Baseball in Nebraska: A whole other ballgame

Something has to fill a cornhusk-sized hole in Nebraska sports fans’ lives when the Husker Football team is not in-season. No, it’s not World Cup soccer, and it certainly isn’t an NBA or NHL playoff series. It’s baseball, a sport whose rich history in Nebraska makes it a whole other ballgame.

Nebraska has no big-league ballclub. The closest team is the Royals in Kansas City. And yet, the state is host to the College World Series, minor-league squads in Omaha and Lincoln, scores of summer teams sponsored by the American Legion and even more clubs for select grade-schoolers.

Lincoln's historic Sherman Field has been at the heart of baseball in Nebraska. Photo: Wade Hilligoss, NewsNetNebraska

“Just like football we’re stuck in tradition,” said Scott Ballinger, a baseball lifer who has played high school, college and semi-pro ball and has coached for 13 years in the American Legion, high school and little league ranks. “Nebraska has so much respect for the game, and it goes all over the state.”

Ballinger played at Wakefield Senior High school in a city where 1,600 residents thought their town was the baseball capital of the state. He said that it was true when he was growing up and it’s still true today. “People all around Nebraska have their own history and way of embracing the game.”

High school baseball, a springtime affair, morphs into summer leagues sponsored by the American Legion. Officials of the organization, which sponsors summer baseball teams all over the country, say Nebraska has had over 10 million players since its inception in 1925. In 2009, there were over 4100 players on over 300 teams.

“Nebraska is behind only Minnesota and Pennsylvania in the number of legion teams we have by state,” said Mike Sterns, a coach for 20 years at the high school level in Nebraska. “A long time ago, when everything was more spread out, legion ball was what brought towns together. Baseball surely has a place in the history of Nebraska.”

Add to the legion numbers 57 more select little league teams, Nebraska and Creighton NCAA Division I teams, and many other four-year and community college teams and it seems amateur baseball in Nebraska is plentiful.

Mike Babcock, a Nebraska baseball historian and sports journalist in the state for 33 years says that there’s an affection for baseball in Nebraska that goes beyond just watching and playing the game.

“It has to have some connection to the fact that Nebraska is a rural agrarian state. There just has to be a connection. It’s the same kind of work ethic,” Babcock said.

Babcock explained that growing up in York, Nebr., there was always baseball on the radio, especially the Saint Louis Cardinals and Kansas City Royals. He said that it was easy for western Nebraska farmers to just turn on Saint Louis broadcaster Jack Buck and listen.  [media id=14 width=360 height=264]

Baseball has deep roots in the capital city of Nebraska. At the heart of it all is Sherman Field, Lincoln’s oldest field that still stands today. Click the picture to see NewsNetNebraska’s Wade Hilligoss give you a brief history.

“It’s easy to do other things with the radio in the background and you’re not tied to the television. Baseball really crept in that way in the 50’s and 60’s,” Babcock said. “There’s a very democratic aspect. It’s kind of like a soundtrack to your life.”

Sterns echoed this sentiment and added that as a child, he even used to listen to Royals games late at night after he went to bed before his mother would steal back the radio.

“Nebraskans of my age grew up with Kansas City as our team,” said Sterns. “We have both a radio and TV affiliate, and there’s no other major league team that’s that close to us so they really have a stranglehold on the market.”

Kansas City knows Nebraska loves its baseball so it even makes the effort to send a caravan of players and other team officials through Lincoln and Omaha to advertise during every offseason. Of course, it could have something to do with a little hometown Nebraska flavor.

At a time when many Nebraskans are becoming Detroit Lions fans in the NFL, simply because of former defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, it is easy to see why it was fate when former Husker baseball standout and Lincoln resident Alex Gordon was drafted 2nd overall by the Royals in 2005.

Gordon is now the team’s starting third baseman and has an ongoing rivalry with former Husker teammate and current New York Yankees relief pitcher Joba Chamberlain.

Sterns said it’s hard to remember the last time Nebraska had two local kids move up to Major League Baseball at the same time, and he calls it “amazing” that they both made it up from Lincoln at the same time.

“Nebraska really rallied around those guys,” Sterns said. “Alex had a hard go of it early though, probably form the pressure of being the local kid and everybody from Nebraska is on his back.”

Another bonus for baseball fans in Nebraska came when Gordon, on his way to the major leagues spent time at Kansas City’s triple-A affiliate, which just happens to be in Omaha. The Omaha Royals are just one of the two pro baseball teams that Nebraska has as well.

“When you talk about baseball in Nebraska, just look at Omaha. It’s a baseball Mecca,” said Jeff Motz, a longtime sports broadcaster in Nebraska.  “There a ton of really good baseball prospects in the metro. They also have the College World Series. It’s kind of a hidden secret, but people in Nebraska just follow the game, they don’t care who it is.”

One of the proudest elements of the Nebraska baseball faithful presides in Omaha as the CWS has been played in the metro since 1950. A pilgrimage for many around the state, the college baseball championships has a long history in Nebraska that draws enormous crowds every year. In 2008, the NCAA signed an agreement with the city of Omaha that will keep the tournament in the city through 2035 as long as a new ballpark was built.

TD Ameritrade Park Omaha will open in 2011, and alongside a new park in Sarpy County for the Omaha Royals and Haymarket park in Lincoln, three pro-style ballparks will have been built in Nebraska’s two biggest cities in ten years.

Haymarket, which opened in 2001, is the home of the UNL baseball team and the Lincoln Saltdogs, and independent minor league team which will celebrate its tenth year of operation this year and will enter this season as defending American Association champions.

Huskers meet on the mound during a recent game. Photo: BreAnna Haessler, NU Media Relations

Along with the new commitment to baseball that Nebraska is showing with these new ballparks, the state appreciates its past in the sport.

An example is Sherman Field, which has stood in southwest Lincoln since May of 1947. Current Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler announced in early 2009 that Sherman is up for renovation through public funding as part of the Lincoln Cares Community Program. This city-owned landmark park will head into another chapter of its long history, thanks to the passion and appreciation by Lincoln’s citizens for the city’s oldest baseball field that at one time housed minor league baseball.

“If and when we can get the money, this will be a really great stadium,” said Sherman Field groundskeeper Bob Greco. “They would renovate everything, from the bathrooms to the concession stands. It will be really great.”

Making what’s old new again isn’t always an easy feat, but if it has something to do with baseball, Nebraska will always find a way to make it happen.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the Huskers, or Creighton, or the Royals or the Saltdogs, Nebraskans are just baseball fans,” said Sterns. “Baseball is a lot better today that is was 10 years ago here. Players are getting better. The coaching is getting better, everything is just evolving.”

As so too are its fans, especially in Nebraska. And there’s a reason they call them the boys of summer. From the first spring baseball games in high schools and colleges, to the CWS in June, to the crack of the bat in the area legion tournament in August, it’s a long and exciting ride when baseball season comes around in the cornhusker state.

So for those who claim “The Good Life”, lace them up, the season is only getting started.

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