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It's a Natural (continued)
While the setting, exterior and architectural design all show keen insight, the amenities at the park might be lagging behind these other areas, at least in the park's youth. So let's take a look at the game-day experience you're likely to encounter at Arvest Ballpark.
We've already addressed the fact that automobile access to the park isn't what it should -- or will -- be. But since there's no public transportation to bring you to the ballpark, you'll undoubtedly be coming by car. That means that you'll be parking in the lots adjacent to the stadium and paying $3 for the privilege. Those lots only have about 1,600 spaces, and this forced some of the late-arriving autos for Opening Day to park on the street or in the yards of enterprising neighbors. Fortunately, there is a grass-covered overflow lot that would ordinarily be used when there are large crowds. It wasn't available on Opening Day because storms had soaked the area the night before.
I was surprised that the ticket prices are so reasonable. That's often not the case at new parks, where a new facility means new and higher priced seats. In Springdale, the most expensive non-suite ticket is $12, which is for the Super Premium seats nearest the field in the infield. Directly behind those are the Premium seats for $10, and the Reserved sections beyond the dugouts cost only $8. All of the fixed seats, by the way, are wider and have noticeably more legroom than the average park. General admission tickets, which likely means you'll be sitting on one of the two berms, are $6.
There are also two group areas. The Bud Light Bullpen Cafe in left field can accommodate up to 300 fans, and the Wendy's Home Plate Party Area is directly behind home (see the folks sitting at tables below left).
The first new ballpark that made a concentrated effort to provide "ledges" on which fans can set their snacks and drinks was Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park. They were everywhere at the rear of the seating sections. Well, they are here at Arvest, too (see above right), and it's obvious that the fans appreciate them.
Speaking of places to set your food, let me say that Opening Day proved that there simply aren't enough points of sale for concessions. "I got in the (concession) line near the left-field stands in the bottom of the 1st, and finally got my food in the bottom of the 4th," Jeremy Hill of Springfield, Missouri told me. "The hot dog I got wasn't worth that wait." Part of the problem was that there was no "dress rehearsal" for Arvest Ballpark, because the very first time the food stands were in use was on Opening Day, and credit-card acceptance and general unfamiliarity with the process slowed things down.
Help is on the way, though. HOK's DiNitto told me that the very wide concourse can more than accommodate additional free-standing food stands ... and, indeed, many will be added in the coming weeks. One hopes that this will add to the variety of the food items offered here, because I found it to be more limited than at other new Minor League parks. The price of the concessions, though, is surprisingly low. A basic hot dog is only $3, and burgers are only $4.25.
Prices were also more than reasonable in the lovely souvenir shop behind home plate. Adult T-shirts were typically $18 -- which is about $10 less than at the Washington Nationals' park I'd visited a week earlier -- and caps ranged from $12 to $18. The store itself (above left), by the way, is roomy and very attractive ... and keeping with the "openness" theme, has windows on both the inside and outside walls, allowing a lot of natural light to stream in.
Only a handful of Minor League parks have two functional video screens on their scoreboards, and Arvest is one of them (above right). On the left side is an extremely clear, high-res screen for videos and pictures. On the bottom right of the scoreboard is a low-res color message board that can deliver color animations and other information. This is certainly one of the nicest scoreboards in the Minors.
And Arvest is one of the most kid-friendly new parks in years. That is a very large playground beyond the batter's eye in centerfield, and a separate wiffle-ball field down the left-field line. Typically there are also inflatables ... but the best feature for kids is that there is so much open lawn beyond the outfield concourse. Kids can run and play to their heart's content.
Kids of all ages love mascots, and Springdale has a big, hairy one! Strike the Sasquatch is appropriately fuzzy and loveable, and he was very good interacting with the youngsters.
The Northwest Arkansas Naturals only had one opportunity to make their first home game a big event, and they definitely pulled it off. The National Anthem was sung by Country star Joe Nichols (above left, signing autographs with Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe behind him), who grew up only a few miles from the park. At the Anthem's completion, four A-10 Thunderbolt jets roared overhead (above right). Even the arrival of Strike the mascot was impressive, as a helicopter landed on the field (above center) to drop him off so he could get to work entertaining the fans.
All of the work paid off. There was a lot of effort put into the campaign to get the referendum passed. A lot of toil went into designing and constructing the ballpark. A lot of time went into getting it ready to receive fans. And it all culminated in the moment captured in the scene above. This was the first pitch at Arvest Ballpark, thrown by Julio Pimentel of the Naturals at 6:40 p.m. on April 10. For the record, it was a strike. Naturally.
A design that is this successful can't come about without a lot of pieces falling into place almost perfectly. Truly, the team of players involved in this endeavor was top-notch, from the very-involved owners at Rich Baseball to the talented and experienced designers at HOK ... to the enthusiastic local government and Chamber of Commerce in Springdale ... to a supportive local business (Arvest Bank) to commit to naming rights for ten years ... to the never-say-quit construction crew from Crossland Construction ... to to the Major League parent (the Royals) that supported the move ... to the Naturals team itself (especially the youthful visionary General Manager Eric Edelstein) ... to, yes, the citizens of Springdale. Without the citizenry voting, essentially, to tax themselves to raise sufficient money to build a first-rate facility, none of this would've happened. I bet most of the local residents who voted against the referendum are probably pleased now that it passed. This park is really one to be proud of. And it's one that will probably get even better with age, as the landscaping matures, the roads expand and the surroundings become more developed.
