April 29, 2015 by

Article originally published in Omaha Magazine’s May/June 2015 issue.

What a difference a year makes.

Last year, Werner Park, a beautiful gem of a baseball stadium nestled in rural Sarpy County and home to the two-time Triple-A National Champion Omaha Storm Chasers, padded its reputation as a premier destination for families. With typical minor league zest and a marketing strategy to attract customers that would make P.T. Barnum proud, the Storm Chasers, Kansas City’s top farm team, appealed to even the most casual baseball fan.

Here is where children devoured cotton candy and played wiffle ball; nursing home residents enjoyed hot dogs with a side of bingo; adults contemplated the laws of physics at the Bottoms Up beer dispensary as their glasses filled from bottom to top; couples seated on the berm beyond the outfield wall cooed under the stars, and corporate managers wooed clients under the Hy-Vee picnic pavilion.

Oh, and the baseball was pretty entertaining, too. A few number crunchers sat in sun-drenched stadium seats and, armed with pencil and score sheet, feverishly filled in box scores as the Storm Chasers lit up the scoreboard. The team captured the Pacific Coast League title and the national title for the second year in a row under new skipper Brian Poldberg. The champagne flowed.

Then the age-old narrative, “The Storm Chasers are so much better than the Royals,” began to unravel. On September 16, the night the Chasers captured the one-game Class AAA crown against the Pawtucket Red Sox, their parent club was nearing the end of the regular season, still in contention.

Let’s play that back: the Royals were still in contention.

For 29 years, since George Brett became a folk hero in the 1985 World Series, the Royals had been one of the saddest teams in baseball—perennial basement dwellers and sufferers of multiple 100-loss seasons. Had “Wait ‘til next year!” finally arrived?

Midlanders and their playoff-starved brethren along the I-29 corridor between Omaha and Kansas City held their breath as the Royals made it to the end of September with an American League Wild Card berth in hand. Overnight, the Royals went from punch line to headline. They also went
on a tear.

With clutch hitting, aggressive base stealing, a shut-em-down bullpen and acrobatic defensive plays, the Royals sliced through the cream of the American League with the precision of a sushi chef, setting an MLB record by winning eight playoff games in a row. When they completed a sweep of the Baltimore Orioles and punched their ticket to the World Series against the San Francisco Giants, Kauffman Stadium erupted into a pandemonium only pent-up, pure joy can create. Heck, even nice-guy actor Paul Rudd, a native of Overland Park, Kan., went on camera and invited all Royals fans to his mom’s house for a kegger.

The glitter from that joyous American League pennant celebration drifted north and settled over Werner Park in Papillion. Or was it the other way around?

“Oh, you’re talking about the Storm Chasers South?” cracks Martie Cordaro, president and general manager of Omaha’s minor league team. “That’s what I call the Royals: Storm Chasers South,” he says with tongue only half in cheek.

Cordaro’s point is well taken. Consider this: 14 players on the Royals’ World Series roster came through Omaha at one point or another. The Giants listed three. The Royals’ farm system was showing some teeth.

“Kansas City and [Royals’ general manager] Dayton Moore started their draft process in 2007 and three years later those draft picks started to develop into Triple-A players,” says Cordaro, who came to Omaha in ’07 when the team was known as the Omaha Royals and played at the beloved but aging Rosenblatt Stadium. “By 2011 this franchise, under manager Mike Jirschele, started to put it all together.”

April 16, 2011 proved historic on many levels. Omaha’s Triple-A team debuted a new name, a new $36-million ballpark, and several players who would eventually play key roles in the Royals’ championship run. Anyone who joined the sellout crowd at Werner Park on Opening Day that year saw Eric Hosmer go 3-3, Mike Moustakas drive in a run and left-hander Danny Duffy hurl four innings of one-hit ball. Lorenzo Cain was also a member of the ’11 squad. In a preview of things to come, the team made it to the minor league title game, losing to the Columbus Clippers.

Duffy, who showed up at spring training this year with a revamped physique, looks back on his year in Omaha with pride.

“I actually got to throw the first pitch in the new park,” a called strike right down the middle. “We had an amazing team that year with Hosmer and Moose. We really got it rolling,” the 26-year-old says. “Now you look at the team with its three PCL titles and two national championships in four years and it feels really good to be a part of the group that got that run started. It speaks to the coaching staff and how great they are.”

As the Triple-A team collected playoff hardware, its parent club began to get incrementally better because the pipeline from Omaha to Kansas City started to funnel players who have known nothing but winning at every rung of the baseball ladder.

“I coached those guys in 2010 when we won the Texas League Championship,” says Poldberg, who coached the Royals’ Northwest Arkansas Double-A team for six seasons before replacing Jirschele in Omaha last year. “We sent Hosmer and Moustakas and Johnny Giavotella (now with the Angels) and all those guys up here to Omaha in ’11,” says Poldberg, who coached the Royals’ Northwest Arkansas Double-A team for six seasons before replacing Jirschele in Omaha last year.

What helped turn things around for the Royals? Poldberg thinks it’s the same intangible that made the Storm Chasers champions: “Chemistry. The guys get along as well as any team I’ve ever had. They enjoy being together on and off the field, and they care about each other,“ says the a baseball lifer who has been with the Royals organization 30 years. “Talent and ability take you a long way, but the camaraderie these guys had was just phenomenal.”

