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First Horizon Park
Toss Another Beauty in the Hopper
The year 2005 will go down in history as the time when an incredible number of impressive new parks opened in the Minors. Another beautiful park to throw in the hopper is the new yard of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, who were called the Bats through 2004.
|First game: Florida Marlins vs. Grasshoppers (exhibition), April 3, 2005|
|Architect: Moser Mayer Phoenix|
|Price: $21.5 million|
|Home dugout: 3B side|
|Field points: North by northeast|
|Playing surface: grass (blend of bermuda and rye)|
|Betcha didn't know: The2003 referendum over this park wasn't about funding. It was whether to allow it to be built downtown.|
First Horizon Park is the sparkling, impressive new home of South Atlantic League baseball in this central North Carolina city. It is replacing World War Memorial Stadium (often called simply Memorial Stadium), which first opened its doors in 1926. Yes, it is so old that when it opened, there had only been one World War!
Like any facility almost 80 years old, Memorial Stadium was both revered for its history and intimacy and reviled for its aging structure. There were competing movements, one calling for an extensive renovation of the old park and the other working for a brand-new facility. The latter was championed by a non-profit entity called Downtown Greensboro Renaissance, a part of the Joseph Bryan Foundation. Over the course of time, they worked out a financial package that would involve no public money in the actual construction of a new facility, calling for the foundation to contribute roughly half the money needed while they, not a local government, would borrow the rest. The foundation would then own the stadium.
You'd think such an arrangement would make everyone in Greensboro deliriously happy, since tax dollars wouldn't have to flow into the building of a new ballpark. Well, you'd be wrong. Even with a deal as attractive as this one on the table, there were still naysayers (some of whom, no doubt, preferred to renovate the old park) who didn't like the idea, so they pushed for a public vote on whether to permit a new stadium to be built in Greensboro's central business district.
That's right. The vote wasn't about whether tax dollars should be used to construct a new stadium, as is the case in most such referendums. No, this one was all about blocking the non-profit foundation (that planned to completely fund the construction itself) from building it downtown -- which would effectively kill the idea of a new facility at all.
That referendum went down to defeat in 2003, and plans were then completed for the new ballpark. It opened right on time with an exhibition game against Greensboro's parent team, the Florida Marlins, on April 3, 2005.
On Deck -- The Setting
Once the fight over whether to permit it to be built in the business district was won, an exact location was selected at the site of an unneeded Department of Social Services building at the corner of Bellemeade and Edgeworth Streets. This spot allows fans within the park to see the downtown skyline beyond right field, and to take advantage of the numerous parking garages within a very short walk of the park.
I should add that you can capture some very interesting views of the park from the tops of those parking garages, as well as from the upper floors of the Marriott (which has great service, by the way). The day shot above is from a parking garage on North Greene Street, and the photo showing the team's 4th of July fireworks display was taken from within the Marriott.
First base -- The Exterior
Like Springfield's and Corpus Christi's new stadiums, First Horizon Park has an exceptionally attractive and elaborate exterior. The brickwork is exquisite, especially over the main entryway behind first base (shown in the photo at the top of this page) and between that entryway and the gate near the right-field foul pole. The latter includes a beautiful mural of sorts, the left half of which is shown below. This scene shows a series of images actually set into the masonry of a pitcher delivering a ball and a batter swinging at it. Truly, the designers didn't need to include such an artsy and unusual touch, but I'm awfully glad they did. When you visit, please take the time to look closely at the way these images were crafted into the brickwork (close-up below). They are actually raised above the surface of the rest of the bricks.
More of the intricate masonry can be seen in the area behind home plate (below). This is where the main ticket windows are, but it does seem just a bit odd that there is no gate here. Like the new parks in Charleston and Stockton, there is a see-through fence beyond the outfield. The shot on the right below was taken from Eugene Street, beyond right field. Unlike those other two parks, though, outsiders can't really see the action on the field. Also, near this spot are two plaques honoring "Jumping Joe" Siddle, a star firstbaseman of the Negro Leagues, and local legends Wes and Rick Ferrell, both of whom had extensive careers in the big leagues. It would've been nice if these had been in a more prominent location, but I'm quite glad that the team is paying homage to players from an earlier era.
I've saved perhaps the best element of the exterior for last. There is a phenomenal plaza just outside the gates near the right-field corner. This is most likely the first aspect of the park you would encounter when walking from the parking garages and commercial areas of downtown Greensboro. The expansive plaza has it all: the name of the city in big, gleaming letters; fountains (always a favorite ballpark element of mine); a sculpture of a baseball and a tasteful monument to Sandra Bradshaw, a Greensboro resident who was both a flight attendant and a hero on United Airlines flight 93, hijacked by sub-human terrorists, but that passengers and crew forced down in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.
