This is the final edition in a monthly series called “Down on the Farm” that chronicled my visits to various minor league parks throughout the 2011 season. (Part 1 can be found here, part 2 here, part 3 here and part 4 here.)
In this edition, I regale you with tales and photos from my visits to brand new Werner Park in Omaha’s suburbs to see the playoff-bound Storm Chasers. Lastly, I’ll update you on how the seasons ended for my new home team, the Lincoln Saltdogs of the Independent American Association, and my former home team, the Indianapolis Indians.
The Omaha Storm Chasers were the “O-Royals” for multiple decades before they changed the team’s nickname this off-season to complement their opening of a great new yard. As you pull up to the ballpark off Highway 370 in Omaha’s rapidly growing suburb of Papillion, you feel as if you’re entering a scene out of Field of Dreams, just one state to the west. There is literally nothing around the park — other than soy bean fields and signs advertising future development — though that will change in the coming years with planned retail shops, restaurants, offices and hotels.
Werner Park sits atop a hill with a clear view of downtown Omaha’s skyscrapers – 20 or so miles northeast — on a clear day. Parking is just $2, but if you’re willing to park on gravel in the tailgate lot, just about 500 feet farther out, it’s FREE. Good deal.
As with any new park, you first notice how clean the facility is, and how friendly the staff is. We were given private seats in one of the six press boxes, with money to spend on food. Prior, Media Relations Manager Mike Feigen spent about 20 minutes explaining to me and my wife some of the nuances of Werner Park.
And there are many, as this is a top notch facility that, though built for under $30 million — the land was donated by a developer — spent wisely. Groundbreaking was August 2009.
Werner Park is one of the more unique baseball ballparks I’ve seen around the nation, as it does not resemble a traditional minor league ballpark. It’s wide open, with great views of the field from the moment you enter, as well as a 360 degree concourse (about 1/3 of a mile) to amble around.
A classic ballpark, and not necessarily a “stadium,” there’s no upper deck general seating — which is odd for any level of Minors, much less the highest. Werner Park employs something of a “pit-design,” with all 6,434 fixed seats below the concourse.
And needless to add, the Storm Chasers have kept the “family experience” strong, which is what makes Minor League ball so popular in America. Not only are there the usual food options, play areas, and abundant space for kids (basketball court, merry-go-round, wiffle ball field, picnic areas, grass seating), but for adults: social areas/party decks to grab a beer, 14 luxury suites up high, low, and even a 15th along the left field foul line that seats up to 18 people – with netting for protection.
In many ways, the verandas, canopies and ushers in straw hats, give Werner Park the feel of Major League Spring Training–and believe me, that’s a compliment. But whereas Spring Training prices have skyrocketed to $25 on average for a decent seat, you can sit as low as third row — in a 21 inch seat with cup-holder and a great view of the field — at Werner Park for $9 on a weeknight. The first 50 kids into the park each night are charged just a $1 admission.
Fans have responded by showing up at nearly 6000 per night, which makes this semi-small yard look quite full. Through 2010, the Omaha Royals played at Rosenblatt Stadium, which held well over 20,000. Even with a “big crowd” there of 5000 — which was rare — that ballpark would still look empty most nights. I recall this experience from when I stopped by on a cross-country drive in August 2005.
As explained in a recent Omaha World Herald piece about this halcyon season:
Attendance at the new park is up 4.3 percent — or 248 fans per game — from last year, but the size of the crowds has been much more consistent. Instead of swinging wildly from more than 10,000 for some weekend games to 1,000 for weeknights, the Chasers have consistently drawn 4,000 or more, with two “hard” sellouts of 9,023. In other words, had Rosenblatt’s capacity been capped at 9,023, attendance this season would be up 16.1 percent.
On the field, like in Indianapolis where I’ve chronicled, the Storm Chasers had to adjust to the Royals plucking their best players all season. Future starts now starting down I-29 in Kansas City like Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer were both long gone by the time I arrived in late July, and Johnny Giavotella followed a few weeks later.
Catcher Salvador Perez, starting pitcher Danny Duffy and relievers Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Blake Wood and Everett Teaford also departed for the big stage at some point in 2011. Nearly all these guys are well under 25.
But believe it or not, a ton of talent remains in Omaha.