No one better exemplifies the kind of “character player” the Royals try to draft than Nebraska’s own Alex Gordon (profiled in the July/August 2014 issue of Omaha Magazine). When the Royals switched his position from third base to left field in 2010, Gordon, already on a rehab assignment in Omaha, showed up at Rosenblatt Stadium every morning and drove himself mercilessly to learn how to field a ball pinging off a wall. So how fitting was it that the Lincoln native, the winner of four consecutive Gold Glove awards, would get the last hit of
the World Series?

Game 7, bottom of the ninth with two outs and the score 3-2. With the Royals trailing by a run, Gordon comes to the plate. He faces a freak of nature named Madison Bumgarner, the most dominant pitcher of the playoffs. Gordon connects and drives a single up left-center field. The ball bounces past Gregor Blanco and dribbles to the wall. Gordon motors to second and then heads to third, where third base coach Mike Jirschele, who had been called up by the Royals at the beginning of the season, holds him on the bag. “I just put my head down and kept running, looking at Jirsch,” Gordon told reporters later, adding he never doubted Jirschele’s decision not to wave him home.

Gordon remained stranded at third, 90 feet away from tying the game—90 feet from pulling out another improbable play in a season full of them. But the World Series loss didn’t invalidate the Royals’ resurrection, or dim the spotlight suddenly shining on the Storm Chasers.

This year, Werner Park has assumed an extra dimension: a destination for serious baseball fans.

“The demeanor of the whole organization has changed,” says Poldberg, who still lives in his hometown of Carter Lake, Iowa. “Now, our guys expect to make the playoffs and our fans are coming to see them before they make it to the majors and become stars.”

The love affair between Omaha and baseball began 90 years before the Royals organization came on board. Minor league records show the Omaha Green Stockings played in the Northwestern League in 1879 before folding after one year. The Green Stockings were followed by a steady series of independent teams beginning in 1885. Various incarnations included the Omaha Omahogs, Indians, Rangers, Rourkes, Buffaloes, Crickets, Packers, and Robin Hoods. In 1947, Omaha became part of the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system. Omaha native and Cardinals pitching legend Bob Gibson made his Triple-A debut here in 1957. (Werner Park unveiled a statue of the Hall of Famer two years ago). The Omaha franchise then became affiliated with the L.A. Dodgers in ’61 and ’62.

Kansas City ushered Omaha into the modern era in 1969, the same year the Royals became an American League expansion team. “Our affiliation with the Royals is the longest Triple-A affiliation in the country,” Cordaro points out. The continued success of the 45-year relationship, he believes, hinges primarily on the Chasers’ outreach in the community. The team may focus on player development, but Cordaro focuses on people. Given his Sicilian heritage and upbringing in the Deep South, Cordaro respects the importance of families and is a natural at creating a fun venue for them.

While many Omahans cling to fond memories of the now-demolished Rosenblatt Stadium and the neighborhood around it, Cordaro and his crew work hard to create new memories at Werner Park. This year will offer highly engaging entertainment. On May 27, the Royals’ production team brings their promotions, music, and mascot for a “Salute to the Royals” night during the Storm Chasers game. “That show is the extension of the Royals’ playoff success and our closer relationship,” says Cordaro. “The Royals now realize what a growth area Omaha and Nebraska are.”

In another sign of respect for Omaha, the 2015 Triple-A All-Star game comes here for four days in July, beginning Sunday, July 12. Cordaro is particularly proud of securing Minor League Baseball’s biggest event. “The All-Star game has never been played here in Omaha,” he says. “It’s going to be great exposure for the Metro community.” The MLB network will televise the game July 15.

What else is new at Werner Park? A six-hole mini golf course down the right field line, and something else that’s very hard to miss: a brand new state-of-the-art, high-def LED scoreboard with wide angle visibility—twice as big and twice as clear as the video board it replaced.

Another flashy sign of the Chasers’ success can be found on fingers. Executives, front office staff, and premier sponsors received their 2014 Triple-A championship rings during a ceremony at Borsheims on March 12. The players and coaches received theirs a week later in Surprise, Arizona.

The team collaborated with the fine jewelry store on the design, just as they did for last year’s championship rings. Made of stainless steel and encrusted with sapphires and crystals, the rings say “Back to Back National Champions” around the depiction of a fittingly stormy vortex. Each recipient’s name is engraved on the side.

Storm Chasers co-owners Gary Green and Alan Stein attended the ring ceremony in Omaha, clearly caught up in the moment. “I’ve owned a lot of teams through the years and I’ve gotten some rings,” says Stein, “but this is by far my favorite.” Addressing the 50 or so people in attendance, Green told them, ”Yes, the rings are big and bulky (laughter), but that’s on purpose—to show our
pride in them.”

What difference did a year make? Closeted Royals fans have taken the paper bags off their heads and proudly wear their team’s gear, high-fiving each other in public places; Omaha fans thump their chests, reminding Royals’ Nation, “We knew those guys before you knew those guys;” national media requests for Royals coverage have doubled; the Storm Chasers have cemented their elite status; and Martie Cordaro envisions the ring ceremony as an annual event.

Everybody loves a winner.

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