Second base -- The Design
The overall design of First Horizon Park features the now-familiar two-level look so popular among new parks in the Minors. On the lower level you'll find the (open) concourse, concession stands and, of course, the seating bowl. The upper level features the press box and luxury suites.
The reason you see this design so often is, frankly, because it works so well. It gets the suite-holders on a completely separate level, and that upper level provides covering for the concourse underneath it.
The concourses deserve mention. At the rear of the seating bowl, there is a wide, covered walkway with a good view of the field. Behind first base, this concourse features a fan-assistance booth, which is a great idea.
This concourse completely circles the field, and I do love "360-degree" concourses. The only time you cannot make the trek behind the batters eye is if there will be fireworks after the game. Those nights, the small parking lot in dead center field is sealed off for the safety of the fans, preventing you from making a 360-degree journey around the ballpark.
A real high point of the "engineering" that went into First Horizon Park is the field's drainage system. I can attest to its prowess, as the skies opened up with a blinding deluge about an hour before gametime the night I was there. When the rains finally ceased, there was so much standing water in the outfield that you could've floated a barge across it. It appeared that there was no way a game would be played that evening.
Almost before my eyes, that standing water disappeared. The system of pipes 14" below the grass pulled that H2O away from the field, and after a short delay to get the mound and plate area in shape, they played baseball without a hitch. I was really impressed!
I wasn't as impressed with two other elements of the design, though. The first, which isn't as significant as the second, involves the "pitch" or angle of the main seating bowl. Maybe it was my imagination (or perhaps because I'd just attended a game in Winston Salem, where the seating bowl is on a nicely steep angle), but I was reminded of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, where the lower deck was constructed without enough of an angle, making it somewhat difficult to see over or around the heads of the fans in front of you.
The second design issue is more egregious to me. This issue involves the amount of foul territory near the two foul poles (see above). Let me put it this way: there isn't any ... well, there's practically none. Yes, there's padding on this wall, but I'm still concerned that this is going to cause an outfielder to be injured chasing a fly ball down the line.
Further, this situation is worse on a daily basis for the fans trying to see what is happening in the corners. It's pretty common these days to place the stands fairly close to the foul lines in these areas, but this is ridiculous -- especially in the left-field corner. That's because the structure next to the line (supporting the "GoTriad Grandstand" bar area) is extremely tall, effectively preventing the majority of fans from seeing anything that happens down the line -- an outfielder making a running catch at the line (in which case he'll probably be maimed), a double bouncing around the corner or a long fly ball hitting the foul pole for a home run. This last situation happened at the game I attended, where a ball hit the foul pole for a home run. From my seat behind home plate, though, there was no way I could see it.
On a more positive note, I'm happy to report that there is indeed somewhat of an overhang. I feel a ballpark looks unfinished if there's nothing over at least some of the seats. The one at First Horizon Park sprouts out of the top of the upper deck and covers the seats in front of the luxury boxes and several rows of the lower deck.
Third base -- The Essentials
Fans in the Tar Heel State are flocking to this new park, that's for sure. What is it costing them, and what is their "gameday experience" like?
While parking isn't plentiful right next to the park, there are huge parking garages no more than a couple of blocks away. By the way, the lots closest to the ballpark seemed to charge either $3 or $5.
The price of tickets, while being a little on the high side for a Class A franchise, are not out of line for a brand-new park like this. The "premium" seats right behind the backstop are $9, while the "boxes" behind them and fanning out to the far ends of the dugouts are $8. The other reserved seats are $7, while general admission is $6.
If you have one of the $6 tickets, it's likely you'll be watching the game from one of the berms. There's one in foul territory not far from the RF foul pole, and one beyond the left-field fence (below). If you have a choice, I'd pick the latter because you can see the scoreboard beyond RF more easily, and because the vantage point is better. There are also a lot of picnic tables that are "first come first served," so arrive early and maybe you'll be able to grab one of them instead of having to sit on the ground on one of the berms.
The Grasshoppers hand out a free program when you come through the gates, and it is one of the better "free" programs I've seen -- nicer paper, more color, more info. Since the size is pretty close to TV Guide as opposed to a full-size magazine, keeping score on its scorecard pages is a little cramped. I urge you to lay out $4 for their full-size program. It is a beauty, one of the nicest I've seen at this level of the Minors. Greensboro's front office, particularly Megan Thomas and Amanda Williams, deserve a lot of credit for creating a visually interesting, extremely informational program. There is even a series of fun facts about the new ballpark along the bottom of the pages. Well done!
