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Cornfields Not Always the Best Ballparks

Baseball in a cornfield may work in the movies, but in real life it’s a bad idea.

Werner Park and adjoining hayfield
Werner Park and adjoining hayfield

I love the movie “Field of Dreams”. Many consider it overly sentimental, but I put it up there with “Bull Durham” as one of my two favorite baseball movies.

Much of the allure of “Field of Dreams” is the setting in an Iowa cornfield.  For the movies, baseball in a cornfield is fine. But I recently saw several ballgames in a Midwestern cornfield and found it distressing.

Faced with the need for a new ballpark five years ago, the Omaha Triple-A ballclub, now known as the Storm Chasers, left their old location near downtown Omaha to build a new ballpark fifteen miles away.  

Not only is Werner Field remote from Omaha, it’s remote from pretty much everything. It’s mostly surrounded by cornfields and hayfields. Except for a row of homes on a ridgeline beyond the rightfield fence, one other residential neighborhood, and a few industrial buildings, the ballpark is four miles from anything.

Nor are there good ways to reach the ballpark except by car. There’s no transit to the park. There is a bike lane on the rural highway leading to the park, but the lane hadn’t been cleaned in awhile. For the three games I watched at the ballpark, I didn’t see a single bicyclist or pedestrian either on their way to the park or going anywhere else.

To be fair, the park may someday be adjoined by other non-agricultural land uses. There were signs describing the ballpark as the first phase of a development planned to eventually include residential, office, retail, and industrial uses. And the Omaha-Council Bluffs metropolitan area is growing enough, roughly 100,000 between 2000 and 2010 with a similar rate expected to continue, to absorb the new development.

But a good urban plan would have allowed the downtowns to accept 100,000 new people. And even failing that, there are many cornfields closer to Omaha and adjoining existing development that could have been converted into a ballpark.

Werner Park is the worst kind of drivable suburban sprawl. Indeed, calling it suburban is a stretch. It’s drivable rural sprawl.  It’s a nice ballpark, but in a horribly wrong location.

To make the situation worse, there was an available urban alternative. The park from which the Storm Chasers moved was Rosenblatt Stadium, which also served as the long-time home of the College World Series. Rosenblatt was aging and a new venue was required. So the Storm Chasers moved fifteen miles to their new 8,500-seat ballpark in a cornfield. And a new 24,000-seat ballpark, TD Ameritrade Park, was built in downtown Omaha for the College World Series.

That’s right. Two largely comparable but separate ballparks, with a combined construction cost of $164 million, were built simultaneously fifteen miles apart.

I asked a number of folks why the functions of the two parks hadn’t been combined. Two reasons were given. First, the College World Series would have required the Storm Chasers to take an annual two-week roadtrip. Second, 24,000 seats are too many for a Triple-A ballclub.

As a former minor league ballclub owner, I understand the latter concern.  If too many seats are available, fans don’t have a reason to make advance purchases. Instead, they can plan on buying walk-up tickets.  But if they don’t have tickets in hand, they can easily make gameday decisions to skip the game. It’s the reason that many new Major League ballparks have 40,000 seats, compared to the 55,000-seat stadiums of three decades ago.

So the scheduling and capacity issues are legitimate concerns. But were they sufficient to justify building two ballparks, one of which is the definition of sprawl? Not even close. The issues are challenges to be overcome, not roadblocks.

Schedule-makers must regularly accommodate special scheduling concerns.

And making a ballpark that will function well at 24,000 seats for two weeks and at 10,000 seats for the remainder of the year is a design criterion which architects would love to tackle. Perhaps the upper sections could be blocked off except during the College World Series and a second, less grand, entrance provided for the Triple-A games.

As an architect friend noted when I told him about the dual ballparks, “I understand the constraints, but they don’t justify that solution.”

And the rewards for solving the challenges would have been significant.  Attendance for the Storm Chasers would likely have been higher in downtown Omaha. Watching a ballgame would become available to those who rely on transit. And the streetlife around TD Ameritrade Park would receive a boost. It’s a nice neighborhood, but one that would have benefited from several thousand Triple-A ball fans going to and from 72 ballgames a year.

For “Field of Dreams”, baseball in a cornfield is fine. But for real life ballclub in a world where we should be more aware of using our assets wisely, it’s a huge blunder. In baseball terms, Werner Park was a whiff.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at Where Do We Go from Here. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and VibrantBayArea.

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Bookworm September 01, 2013 at 01:51 PM
I found your article about ballparks interesting, even though I am not so interested in baseball. But I was surprised at the end, when you didn't tie it in with a local issue! By the way, what are your thoughts on the proposed Safeway gas station? Is it urban blight, traffic hell, and superfluous old technology on its way out? Or is it a great source of tax revenue, and will it actually have a beneficial effect on traffic by allowing people to buy inexpensive gas when they shop at Safeway (combined trips)?
Dave Alden September 01, 2013 at 02:08 PM
Bookworm, thanks for writing. ... I didn't connect the Omaha ballparks to a North Bay issue because I didn't see a good parallel. Although I could have noted that I went to high school in a district with eight high schools but only two football stadiums. All of the league games were played at El Camino and San Juan on Friday and Saturday nights. It was a more efficient use of resources than the North Bay standard of one stadium per school. ... Regarding the proposed Safeway gas station, I have a number of thoughts in my head, few of them positive. But I've learned to let ideas perk for a few days before putting them into words. I tend to be more coherent that way.
Wire September 04, 2013 at 06:36 PM
Quote, as a former minor league ballclub owner, I understand the latter concern. If too many seats are available, fans don’t have a reason to make advance purchases. I'm impressed Dave, I see your love for base ball, to bad you didn't catch some car racing. *****What do you expect out of a cattle town and railroad city? RIDGE LINE a slight rise in the ground. Not very earth quake proof right Dave?
Dave Alden September 16, 2013 at 12:42 AM
Wire, there are many sports which I suspect I'd enjoy if I spent more time learning about them. Soccer and cricket are definitely on that list. But I haven't been enthralled by the car races I've attended, plus the glorification of burning petroleum is troublesome. ... Seismic risk is only slightly related to surface topography. A flat site over deep bay muds can be dangerous as can a hillside setting on an unstable slope.
Wire October 01, 2013 at 11:06 AM
Here is a funny thing about BALLS 1. The sport of choice for the urban poor is BASKETBALL. 2. The sport of choice for maintenance level employees is BOWLING. 3. The sport of choice for front-line workers is FOOTBALL. 4. The sport of choice for supervisors is BASEBALL. 5. The sport of choice for middle management is TENNIS. 6. The sport of choice for corporate executives and officers is GOLF. THE AMAZING CONCLUSION The higher you go in the corporate structure, the smaller your balls become. There must be a boat load of people in DC playing marbles - [or with their marbles…] With car races we had much more time visiting the cities downtown during the day, and you are correct about ten o clock there's no people. …]
Wire October 14, 2013 at 09:05 PM
90 degree heat with 80% humidity makes it 118 degrees. This is your global warming news. Yes I have felt that heat! You want to ride in that weather Dave? You better have gallons of water.
Wire October 15, 2013 at 07:15 PM
Dave have you felt that 118 heat in the Midwest? Where the corn grows a foot a night. Your soaked with your own sweat. This is why weather makes a difference. *** like this summer with Air Condition safety buildings for our seniors in Petaluma. The heat wave is not even close to what the Midwest is like.

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