The pitching is led by four men with big league time: PCL Pitcher of the Year Luis Mendoza (who had a would-be no hitter in July and will start the playoff opener Wednesday), Vin Mazzaro, Sean O’Sullivan, and 2006 World Series champ Jeff Suppan, still going strong at age 36. 22 year-old first round pick Mike Montgomery rounds out the league’s second best rotation in terms of ERA. Recently-promoted to KC, Jessie Chavez, who spent 140 games with three different clubs in The Show, and 21 year-old Dominican Kelvin Herrera, shared closer roles this season.
Giavotella and Mendoza were named Omaha’s Pitcher and Player of the Year on August 30.
As for the bats, they fell off a tad with all the promotions, but the team still posted nearly a .290 average, and was second in steals. Specifically, the top three hitters were speedy outfielder David Lough (who has hit at every level), Lorenzo Cain (who had a 43 game stint in Milwaukee last year), and 26 year-old DH Clint Robinson, who ranks near the top of the Pacific Coast League in most major offensive categories, and became only the second player in franchise history with 100 RBIs in a season.
Omaha placed more players (3: Mendoza, Giavotella and Robinson) on the All-PCL team than any other squad. And as of now — in a classy and uncommon move I heard about Sunday – KC manager Ned Yost plans to hold off any call-ups from Omaha until the playoff run ends.
All that considered, a 79-63 record and the playoffs — which begin Wednesday night in Round Rock (Texas) for the Chasers (home games this weekend ) – are the crowned jewel on arguably the most incredible season in the franchise’s 43 year history.
For the first time in three seasons, Lincoln missed the American Association’s playoffs; but in some ways, that doesn’t tell the entire story, which is not all gloomy.
When I ran last month’s “Down on the Farm” featuring the Saltdogs and Haymarket Park, they were basically on the precipice of playoff elimination, teetering between 4th and last place in the division, two games under .500 at 39-41. They needed to get hot, and they did. In short order, the team ran off 9 of 11, and by finishing the 2011 campaign at 51-48 (above the .500 mark for the 10th time in 11 seasons), went 12-7 down the stretch — despite dropping their final two contests in Sioux City.
In particular, when the Saltdogs left Star City and “the best playing field” in the American Association on August 22 for their final road trip (after taking 2 of 3 from first place Winnipeg), they were right in the thick of the playoff chase, just two games back of the Wild Card leaders. But after a win in the opener at Gary saw them reach the zenith of the season (1 out of the Wild Card and 1.5 out of the division lead) the Railcats pounded Lincoln three straight, ending any hopes of September baseball in the Prairie Capital for the 8th time in 11 franchise seasons.
The ‘Dogs can be proud that five players from this year’s team, including four in the final month, had their contracts purchased by big league organizations. That was a league high, and by recollection of team president Charlie Meyer, the most in Lincoln club history.
Lincoln ended up 7th — out of 14 American Association teams — in league attendance at 3,217 per game. Included in that number was the 6th largest crowd in club history (7,187) for 2011′s penultimate home game, one of the 9 games I attended over the season’s final month.
The Indianapolis Indians have a similar story, and frankly, even more impressive.
Since April, I’ve been writing about the low expectations in Circle City after a disastrous 9-21 beginning to 2011. The Indians clawed their way back all summer, despite seeing their roster change daily due to Pittsburgh’s purging of the top farm club. In the end, the Tribe weren’t officially eliminated from a quest for their first playoffs since 2005 until the final 48 hours of the season.
Finishing well above .500 (76-68), second place in the International League’s toughest division, is one thing; but moreover, since losing 21 of their first 30 through May 7, Indy went 67-47. That served as the top mark in all of the International League.
The club also finished with a winning record for the first time since 2006, as well as just the third time since 2001.
The Indians placed 5th in International League attendance at just 8,170 per game, slightly under 600,000 cumulative fans for the 2011 campaign.
Additionally, the Washington native easily paced the IL in hits (164), which was the fourth most by an Indians hitter in the last 40 years. Hague was also 3rd in the league in total bases and doubles, while playing in 141 games during 2011, breaking the Victory Field era record (since 1996).
And that concludes my season-long journey, which began on a cold April morning in southern Kentucky, then took me from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri to Iowa, Texas, Nebraska and elsewhere. I hope you enjoyed reading these reports on Minor League Baseball as much as I did producing them.