Friday, August 30, 2013

Cornfields Not Always the Best Ballparks

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 (

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