by Chris Kamler
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Landmark columnist and now travel writer Chris Kamler gives a first person account of his one-tank trip to Omaha for some AAA baseball)
Summertime means hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet but most importantly, baseball. While there are a million other activities to do in the summer, baseball occupies a great deal of my family's time when the days get long.
We always try to take at least one or two baseball trips while the kid is out of school. But with gas so expensive, we're looking for an economical weekend getaway that doesn't have a comma in it.
Let's face it, the next time a gallon of gas falls under $3 will be when they find a way to make gas out of lawn clippings, so you're likely trying to find somewhere fun and close to take your family this summer.
One outstanding destination is Omaha, Neb., the home of the Omaha Storm Chasers, the AAA affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.
Platte County is only about three hours south of Omaha and the town is going through a major expansion. The south-western portion of town is called “Southport” and is the home to the brand new Werner Park. If you remember coming up to Omaha Royals games when you were little, this isn't your father's Rosenblatt Stadium - with the concessions under the bleachers and the claustrophobic restrooms. No, Werner Park is a family-friendly home for the Storm Chasers. No longer do they share the stadium with the NCAA's College World Series. Those guys got their own stadium across town at TD Ameritrade Park.
Werner Park is the first tent pole in what will eventually be a nightlife district similar to KC Live at Power & Light. The complex right now consists of just the park. It is close to several hotels and all the amenities of Omaha, including the world renowned Omaha Zoo. Omaha is also host to the NCAA College World Series in June which can now be played simultaneously with Storm Chasers games, which is a fact not lost on in-game events announcer Ben Hemmen.
“We almost sold out several days during the CWS last year,” Hemmen told The Landmark.
Werner Park is laid out similarly to many new minor league ballparks, with 360 degree views, seats angled toward the field and lots and lots of concessions. The food choices here range from standard hot dogs to Reuben sandwiches, as well as hamburgers made from Omaha Steaks. I personally tried the Reuben. It was prepared fresh right in front of me and tasted delicious.
The stadium is also a fantastic place to meet friends as there are several outdoor patios, suites and something called the “Jim Beam Club” which, for professional, journalistic reasons, I steered far away from.
If you've got kids, there are a ton of family activities including a pick-up basketball course, a whiffle ball field - similar to the “Little K--and a bouncy house area complete with merry-go-round. All the activities are free to ticket holders and provide plenty of distractions for your kids from a slow-paced game.
In fact, with shifting rosters of players coming in and out of the team, the Chasers' management focuses on the Werner Park experience rather than marketing players who could be here one day, and gone the next.
Martie Cordero, general manager of the Storm Chasers, said, “We know we don't control the weather, and we know we don't control the baseball. So we really need to make sure our ballparks are affordable, fun and family friendly.”
The Storm Chasers’ staff really goes over the top on in-game entertainment and works extremely hard to get people out to the park. Cordero said that he wants the fans to have “a nine-inning vacation.”
The park has a giveaway or promotion just about every night of the week. From Friday Fireworks, to T-Shirt Tuesday, you're nearly guaranteed to walk away with something. And if you'd like to get Storm Chasers gear, the team shop is conveniently placed between the field and the parking lot where you can buy jerseys, hats, foam fingers, dog leashes, shorts, programs and just about anything else with the new Storm Chasers logo slapped on the side of it. Prices for souveniers were comparable to Kauffman Stadium, so bring your credit card.
The best thing about minor league baseball, in my opinion anyway, is the between inning promotions and Werner Park crams them into every nook and crannie in a game. They have foul balls sponsored by a window company. They have dizzy bat races and they even have a pie in the face promotion where a lucky kid gets to throw a pie in the face of his or her parent. The folks over at Kauffman can really learn some lessons from these folks on how to entertain during a game.
One of the co-owners of the Storm Chasers is billionaire Warren Buffet, but that doesn't mean the Chasers aren't out to make a couple of bucks on the operation. Just about everything here is sponsored by one company or another. Even the concourse is sponsored by a local hospital chain. This helps to keep ticket prices affordable, with the cheapest weekend ticket costing $7 with free parking. Try to beat that at the Truman Sports Complex.
For those Royals fans who follow the team closely, the baseball in Omaha is perhaps the most exciting part - as it should be - even though it is not a constant for most fans. The defending Pacific Coast League Champions, the Omaha Storm Chasers, as of this writing, have only lost two games at home and are six games in first place in their division.
The team is built of stars on the rise like outfielder Wil Myers and pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery. The Chasers have also kept up their share of the challenge to entertain fans as they have had five walk-off wins so far in what is their second full season at Werner Park.
Some of the folks to make sure you keep an eye on include:
Jake Odorizzi - Pitcher who was just called up from AA-Northwest Arkansas. His fastball tops out around 95 with a wicked curveball that Storm Chasers’ announcer Mark Nasser calls “The Uncle Charlie”. He pitched the Friday I was there and was solid in his first AAA outing. There are already calls for him to make it up to Kansas City by the end of the season.
Wil Myers - Outfielder also just up from Arkansas. This kid is a hitter who might give Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas a run for their money before his career is over. He is a former first round draft pick who is also on a short list for Kansas City.
Mike Montgomery - Pitcher who is also looking to rebound from a terrible year last year but has shown some promise of late.
If you come just for the game, you're bound to have a great time, but try to come about an hour early and watch the end of batting practice. Stand out in left field over by the player's clubhouse and not only are you almost guaranteed a free baseball, but it's a great place to stand and get autographs as the players walk right past you to their locker rooms.
ONE-TANK TRIP - WERNER PARK
I found Werner Park to be a surprisingly great experience. I only remember visits to old, stale Rosenblatt Stadium. Werner Park is a 180 degree opposite experience that eclipses a T-Bones game and almost eclipses a Royals game. It is an excellent option if you're looking for a two or three day trip that includes some baseball. You can leave Platte County on Saturday morning, easily work this into a trip to the zoo along with a Sunday afternoon game and be back in Kansas City by Sunday night.
Do you have a one-tank trip that we need to check out? Let us know! Contact Chris through his web site at ramblingmorons.com