Let's look at some of these major players who made Arvest Ballpark a reality. Many of them are shown below at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Opening Day. From left they are: Dennis Smiley, President of Arvest Bank-Springdale; Eric Edelstein, General Manager of the Naturals; David Glass, Chairman and CEO of the Kansas City Royals; Mindy and Bob Rich, owners of Rich Baseball; Martin DiNitto, Associate Principal at HOK.
Rich Baseball, a division of Rich Products headquartered in Buffalo, owns not only the Naturals (and their predecessor, the Wichita Wranglers) but also the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons and the short-season A Jamestown Jammers. Bob Rich, Jr. and his wife Mindy are the faces of this enterprise, and they were quite visible at the announcement of the franchise's move to Arkansas and at all of the activities on Opening Day. They obviously have good relationships with the Royals and the with high-ranking officials at the capitol in Little Rock.
HOK has pulled off quite a coup in 2008, as they designed all three brand-new baseball facilities in the affiliated Minors and the Majors that open this year. Martin DiNitto, who heads their Minor League group which designs the parks in the Minors and spring training, told me, "I'm very satisfied with the architectural design in Springdale and what we accomplished here. It was a pleasure to work with the community and the team on this project. Its success drew on the energy of the leadership we were dealing with because they really wanted to get this done and get it done the right way." Added team owner Bob Rich, "To see what a beautiful job HOK, the architect, has done is truly for us a field of dreams." (quoted in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette)
Key members of the community that DiNitto was referring to were Springdale Mayor Jerre Van Hoose (shown below on the left speaking at the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Opening Day), a strong proponent of bringing pro baseball to his city, and Chamber of Commerce Chairman Perry Webb. I spoke to Webb early on during the process of campaigning for the referendum, and I was impressed with his sense of purpose and his magnetic, persuasive personality. He made me a believer that this unlikely scenario would really fall into place -- and it did, behind his campaign called "Home Run for Northwest Arkansas, Grand Slam for Springdale." He was so instrumental in making the ballpark a reality that he was invited to make the first of the "ceremonial first pitches" on Opening Day (below center).
HOK designed a great park, but someone then had to build it. Crossland Construction won the nod to do so, and they faced a stiff financial penalty if they failed to deliver the finished product on time. They succeeded, but not without the tireless efforts of about 300 workers -- and their superintendent James Farmer. During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, it was noted that Farmer essentially lived onsite during the crunch phase to complete the park on time, often working over 90 hours a week.
The Royals were the parent club for the Wranglers when they were in Wichita -- an important market for the Major League team to control -- and they are still the franchise's parent club today. I'm sure the Royals had some indigestion over possibly alienating the fans of Wichita over the departure of the team, but I suspect that this was more than offset by the feelings of Royals Owner and CEO David Glass. Until January 2000, Glass was CEO of Wal-Mart, which is headquartered in (you guessed it) Northwest Arkansas, and he still lives in Bella Vista, about 25 miles north of the ballpark site. To say the least, he's thrilled to be able to watch his Royals' farmhands hone their skills so close to his home. He told reporters on Opening Day that he expects to attend plenty of games both in KC and Springdale -- as long as his wife Ruth doesn't put up too much of a fuss.
The final person who needs to be mentioned is The Naturals' GM, Eric Edelstein, shown above right during the dedication ceremony prior to Arvest Ballpark's first game. His career in baseball started as an unpaid intern for the Cleveland Indians when he was in high school, and progressed to a sales job for the Buffalo Bisons of the International League. After three years there, he became GM of the New York-Penn League team in Jamestown, NY. After a year, it was off to Wichita, which is what landed him now in Springdale. It is stunning to think that he is only 29 years old.
When I spoke with Eric prior to the on-field speeches before the first pitch, his primary concern wasn't with the comfort of the VIPs who had gathered. No, he was most distressed about his fans who were enduring backed-up traffic getting to the park. This is a young man who is going to go far in this business.
Finally, one of the best stories I witnessed at Arvest Ballpark involved head groundskeeper Monty Sowell -- or more precisely, it involved Ruby, his Labrador Retriever (right). Sowell, who now also carries the title of Ballpark Operations Manager, has worked tirelessly at Arvest -- and the task of getting ready for Opening Day was made all the more difficult because the area was battered by storms in the days leading up to April 10.
Well, the playing field was positively perfect when the players stepped on it for the first time. Helping him and his crew every step of the way was Ruby, who had been a fixture at the park for months. Even when it came time for the crew to rake the field between innings during the middle of the game, she was right at Monty's side as he ran across the infield -- much to the delight of the crowd. I mean, what's more natural than man's best friend?
After all, delighting a crowd with a beautiful ballpark -- natural in all respects -- is what it's all about. That, and winning an award here and there isn't bad, either!