Thursday’s major league game between Kansas City and Detroit at TD Ameritrade Park will feature a number of players who will be in Omaha for the first time and another who knows the city all too well.
Whit Merrifield will forever be a part of College World Series lore because of his walk-off hit in the final championship game at Rosenblatt Stadium. But the South Carolina standout transformed himself into a potential big league star, spending parts of four summers playing Triple-A ball across town.
Understandably, Merrifield has conflicting feelings about his days in Omaha. His 2010 championship run with the Gamecocks provided cherished memories for a lifetime, but opening a pair of seasons with the Storm Chasers, after nearly making the Royals out of spring training, were times he’d rather forget.
Merrifield’s feelings for Omaha came up upon his return to Werner Park for an exhibition game with the Royals before this season. Now that he’s an established big leaguer, and a potential American League all-star, he’s at peace with a place that had been both heaven and hell.
“It gives Omaha a much better taste in my mouth,” he said. “I loved Omaha for a while. Then playing here in Triple-A ... minor league cities are kind of unique. You don’t really get a chance to enjoy the city, because you’re so concerned with getting out of the city.
“It’s nice to be in Omaha not dying to get out.”
Merrifield is one of a number of Royals that fans in Omaha will recognize from past Chaser seasons at Werner Park. He’s also among a group, which includes probable Detroit starter Matthew Boyd, on the active rosters for Thursday’s game who played in the CWS.
Former Nebraska star Alex Gordon is among those players, leading the Huskers to the 2005 CWS at Rosenblatt. He and Royals reliever Jake Diekman will be part of the first MLB game in their home state.
“Omaha is a great place to play baseball,” he said. “You see it during the (CWS). I think MLB recognized that and wanted to put some major leaguers on that field and show Omaha fans what it’s all about.”
Kansas City rookie second baseman Nicky Lopez was looking forward to Thursday’s game long before the season began.
The former Creighton star opened the season in Omaha and was hoping to be promoted before this game arrived. The Royals called Lopez up for the first time a month ago.
And the promotion generated some excitement for Bluejay fans. Creighton coach Ed Servais, of course, would rather be playing in his team’s home stadium this week but is happy that Lopez will be.
“I’m going to enjoy every minute of it,” Servais said. “I’m not going to worry about who’s bunting in the second inning, and who’s trying to hit and run, and who needs to make a pitching change in the fourth inning. I’m going to sit back there and be the biggest fan of the Kansas City Royals and Nicky Lopez.
“He’s looking forward to it. It’s something he talked about in the offseason. He wanted to get to the big leagues by the time June 13 rolled around. The city of Omaha is going to have a blast that entire day.”
The addition of Lopez to the lineup meant a move to the outfield for Merrifield. The versatile Royal embraced the move for the betterment of his team. Merrifield was comfortable with the change after spending plenty of time in the outfield with the Chasers while working to expand his game.
Merrifield didn’t have a quick trip to the majors after wrapping up his college career in Omaha in 2010. But when he arrived in Kansas City in 2016, he was ready to make an impact. In his second big league season, he led the AL in stolen bases. He repeated the feat last summer while also topping the AL in hits.
“It was a long, strenuous journey that had a lot of peaks and valleys,” Merrifield said. “But I knew what my goal was at the end of the day. And I was going to do everything I could to make it happen.
“I just needed an opportunity. I was patient enough and got one and took advantage of it. That’s really what playing in the big leagues is all about. If you’re not a high-level prospect, you might get one opportunity. And when you get it, you’d better take advantage.”
Kansas City and Detroit sit well behind the first-place Minnesota Twins in the Central Division. In the grand scheme of the MLB season, Thursday night’s game won’t mean much.
But that won’t be the case for those involved in the game or in the crowd. No matter the outcome, Thursday will be a historic night in Omaha and a wonderful way to kick off the 2019 CWS.
“It’s different, but MLB’s doing a great job,” Gordon said. “You saw Oakland and Seattle in Japan, and last year with other teams playing at different sites. It’s fun to change it up. I know Detroit’s with us, too.
“It’s going to be a fun one game. I’ve never played there. I’ve only seen it on TV. We’re excited about it.”
Staff writer Jon Nyatawa contributed to this report.
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April 21, 1969: Galen Cisco, left, and Jack McKeon of the Omaha Royals.
Aug. 27, 1969: The Omaha Royals' first manager, Jack McKeon, celebrates. McKeon led the Chasers to back-to-back American Association titles in the franchise's first two years. McKeon would eventually lead the Florida Marlins to a World Series in 2003.
April 18, 1970: Former Nebraska coach Bob Devaney throws out the season's first pitch at the Omaha Royals game at Rosenblatt Stadium.
May 31, 1970: Paul Splitteroff at Rosenblatt Stadium.
1970: Omaha's Juan Rios slides home safely behind Wichita catcher Ken Suarez, as Omaha's Steve McMillan looks on at Rosenblatt Stadium.
Jan. 21, 1971: Former major league infielder Loren Babe, left, with Omaha Royals manager Jack McKeon.
An Omaha Royals team photo from 1970 and other minutia collected from the remains of Rosenblatt Stadium. The photo was taken June 8, 2012.
1972: Steve Busby, Omaha Royals pitcher.
April 12, 1972: Jack McKeon at Rosenblatt Stadium.
April 6, 1973: Frank White poses for a photo at Rosenblatt Stadium.
1973: Future Baseball Hall of Fame member George Brett poses for a photo at Rosenblatt Stadium.
