Omaha Holding Its Head Higher After PCL Championship

The calendar stopped flipping at Big John's Billiards in Omaha, Neb., somewhere around 1992. It's a place where Led Zepplin and Nirvana peacefully coexist on the jukebox that still plays CDs, rather than connecting to the Internet. If you are hungry, you order from a menu board that has white, plastic lettering affixed to a grooved, felt board. And pinball machines line one of the walls.

Yes, pinball machines.

A few modern day marvels have slipped through the time warp. You can play Golden Tee 2012 there and you can watch NFL games on a few flat screen TVs sprinkled throughout the hall, but by and large, the place is stuck in yesteryear and its happy to be there.

As a 45-year-old, I can relate. That's why I was there on Saturday, Jan. 21. Well, that, and it's one of the few places in town where I can play darts without being subjected to music that makes my head hurt.

But something seemed out of place that night.

A man who looked to be about 30 years old walked in and perused the ancient menu board. He was wearing an Eric Hosmer, #35 T-shirt. It just didn't seem to fit, but yet, there would have been a time in Omaha when you could have looked around in any billiard hall, bar or restaurant and you would have seen a George Brett T-shirt or a Kansas City Royals cap.

Omaha loved the Kansas City Royals, in part, because they had cheered from many of those same players at Rosenblatt Stadium. But just about the time Big John's stopped the clock, Kansas City stopped using Omaha as a proving ground, choosing instead to convert it to a retirement home for aging players. The disconnect between fans in Omaha and Kansas City had begun.

Thanks to cable TV, and the complete mismanagement of the Royals after the death of owner Ewing Kauffman, kids grew up cheering for the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves. And if they weren't cheering for one of those teams, they cheered for the Minnesota Twins, St. Louis Cardinals, or worse, the New York Yankees--the once hated rival of the Royals.

It was enough to turn the stomach of any Royals fan who grew up in the 1970s or '80s.

But a few years ago, Royals general manager Dayton Moore began stockpiling the minor leagues. And he made Omaha a proving ground again.

Last year, Omaha fans saw Hosmer annihilate Pacific Coast League pitching, hitting .439 in 26 games. They saw third baseman Mike Moustakas not only blasting home runs, but also playing catch with kids on the field before games (as I wrote about here). And they saw a humble second baseman named Johnny Giavotella hit nearly .400 for two months before earning a promotion to Kansas City.

When the Omaha Storm Chasers won the PCL Championship in 2011 (I wrote about that here), even without many of the prospects who were in Kansas City by then, fans in Omaha held their heads a little higher.

Four months later, a guy walks into a billiard hall in Omaha wearing a Hosmer T-shirt and it felt like everything had come full circle, showing that there are signs of hope in the city 200 miles north of Kauffman Stadium that was the final stop in the pipeline for the team that went to the playoffs seven times between 1976-85, and eventually won the 1985 World Series.

Lee Warren has covered the Omaha Storm Chasers (formerly the Omaha Royals) for the past three seasons. You can find more of his writing about the team at www.omahabaseball360.com. Follow @OmahaBaseball on Twitter for more continual updates about the team.