Lou Felici started going to minor league baseball games at Municipal Stadium in 1949 and never stopped.
He and his sweetheart, Helen, walked uphill from her home on nearby 12th Street to watch the Omaha Cardinals play. They learned they were compatible — she was even more of a sports fan than he.
Through each of their 48 years of marriage, they spent dozens of summer nights in the hilltop ballyard. The names changed: Municipal became Rosenblatt Stadium, the Cardinals were replaced by the Dodgers and then the Omaha Royals, and minor league baseball became second fiddle to the College World Series.
Helen died in 2002 and was buried with a baseball in her hands. Lou continued going to Royals' games. He planned to be there Thursday night, sitting in the couple's seats next to the visitors' dugout, for what figures to be the last minor league baseball game ever played at Rosenblatt Stadium.
“I'm sad about it,” said Felici, 79. “But it was fun while it lasted.”
The Royals' last regular season game at the 62-year-old stadium may strike some as anti-climactic, a part of the dénouement in the Rosenblatt story after the College World Series' dramatic last blast there in June.
The stadium's not quite dead. The Omaha Nighthawks will play professional football there this fall, beginning Sept. 24. Omaha Central and Creighton Prep plan to play a high school football game at Rosenblatt Oct. 8, a reprise of their classic 1960 contest involving Gale Sayers. And Henry Doorly Zoo officials, who will take ownership of Rosenblatt Jan. 1, haven't announced a demolition date yet.
Yet, to die-hard devotees of Triple-A baseball like Lou Felici, this is the end.
And a lot of more casual fans apparently agree, or at least they want to be able to say they were there. By Wednesday afternoon, the Royals had sold about 16,000 tickets to Thursday night's game. They're expecting 18,000 to 20,000 people for their 7 p.m. Rosenblatt finale.
It will include a 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Fan Fest, appearances by former Dodgers, Cardinals and Royals players, a pre-game ceremony with Hall of Famer Frank White and other Kansas City Royals greats and postgame fireworks.
“There wouldn't have been a Rosenblatt Stadium without professional baseball,” said Martie Cordaro, Omaha Royals general manager.
Thursday night is meant to be a fitting farewell as the Royals prepare to move next year to a new stadium in Sarpy County.
“We have been very fortunate,” Cordaro said.
Sandy Buda will be there too, maybe after tailgating with fellow longtime fans Bob and Jackie Nunez and family and Bob Mackie, who attended the first game at Municipal Stadium on Oct. 17, 1948. They have shared Rosenblatt box seats for many years.
“It's like a funeral for Box 17,” Buda said.
Long before his stint as UNO's head football coach, Buda learned to love baseball at Rosenblatt.
“I've had four homes that I've lived in since I was born on 12th Street, and I count Rosenblatt as one of them,” said Buda, 65. “My dad used to take me there when I was a little fart. And then at age 8 I started selling concessions there.”
Buda turned numbers in the stadium scoreboard in the late 1950s. Then he worked on the grounds crew until he went to college.
“The people who have played there, it's amazing,” Buda said.
Exhibitions brought numerous major league stars, including Richie Ashburn, Stan Musial and Willie Mays, to Rosenblatt. Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and George Brett and 2009 American League Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke played on minor league teams based at Rosenblatt.
Buda said he and the Box 17 crew take in the College World Series, too. But unlike many CWS fans, he prefers the baseball played the rest of the summer.
On Monday night, Felici noted, the Royals' hottest prospect, Mike Moustakas, hit three home runs and drove in 11 runs at Rosenblatt.
“You never know what you're going to see there,” said Felici, who estimated that he has missed no more than five games a year in 42 years as a Royals season ticket holder. “I like the pace of the game and everything else, just the nice summer evenings at Rosenblatt.”
The Omaha Royals, maybe with a new name, will still play Triple-A baseball, and several longtime fans said they'll go to the new stadium to watch. But it won't be the same as the familiar confines of Rosenblatt.
“There's an ambience that old stadiums have that the new ones just don't,” Buda said.
Felici said he'll follow the team to Sarpy County but doesn't plan to buy season tickets. He feels like he's too old to go to all the games and, if he had season tickets, he'd be itching to go to every one.
“I'll miss Rosenblatt,” Felici said.
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