games. And, according to BA, as in MLB, revenues continue to climb.

Also, keep in mind that the 40-million figure is in addition to the roughly 70 million fans to take in a regular-season game at an MLB venue in 2018. It's also in addition to the 3.3 million or so who go to spring training games, and doesn't even get into other big draws, including the postseason and All-Star Game. These numbers also don't include the 5.5 million fans or so that go see non-affiliated clubs in leagues such as the Atlantic League and the American Association.

Year-to-year variances aside, professional baseball still puts a lot of butts in its seats.


COLLEGE BASEBALL

CWS attendance has topped 300,000 in every season since 2006, peaking at 357,646 in 2017. Per-game attendance has exceeded 20,000 in every season since 1996. The event has become a major economic force in Omaha, which is precisely why TD Ameritrade Park was built. The CWS has been hosted in the city since 1950 and isn't going anywhere any time soon.

This in essence makes Omaha the capital of college baseball, something that observers like ESPN's Kyle Peterson have noted creates additional opportunities. Peterson outlines a number of possibilities, such as MLB taking an active role in subsidizing baseball scholarships, which are currently at a premium. He suggests tying the annual draft into the College World Series and staging the event in Omaha. All of these proposals are worth considering.

Given the success of the first "MLB in Omaha" game, it's also worth considering the idea of moving a Royals game to the city as a CWS launch event every season. The demand is clearly there and it makes for an ideal kick-off event for days to come. In addition to the teams gathering on the infield during pregame and participating in first-pitch ceremonies, Oregon State's Adley Rutschman was on hand to accept the Golden Spikes Award as the best player in the country. Rutschman was recently selected first overall in the draft by the Baltimore Orioles. Tying all of this together annually seems like a slam dunk.

Beyond the fans who follow their teams to Omaha for their CWS runs, the event has become another baseball-related draw in the Missouri-Nebraska-Iowa region overall, and has been for decades. Back in Red Oak, I encountered a number of people who were in various stages of planning their annual pilgrimages to Omaha. And the event holds allure for at least one prominent citizen of Kansas City baseball.

"It's always great to be back," Brett said. "When my kids were younger, we always used to come up this week, for the College World Series and the little league baseball. It seemed like they have games all over Nebraska and in this town."

Overall, college baseball is not a chief revenue driver at the NCAA level, though games are widely attended at many schools, especially in the south. According to sportsbusinessdaily.com, about 20 schools around the country will top 100,000 in attendance over the course of a season, with LSU leading the way at more than 360,000. Yep, they are pretty boisterous at Alex Bregman's old school. The Tigers average more than 10,000 to top the nation pretty much every season. Not to be snide about it, but that number is higher than the current per-game average of the Miami Marlins.

Let's face it, though: As big as the College World Series has become, there is plenty of growth opportunity remaining in baseball (and softball) at that level. MLB has a vested interest in this growth, as the various levels of the sport continue to develop increased synergy. For one thing, the baseball draft has always lagged in interest beyond prospect hounds. Part of that is that everyone knows it'll be quite a while before we see freshly drafted players reach the majors. However, part of it is also that only the most invested know who the top college players are. If the college game grows, so will the draft. That's why Manfred's goal of getting all the different levels of baseball pulling in the same direction is a wise one.


YOUTH LEAGUES AND HOME

Back in Red Oak, there was a high school game on Friday night. I couldn't attend, but I was told that the stands were full and the Tigers won 4-3 on a game-winning steal of home. I wish I had seen it. They still play at Legion Park, where I played in high school and where the Red Oak Red Sox -- one of those college summer teams that's now defunct -- once toiled. On one of those teams was a young Craig Counsell, the Milwaukee Brewers' manager, who spent a summer living in Red Oak and staying with a local family.

One of the common laments about the state of baseball in recent years has been that kids don't play it anymore. Since I don't have kids, I always kind of assumed that was at least somewhat true because I heard it so often. But then I was able to dive into the issue a little deeper and found that there are actually some good things going on.

While the landscape of youth baseball has changed since I was a kid, and much more so since my grandfather was playing ball in the countryside, this is an issue that MLB has been proactive at getting a handle on. Since my interactions with the league on this topic last year, the trends have continued to point upward. According the MLB, over the past four years, baseball has added 2.7 million new participants, a 52.8 percent increase in casual participation. Overall, baseball has seen the highest growth of any of the major sports. And with more than 25.6 million participants, baseball and softball combine to be the most participated team sport in the United States.

"Commissioner Manfred has made it a priority to grow the game," Moore said. "The Play Ball initiative has been highly successful. We've introduced baseball and softball throughout the country, and in underserved areas. We've really made it a priority."

