Sometimes, it seems, we overthink what goes on in a ballpark. At the end of the day, baseball is a simple game: You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. And, at the end of the day, a ballpark is simply a place to have fun. That realization is on full display at Werner Park, the new home of the Omaha Storm Chasers (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League): it’s a place for the family to hang out, watch some baseball and have lots of fun.
Year Opened: 2011
Capacity: 9,023 (includes 6,434 fixed seats)
Cost: $26 million
Naming Rights: Werner Enterprises, a national trucking company whose headquarters are just down the road from the ballpark, is paying $305,000 annually over five years, with an option for a five-year renewal.
Owner: Sarpy County
Architect: DLR Group
Construction: The Weitz Company
Dimensions: 310L, 402C, 315R
Team: Omaha Storm Chasers
Level: Class AAA
League: Pacific Coast League
Parent: Kansas City Royals
Home Dugout: Third-base side
Ticket Prices (2011): The Storm Chasers have a variable-ticketing scheme; in general weekend tickets are more expensive than weekday tickets. Club, $16.50/$15.50; Field Box, $12.50/$11.50; Box, $10/$9; Homerun Porch, $6.50; Berm, $6.
Parking: Free on gravel lot, $2 on paved lots.
Address/Directions: 12356 Ballpark Way, Papillion, NE 68046. The ballpark is located on Highway 370, a major throughway running east-west through Papillion. From Omaha, take I-80 south and exit on Hwy. 370; head east to the ballpark, which will be on your left and hard to miss. The freeway exit is marked.
With a huge play area, lots of open spaces and plenty of hospitality spots big and small, Werner Park is pretty much the opposite of the former home of the Storm Chasers, Rosenblatt Stadium, where things were small and cramped. The Storm Chasers management – led by President Alan Stein and Vice President/General Manager Martie Cordaro – had a game plan early on: create a ballpark friendly to groups and families, with enough flourishes to keep the fans coming out throughout the season.
It is a success, by any measure. Build for a relatively modest $26 million, Werner Park is an inviting place to take in a game and should serve the team well for decades to come.
First off, the ballpark design. You’d think a baseball facility comprising 15 separate buildings would be an older ballpark retrofitted over the years, but that’s not the case here: there was a conscious decision by architect DLR Group to build a modular ballpark. Now, we’re seen plenty of talk over the year about the notion of a modular ballpark, but this is the first case of one being successfully completed. Some of the buildings were built on-site; others prefabricated and trucked in. The buildings constructed on-site use some local materials – they’re the ones built with Nebraska limestone on the exterior – but all feature the same design aesthetic: a vaguely prairie style with lots of corrugated steel and limestone.
As we noted, the ballpark isn’t one monolithic grandstand, but rather 15 separate buildings. Behind home base is a freestanding grandstand featuring 14 suites, two party areas and a press box. A second-level walkway connects to the spacious and airy Storm Chasers office space, which also features a conference space named for minority owner Warren Buffett. Two separate restroom buildings are down each line, while concession and clubhouse buildings are located in the left-field corner and outfield space. A first-aid building and team store are also part of the mix.
The design holds together despite the plethora of buildings. In fact, this is the Little Ballpark on the Prairie. It occupies a prominent spot in Papillion that’s still fairly rural but should be built up in coming years, as Omaha creeps southward. There’s not much now preventing winds from sweeping in off the prairie, but the views (especially from the second level of the grandstand) are great. The ballpark and two of the parking lots are built on 31 acres of land, and there’s plenty of open undeveloped land surrounding the ballpark. It’s been a windy ballpark so far – a little annoying when temperatures were cool at the beginning of the year – but so far that’s been OK with fans.
It’s logical that a ballpark broken into 15 separate buildings would be a ballpark made up of several disparate areas, each appealing to a different demographic. It also allows for large crowds without anyone feeling cramped; the attendance during our visit was 8,658, well past the seating capacity, but we didn’t experience many long lines past one for funnel cakes.
Here’s a mini-tour of the many ballpark areas, starting in the left-field corner:
- The 6,800-square-foot Centris Family Fun Zone features multiple bouncy houses, a large Rainbow play area and a merry-go-round once used at Universal Studios, complete with panels featuring cartoon characters like Woody Woodpecker. Admission for unlimited play is $5, and it was packed during our visit.