The souvenir shop is both attractive and spacious, and the cost of souvenirs is about average at new parks like this. The grasshopper logo is a winner with the kids, so be sure to stock up on team merchandise.
The food is, in a word, outstanding. While there are the standard items such as hot dogs (only $2 for a simple version), burgers, chicken tenders and pizza, you'll also find a large, excellent chicken burrito ($5) and a BBQ sandwich (keep in mind that in North Carolina, BBQ = pork), which is a steal for $3. Now let me tell you, I search out BBQ everywhere I go, and on this trip through Tar Heel country, I consumed it at a number of locations. The sandwich at First Horizon Park was hands-down the best I had on that trip.
If you like the smoky bar scene, you're in luck, as the aforementioned GoTriad Grandstand area is where to go if you'd rather be at a bar than a ballgame. As I wandered through this area during the game to take pictures, it was obvious no one was paying attention to the action on the field, but a lot of folks there were looking for a different kind of action (below left).
On the other end of the "wholesomeness scale," there are quite a few diversions for kids at First Horizon Park. There is an extensive playground area near the right-field foul pole that is nicely protected from foul balls by netting (above right) and a concession stand geared to young folks called Guilford's Kids Cafe.
Guilford, you see, is the name of the team's new mascot. He is, naturally, a grasshopper. "Guilford" was the winner of a name-the-mascot contest held during the offseason. Not only does the name offer alliteration with the word "grasshopper," it turns out that Guilford is the name of the county in which Greensboro sits.
The scoreboard also adds immensely to the fans' enjoyment. While the lower portion provides the standard game info, the upper portion is a big, beautiful video screen. This high-resolution screen cost over $500,000, and it is perfect for video clips, replays and, yes, commercials.
I have only two gripes about the gameday experience here. As with my complaints about the design, one is minor and one is not so minor. First, both my wife and I were struck by the fact that there didn't seem to be as many ushers or team employees around the park as we would've thought -- especially for a sold-out game like the one we were attending. Maybe I've been spoiled by attending so many games in Round Rock, or by my recent visit to Springfield, but there wasn't a multitude of helpful staff members running around like I would've expected. To be fair, though, there's a nice fan-assistance booth on the main concourse behind first base.
Second, and far more troubling, was what happened between innings. Let me first point out that I was really impressed by the team's longtime PA announcer Jim Scott, who, interestingly, does his player introductions and "announcing" by roaming around the ballpark, not sitting in the booth. What he had to say over the PA was both humorous and well-delivered. Unfortunately, a different individual acted as emcee of the activities in between innings. Appropriately, he is named "Spaz," and he continues the annoying Minor League trend of having on-field hosts who definitely need Ritalin. This fellow, though, was easily the most annoying I've encountered, because every word he spoke into the microphone WAS SCREAMED AT THE TOP OF HIS LUNGS! I hoped that he might run out of gas by the late innings, but alas, he did not. If he doesn't tone it down, the Grasshoppers will need to issue earplugs to the fans as they enter the park, because I found his ravings to be earsplitting.
But this certainly hasn't put a dent in the attendance, as the first-year crowds have been extremely strong -- and, I should add, quite boisterous and into the game (well, except at the GoTriad bar area). Fans have embraced the park in a big way, as they love the comfortable, modern atmosphere. When I asked Bill Hass, the beat writer for the News and Record of Greensboro (and who was very helpful to me in preparing this review), what has been the most popular aspects of the new park, he said that it is "probably the wide concourses and the number of service points (concession stands) compared to the old park. A crowd of 3,000 to 4,000 really strained the facilities there, while here crowds of 7,000 or 8,000 are accommodated pretty well."
Sliding into home -- Summary
Some of my ballpark brethren decry the fact that many of the new ballparks -- First Horizon Park being a prime example -- lack the character and "soul" of the older parks they're replacing. While there's no doubt that Greensboro's Memorial Stadium had enormous character, I can say this in defense of the city's new facility: it might not have the soul of the old park, but it is well on the way to acquiring it. It will definitely take time, but with touches like the monument to Sandra Bradshaw, the masonry mural and the plaques honoring local baseball legends, it is on the road toward having soul.
Furthermore, I wouldn't even have seen a baseball game the evening I was in Greensboro if the game had been scheduled at Memorial Stadium. With an ocean of standing water on the field at game time, it was a certainty that the game would've been postponed at the old ballpark. At First Horizon Park, however, I saw nine innings that night, and it was held at a comfortable facility that the fans absolutely adore.
I guess there's something to be said for progress!