Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mission Accomplished

The itinerary of this trip was constructed around seeing the Arkansas Travelers, Northwest Arkansas Naturals and Springfield Cardinals.  Simple enough in concept, the small size of the eight-team Texas League, the close proximity of the three teams and the absence of nearby teams in other leagues make it difficult to get the schedules to align.

Starting our planning before the league schedule was announced, we were able to find a window of opportunity—Tuesday-Friday, July 3-6—that included the Tulsa Drillers, the fourth team in the North Division.  We saw the entire South Division on our 2008 Texas trip and they were the visiting clubs two weeks ago.

The first game brought together the Frisco RoughRiders and Arkansas Travelers at Dickeys-Stephens Park, in North Little Rock.  The Travs got on the board first when Jean Segura—a highly-rated prospect on the Angels 40-man roster—got a first inning single, stole second, advanced to third on a throwing error by the Frisco catcher, and scored on a ground out to short.

However, the home team would only muster one other hit on Tuesday and the Riders scored five runs on eight hits.  Their big inning was the eighth, when reliever Ryan Chaffee loaded the bases with runners who would all come 'round to score.
Box Score

While we were in Little Rock, we stopped by Ray Winder Field, where the Travelers played in several leagues from 1932 through 2006, with a handful of years when the stadium was dark.

No demolition was occurring on the Fourth of July, when we visited, but a fair amount of the ballpark had been torn down.

Ray Winder Field was one of the oldest ballparks in baseball when the Travelers moved to North Little Rock in 2007.  It was very intimate but lacked amenities.  Even former Travs GM Bill Valentine admitted, "Ray Winder was way past its time as a professional baseball park."

Dickey-Stephens has the amenities that fans expect from contemporary stadia—the "beer garden" was popular—but not much character.  Eric and Wendy Pastore, of digitalballparks, described Dickey-Stephens as one of "those big brick and dark green seat ballparks... that are being built so fast, no one has realized yet that they all look the same." Given the long history of Ray Winder Field, it is unseemly how often the Travelers point out that the team now plays in North Little Rock.

Pellham Phillips, the architects and engineers who designed Hammond Field (2004) in Springfield, Missouri (and took the photograph above), gave more attention to detail, resulting in a stadium that is both retro and modern.  The steel structure of the concourse and suites accomplishes this in particular.

Hammond Field is where we saw the Springfield Cardinals shut out the Midland Rockhounds before a near capacity, Independence Day crowd.  Are Cardinals fans the most organizationally loyal in all of baseball?  Melvin and I think they might be, and the relative proximity of the team's Triple-A (Memphis) and Double-A (Springfield) franchises probably contributes to this.

Pitching dominated the game, except in the seventh when the Cardinals batted around and score all five of its runs.  An error, hit batsman, two singles, double, fielders choice and another pair of singles wore out Midland's starter and then two relievers.  We were out of the stadium in a little over two hours.
Box Score

Our third Texas League game was in Tulsa.  Melvin and I saw the Drillers with Red in 2004 when they played out at the fairgrounds.  However, we wanted to see the new stadium because it was new, but also because ONEOK Field was constructed in Greenwood, site of perhaps the worst incident of racial violence in the history of America.  Hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people were killed and over 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed on May 31 and June 1, 1921.

When we visited in 2004, the then-future site of ONEOK Field was a vacant lot.  The poignant stillness on that early-June day reminded me of Gettysburg.  The monuments erected on the battlefield there create a solemnity.  There is no memorial here (There is one at the Greenwood Cultural Center.) making the meaning of the landscape both more hidden and more naked.  It is possible to feel the absence, and the reason for the absence, of development.  It is hallowed land.

Melvin and I discussed the stadium in terms of social justice, geography, economic development and urban planning as we walked around and sat in the stadium, and again in the car the next day.  Melvin wrote up some of his thoughts so I will be brief here: I do not believe enough was done to compensate for how ONEOK Field continues the eradication of Greenwood and the limited collective memory of what happened there.

The stadium per se is pretty nice, I will admit.  It makes the most of a small site that is up against an Interstate highway, an earlier physical intervention that obliterated the historic neighborhood.  The field is below grade.  The stadium has a 360° concourse and the party spaces are well integrated into the overall design.  There is a spinning U-Haul truck beyond left field.

Our discussion of ONEOK Field vis-à-vis Greenwood over-shadowed the game.  Or perhaps it was the pitching.  The Drillers managed one run in each of the fourth and fifth innings, before the Rockhounds tied the game in the sixth.  It was all small ball and given the heat, seemed to be taking place in slow motion.  The home team made it 4-2 in the eighth, the final score.
Box Score

Pitching was the determining factor again the next night as Ross Seaton threw a three-hitter for the Corpus Christi Hooks, shutting out the Northwest Arkansas Naturals 3-0.  On the mound for the home team was the highly-touted Sugar Ray Marimon, making his third Double-A start.  Marimon started the year with the Wilmington Blue Rocks where he compiled a 2.12 ERA in 14 games, nine as a starter.  His ERA with the Naturals was 1.18 going into the game, but he was knocked around in the fourth and fifth innings and left early.
Box Score

A unique feature of Arvest Ballpark is a tensile awning above the luxury boxes.  (Photo credit: The Melster)  When a batter fouls one back here, the ball doesn't go clangk but instead lands with a fwap.  I wondered if the roof might have been made to swoop more and in the process provide more shade.  (For the record, the official game time temperatures for these four games was 100, 99, 100 and  balmy 96 degrees.)  Since the stadium was constructed entirely with public money, perhaps it is best HOK didn't try to make an architectural statement.

The Naturals are in their fifth season in Springdale, Arkansas.  With Red we saw the predecessor Wichita Wranglers on the 2004 trip.  With our visit to Arvest, we have seen all of the current Texas League teams, including the Drillers at both their old and new stadiums, plus the defunct Wranglers.  Mission accomplished.  What's next?  We're missing only Reno, Sacramento and Tacoma to finish off the Pacific Coast League.

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