This is all good stuff. I regularly get media releases from the league about "Play Ball" events such as the ones held in Kansas City and Omaha last week, in which local youths are brought in to hob-nob with ballplayers and learn about the game. MLB purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers' old spring training complex in Vero Beach, Florida, this year to serve as a hub for training the future stars of baseball and softball. There is a MLB-sponsored youth academy in New Orleans that the league is very proud of.

Omaha has become an epicenter in the youth tournament circuit, hosting the Omaha SlumpBuster event every year. Billed as the largest youth baseball tournament in the country, this thing is truly massive -- more than 500 teams from 40 states. There were displays about it all over the hotel I spent the night in after the "MLB in Omaha" game.

On Saturday afternoon, I watched part of a youth game with my friend Mike, whose son, Casey, was playing on a well-appointed field in Papillion, just a few miles away from where the first CWS games of the week were taking place. Before I found the correct field, I toured Halleck Park, where four different diamonds had games going, all with plenty of spectators -- presumably parents. The quality of play that I saw was pretty solid, much better than I remembered from my old little league days.

From the vantage point of all of this, you can say that youth baseball looks pretty darned strong in this little corner of the world. Maybe it's losing cachet in the suburbs (or maybe not, I think some confuse the rise of soccer with a decline in baseball and softball). The game in urban areas among youths certainly has declined, and baseball has been working for years now to bring it back. But in the Midwest, based on these impressions, it's holding its own.

But it's not all good news. One of the drivers behind MLB's initiative to grow casual participation in the game is that that the sport has become increasingly the domain of the privileged. Not necessarily wealthy, but those who at least have the funds to contribute to travel teams, and the time to take their children to practices, and can put them up in hotels at out-of-town tournaments. It's an expensive proposition, and too much of the game at the youth level is predicated on the travel team model.

This is what I found during my visit to Red Oak -- home. A friend, Tony, has coached youth teams for a number of years, including this one. Another friend, Matt, helps coordinate these youth sports teams in Red Oak. They don't seem to have much trouble in stocking these teams with players. A big reason for this kind of stunned me: They are only fielding one team per age group classification, and that team has to travel to play similar teams in surrounding communities. The little league structure of my youth -- several teams, all within Red Oak, playing each other -- is pretty much gone. Travel ball is what remains.

The population of Red Oak isn't much different than it was when I was a kid, which isn't something you can say of a number of other, smaller communities in rural America. In other words, it's not that there aren't enough children to set up a five- or six-team little league. It's just that the interest level and, more importantly, the economic ability of families to allow their children to participate is limited. Much of this traces back to the economic changes in small-town America over the past 30 years. Red Oak, a town that married agricultural activity with a thriving base of blue-collar jobs, has seen reductions in both areas. There isn't as much of a middle-class element and, for many, sports are more luxury than a necessity.

I'm not sure that MLB's efforts at growing its tentacles into youth baseball can or will reach what I assume to be hundreds upon hundreds of small relatively isolated communities like Red Oak. There is only so much that can be done from the top level. If the bar of entrance is to be lowered so that all small-town kids get a shot at baseball, softball or, really, any extracurricular activity, it'll be up to the towns themselves. I hope they figure it out.

When I arrived back in Red Oak, I drove around by myself for a couple of hours, as is my habit when I return home. For me, one place is frozen in 1975. Another in 1984. Yet another in 1982. When I am in those places, insofar as it's possible, I am back at that place, in that time. On this trip, I spent extra time wandering around old ballfields on a Friday afternoon, all of which were empty.

At Chautauqua Park, a beautiful field on a high point overlooking much of the town, just below the big orange water tower with "RED OAK" emblazoned on it in black letters, I was heartened to see it restored. The dugouts were painted, the field neatly dragged, with bases in place. The fence has the same dimensions as ever -- 180 feet to right, 252 to left, a small-town, little-league version of old League Park in Cleveland. The last time I'd seen the park, grass was growing on the infield dirt and someone was tearing around it in one of those little four-wheel RVs. Now, it's just an old ballpark again, if quiet. I sat down in the bleachers and listened to the cars hiss by on Summit Street behind me and the birds singing on a warm, sunny day.

Buildings in old towns often fall into neglect, are torn down or sometimes they burn. A number of them in Red Oak have disappeared over the years. But the ballfields, they all remain and some new ones have sprouted up, in a complex near the high school. Ballfields remain everywhere, in every town, in every suburb and exurb and in the city. Baseball remains an option, no matter where you go, no matter how badly in our quickening world we seem to want to engrave its tombstone.

We hear so much about baseball as it exists in the suburbs, or doesn't exist, and in the cities, where we have lost generations of youths and are working hard to bring them back. You don't hear as much about what the game looks like from a small-town perspective. This was but one trip but, for me, looking out at that restored field on which I once tried to imitate George Brett, this was how baseball looked in the Midwest, in the year 2019, on the cusp of another summer.