- The Mike Jirschele Dugout Suite is located down the third-base line and was built as a traditional dugout, along with conveniences like bar-style seating. It’s available on a nightly basis.
- Group areas are located in each corner. The left-field tent will have its own cooking equipment come August, allowing for food prep on site.
- The Home Run Porch, past the outfield wall in left field, seats 320 and costs a whopping $6.50. While it is available for groups, single tickets reign for most games. Next to it is the first phone recharging station we’ve ever seen at a ballpark – perfect for those businessmen’s specials.
- The Downdraught Bar, located underneath the scoreboard, features the only bottom-up beer dispenser we know of in the minors. A small magnet on the bottom of the glass allows for a small opening, filling the glass with beer. We wrote about it here.
- The berm is large, affordable and filled with families. It’s there you’ll get a good view of the outfield fence, which is highly irregular (concave in right, jagged in left). One particular jag became an attractive spot for signage; your eye is immediately attracted to the large, red, foldout space.
- Double-decker bullpens are next to the batters eye. Fans can wander right up and attempt to chat with the players; a group of kids was successful in attracting the attention of some Storm Chasers, who tossed them bubble gum.
- The grandstand features the 14 suites, two party areas and the Jim Beam Club, a half-enclosed bar with screen doors opening to the action. The other half of the club is open and features bar-style seating as well as overhead heaters. The 14 suites are named after historic figures in Omaha baseball history, ranging from Omaha natives Wade Boggs and Richie Ashburn to former O-Royals like John Wathan and George Brett. Jack McKeon, who guided the O-Royals when they entered what was then the American Association, is similarly honored. Bob Gibson, arguably the most successful Omaha native ever to play in the majors, is honored with Bob Gibson Boulevard, a stretch of concourse featuring giant posters of Gibson in action.
It is a ballpark with something for everyone. Because of the smaller size, the sightlines are great in the seating bowl, which means those coming to the game to focus on the actual game (this is Triple-A baseball, after all; most of Kansas City’s young stars-in-training spent time in Omaha) should be pleased. Those whose baseball attention is more limited are free to roam, and the kids can wander safely around the ballpark, partaking in supervised basketball and whiffle ball.
Now, our perceptions of Werner Park may be skewed because it came directly after a visit to downtown’s TD Ameritrade Park, a place so focused on the game that fun and diversions are not part of the picture. But comparisons between the two are inevitable, and it’s clear Werner Park presents the better game-day experience. Of course, they’re built for different purposes, so the comparison isn’t totally valid. Still, Werner Park is one of the better minor-league ballparks to come online in recent years and compares favorable to the best. It’s worth a special trip if you’re not in the Omaha area and should be a mandatory stop if you are.
Burgers from Omaha beef, Mexican offerings from La Mesa and some rather interesting hot-dog combinations were among the highlights. Ovations is concessionaire for the ballpark, and the offerings in general are better than average.
If you’re hungry, make a beeline for the first-base side of the ballpark; the burger stand and the La Mesa stand are next to each other. La Mesa is run by the local Mexican chain, while Ovations runs the burger stand, and the food from both is great. The $6 half-pound cheeseburger is highly recommended. Similarly, the hot-dog stand down the way (also run by Ovations) offers a number of variations on the humble dog: the Omaha Dog costs $5 and features kraut as well as a spicy sauce.
And, of course, you can buy a Reuben sandwich – which was invented in Omaha – at the ballpark as well.
Other highlights include a Famous Dave’s BBQ stand and an ice-cream stand. Most concession stands feature corporate beer (Bud, Bud Light, etc.), but search out the beer stand serving microbrews like Summit EPA, a Goose Island brew, Tallgrass Oasis and SchillingBridge Scottish ale.
In general, the food is above average and very affordable.
Before/After the Game
There’s not a lot near the ballpark in terms of diversions. Beer fans will want to head east on Hwy. 370 to the Shadow Lake Town Center and visit Nebraska Brewing Co., an above-average brewpub in an open lifestyle mall. The offering range from some mainstream brews like the Cardinal Pale Ale to adventurous offerings like an apricot saison.
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