June 29, 1977: Clint Hurdle at Rosenblatt Stadium.
April 2, 1979: Jim Bayly sweeps snow 11 days before the season opener at Rosenblatt.
1980: Omaha Royals pitcher Eddie Bane.
July 7, 1980: Steve Busby delivers a pitch.
April 4, 1992: Jeff Conine poses for a photo.
1982: Bombo Rivera, Omaha Royals.
May 19, 1983: Omaha Royals General Manager Bill Gorman poses for a photo in front of Rosenblatt Stadium.
1984: The San Diego chicken mascot entertains fans at Rosenblatt.
1984: Gene Lamont, Omaha Royals manager.
1985: Rob Crain, assistant general manager of the Storm Chasers, with team autographed baseballs from the 1985 Royals baseball team.
April 17, 1985: David Cone sports an Omaha Royals hat and a Kansas City Royals jacket at Rosenblatt Stadium.
April 26, 1985: City employee Terry Cuevas spreads mixture of solvent and gasoline on the infield at Rosenblatt Stadium as part of an effort to dry the field enough to cover it with a tarp. The tarp wasn't laid on the field the two previous nights and got soaked in an overnight rainfall. The Omaha Royals were unable to play the game scheduled with the Iowa Cubs.
June 29, 1985: Guitarist Michael Woods of the rock band "America," which played at Rosenblatt Stadium following the Omaha Royals game with the Oklahoma 89ers.
May 10, 1985: Fans in the crowd seek autographs from Kansas City players.
Aug. 8, 1986: Gus Cherry, Mayor Mike Boyle and Jack Diesing break ground for the Stadium Club at Rosenblatt Stadium.
May 28, 1988: Organist Lambert Bartak at Rosenblatt Stadium.
May 5, 1989: CBS pro football analyst John Madden tries on an Omaha Royals cap.
Aug. 16, 1990: Omaha Royals manager Sal Rende gets a face full of cake from first baseman Russ Morman after winning the league title.
Sept. 5, 1991: Construction takes place at Rosenblatt Stadium.
1991: The final signing of the ownership papers for the Omaha Royals. Seated from left: John Boyer, Bill Gorman, Joe Adams, Mary Ann Luby. Standing from left, Rob Knight, Bill Ulrich, Jim Hildreth and Lary Wzorek. Boyer is the attorney for Walter Scott who bought a major share in the team. Gorman is the Royals' GM.
April 16, 1991: The day before the Royals open, Richard Sovereign of Sovereign Painting adds a coat of blue to the patio concession stand.
May 17, 1993: Workmen for JB Construction hurry to finish the new parking lots by Rosenblatt along 13th Street.
April 1993: Warren Buffett throws out first pitch for the Omaha Royals home opener at Rosenblatt stadium.
March 17, 1992: James Huettner welds handicap ramps.
March 13, 1992: Pictured is the South side of Rosenblatt Stadium.
April 16, 1992: The Goodrich family, from left, Nate, Barbara, Ben, Chris, 12 and Paul enjoy a game.
May 25, 1993: Rance Ristau, 3, looks like he had a good time finishing off his cotton candy during an Omaha Royals afternoon game at Rosenblatt Stadium. But Rance, son of Dan and Cynthia Ristau, saw the Royals drop an 8-5 decision to Nashville.
April 3, 1993: Scott Knight puts down new cinders in left field in front of new scoreboard.
Aug. 2, 1994: Aerial view of Rosenblatt Stadium from a helicopter.
May 25, 1994: Grounds crew removes a tarp after a rain delay.
April 29, 1995: Warren Buffett throws out the first pitch.
April 4, 1996: Warren Buffett throws out another first pitch.
May 4, 1996: Warren Buffett greets fans at an Omaha Royals game.
1999: The Omaha Royals unveil a new nickname for the team, the Golden Spikes, which is worn by mascot Casey.
June 9, 1998: Omaha's Mendy Lopez and Calgary's Lou Frazier watch the ball sale by on Frazier's successful steal of second base.
1998: Omaha Royals shortstop Felix Martinez, who was sent down from Kansas City in the aftermath of brawl with Anaheim, sits on the bench.
1998: Omaha Royals infielder Scott Leius plays at Rosenblatt with his son Michael, 2.
1998: Warren Buffett prepares to throw out the first pitch.
1998: Omaha Royals right fielder Chris Hatcher is greeted at the dugout after hitting a grand slam.
1998: Jermaine Dye, Omaha Royals.
1998: Albuquerque's David Steed is out at second base by Omaha's Steve Sisco.
Aug. 30, 1998: Mayor Hal Daub swings a mock sledge hammer at a golden spike that is held by the Omaha Royals' mascot, Casey, launching the teams new name, the Golden Spikes. The Lincoln Sport Parachute Club jumped into the stadium carrying a banner with the new name on it.
1999: Casey sports the new Golden Spikes uniform.
1999: Omaha Spikes' Sal Fasano, right, is congratulated by Ron Johnson after hitting a home run.
1999: Omaha manager Ron Johnson dines on food at home plate of Rosenblatt Stadium.
1999: Front left, Bart Thomsen, and Rick English, back left, Mike Bischof, Kent Therkelsen, Lance Beasley pose for a photo.
Sept. 6, 1999: Omaha Golden Spikes manager Ron Johnson wears a Nebraska football helmet while coaching third base.
Sept. 6, 1999: Golden Spikes pitcher Scott Mullen delivers.
1999: Manager Ron Johnson, front, talks about practice routine to players at Golden Spikes media day at Rosenblatt Stadium.