Saturday, June 25, 2016

New Orleans Zephyrs at Omaha Storm Chasers (PCL) - June 23-24, 2016


Omaha has been the home of the College World Series since 1950 with Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium hosting the tournament for its first 60 years. Rosenblatt was also home to the Omaha Royals, AAA affiliate of Kansas City since their formation in 1969. Between then and 2010, the AAA Royals were forced to take to the road in late June while the CWS took place, which meant that a sports road trip to catch both teams was difficult. All this changed in 2011 when two new stadiums were built. TD Ameritrade Park was constructed in downtown to be the home to the CWS (as well as Creighton baseball), while Werner Park was built about 20 miles southwest of the city in Papillion to house the Royals, who had renamed themselves Storm Chasers. I had visited Rosenblatt Stadium in 2001, but had to make another visit to Omaha to see Werner Park as part of my quest to see all active minor league ballparks. Naturally, I wanted to go during the CWS so I could add that to my list, and as it happens the Toronto Blue Jays have an interleague matchup with the Rockies in nearby Denver around the same time. A perfect combination and so I found myself in Omaha for a couple of Storm Chasers games.

Werner Park

Located in the middle of nowhere, Werner Park is surrounded mostly by parking lots. If you enter off Lincoln Avenue, these are free, but if you want to be a bit closer, there are $5 lots that save you a couple of minutes on foot. Alex Gordon was down on rehab for the two games I attended which drew nearly twice as many fans as average, but even then there was no problem getting in or out from the free lot.

The Storm Chasers employ dynamic pricing, which means there is no set price for a particular zone. There are six seating zones, with the most expensive being the Diamond Club, which is around $28. Other tickets range from $19 down to $11 for the Home Run Porch, but again that depends on the date and promotion (weekends are slightly more expensive). The main thing to note is that the difference between the Dugout Box down low between the bases and Infield Box in the upper rows is  $1, while the Baseline Box seats further down the lines are $2 cheaper than that.



The park is not as elaborate as other new stadiums at this level, with the design quite similar to some AA parks that I have recently visited. The single seating bowl is below the concourse, with a few buildings behind that contain suites and the press box.



There is a path that encircles the entire stadium, and there are a few interesting things to note. There is a small tribute to Omaha native Bob Gibson along a back wall near the main entrance. Behind third base is a small standing table that allows you to rest your drink and your scorebook and gives a good view of the action.



A Family Fun Zone with a Ferris wheel and foosball table is in the left field corner, and an autograph bridge has been set up to allow fans to seek signatures as players walk from the clubhouse.



The stadium naming rights are owned by Werner Enterprises, a trucking company, and they have a series of plaques dedicated to their drivers who have completed more than 1 million, 2 million, 3 million miles. One gentleman has driven over 5 million miles, which assuming an average speed of 60 MPH, is nearly 10 years on the road.



Along the right field line is Gary's Greens, a six-hole mini golf course, while a tribute to Rosenblatt Stadium can be found on the main concourse near first base.



The sun sets beyond third base, so sit along that side to avoid the sun in your eyes for the first five innings of an evening game.



There are a number of concessions with a good variety at reasonable prices. My favourite stand was selling Nebraska Brewing Company cans for $6; these cans have lids that come completely off (as opposed to small tabs), an interesting innovation that debuted just last month. There are also your typical promotions throughout the game that are handled by an in-game host who is not overbearing. There are lots of giveaways throughout the game depending on what happens on the field.



Overall, I really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere here, quite surprising given Gordon's appearance and the 8,000+ fans that attended both games. The concourses were more than wide enough for the crowds, with the only issue being on exit, when there were coupons being handed out that caused a bit of a traffic jam. Fans are friendly as are all the staff and ushers. The Storm Chasers won the PCL title in 2011 and the AAA championship in 2013 (a game I attended) and 2014. It's no coincidence that the Royals went to the World Series in 2014 and won it all in 2015. This organization, long the laughing stock of baseball, breeds winning and it shows here at Werner Park. Make plans to visit if you have yet to do so.

The Games

The Zephyrs (Miami's affiliate) were in town in a reversal of the matchup I saw in New Orleans just two weeks prior.



In the first game, Robert Andino (#11 above) led off with a home run off Miguel Almonte (Royals #4 prospect) and followed that up with a 2-run double in the second. In between that, Omaha's Ramon Torres tripled and scored on a Gordon (#6 below) groundout. The teams traded runs in the 6th, including a Jorge Bonifacio home run for Omaha that cut their deficit to 4-2. Unfortunately, the Storm Chaser bullpen fell apart in the last couple of innings as both Joe Beimel and Tyler Olson were slapped around as the Zephyrs added five runs, including another homer from Andino as New Orleans won 9-3.



The second game featured Alec Mills (22nd round, 2012, KC's #11 prospect) making his second AAA start for Omaha taking on Chris Reed (16th overall in 2011 by LA), who had a brief spell in the majors last year. The Chasers scored two in the second on a Torres single, and added another couple in the third on a couple of doubles and a wild pitch. As Reed slowly walked back to the mound after the wild pitch, he hung his head and I have never seen an athlete look so sad. I thought perhaps that his dog had died, but he is from England, so I guess he was just depressed about Brexit.

Anyway, the Zephyrs managed a run off Mills in the 6th on a walk, single, and double play, but that was all they would get. Omaha added two more in the 8th on RBI singles from Gordon and Bonifacio to win 6-1. Mills went 6.2 innings yielding just 5 hits and the lone earned run, so he gets my Player to Watch award.

Notes

The Zephyrs have announced the seven finalists for their new nickname. All of them have some connection to the city, such as Crawfish, King Cakes, and Po'Boys, but my vote is for Red Eyes. Ostensibly this refers to crawfish, but it also has links to New Orleans' wild nightlife scene, from which many revelers wake with red eyes. Results will be announced in a couple of weeks.

Best,

Sean

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