by Joe Mock for USA TODAY Sports Weekly
All Rights Reserved
NORTH AUGUSTA, SC; ROSEMONT, IL The 2018 season will be remembered for tight pennant races in the National League, an exhilarating Home Run Derby in D.C., but not a lot of new pro ballparks.
But the two parks that made their debuts this year raised the bar in state-of-the-art baseball facilities. And one of them is the Ballpark of the Year, as named by BaseballParks.com, an affiliate site of USA TODAY. We’ll announce that shortly.
GOING TO THE DOGS
The Village of Rosemont, IL encompasses only two square miles between O’Hare International Airport and Chicago’s city limits. When Mayor Brad Stephens urged the Cubs to leave Wrigley Field and build a brand-new stadium in his Village, most found it a quaint but hardly feasible overture.
But Mayor Stephens was quite serious about bringing pro baseball to Rosemont, so the Village provided the land and floated the bonds to build a $63-million ballpark. On May 25th, Impact Field (see our article on the park here) became the home of the expansion Chicago Dogs of the independent American Association.
With planes buzzing overhead and Interstate 294 traffic whizzing by the left field fence, you might think attracting a crowd would be a challenge. Not so, says team owner Shawn Hunter. “We’re very happy with Year One. We’re right where we expected to be in a five-year building process to attract fans.” The Dogs’ attendance is currently seventh best in the 12-team league, averaging 2,831 per game.
He added that the team’s biggest objective has been to convince sports fans in Chicago to visit for the first time. When they do, they experience what he calls “the Wow Factor. We knew in a market like Chicago it’s going to take time to rise above the noise and connect with our fans, and that’s exactly what’s happening.”
Fans especially enjoy the drink rails that are behind the last row of every seating section, as the team’s research discovered that 15 to 20% of the crowd never takes its seat.
The party decks are also a hit, especially one on field level that looks through the left-field wall. “Each has its own personality, and they’ve all been full almost every night,” Hunter explains.
Don’t confuse the team’s nickname with canines. The Chicago Dogs are meant to glorify hot dogs, and the team’s mascot is a bottle of mustard. You’ll even find The Weiners Circle on the first-base concourse. It’s the first time the iconic hot dog stand has expanded beyond its original location on Clark Street.
A highlight of the season came on July 3rd. Not only did the Dogs beat rival Gary 7-5 in front of 5,278 fans, it was a “magical night,” Hunter says. “The building was full and the atmosphere was electric.”
ACROSS THE RIVER
Independence Day was also a highlight for the Augusta GreenJackets’ first season in SRP Park (see our in-depth review here), the $42 million stadium on the north shore of the Savannah River. For 23 years, the team competed on the other side of the river at Lake Olmstead Stadium. The move not only took them from Augusta to North Augusta, it also crossed the state line, from Georgia to South Carolina.
In a season full of highlights, July 3rd stands out to Jeff Eiseman of Agon Sports & Entertainment, which owns and operates the GreenJackets.
“It was a packed house, beyond standing room, and right before the game started there was a huge storm,” he recalls. “I looked and there were people getting drenched at the box office, buying standing-room tickets. The 5,000 people here were under the overhang on the concourse, staying entertained.”
The game started 47 minutes late, the fireworks went off, and the place stayed packed all evening. “There isn’t anything better than being here, even on a rainy night, looking at this great park,” he added.
In addition to the picturesque setting along the river, the park features a 360-degree concourse and upper-deck seats that are only 26 feet from the grass in foul territory. The elevated TaxSlayer Terrace (shown above) in right field features its own bar, where fans can see the Savannah River over one shoulder and the game over the other.
Surrounding SRP Park is a rapidly growing mixed-use development called Riverside Village, complete with apartments, a hotel, shopping and eateries. Beyond the third-base side of the ballpark is Brick Pond Park, a 40-acre city park, full of ponds, trails and carefully managed wetlands.
History buffs will appreciate the South Carolina State Dispensary bar on the ballpark’s upper level. It honors the fact that over a century ago, the state operated a “dispensary” on the very site where the ballpark sits today. Back then, that was the only place where it was legal for liquor for be bottled and sold.
Ticket buyers are enjoying SRP Park’s amenities, as crowds averaging 4,076 (sixth in the 14-team league) have allowed the GreenJackets to exceed last year’s attendance with 20 home games left on the schedule.
ON THE COLLEGE SCENE
As construction of new pro parks has slowed, universities are spending enormous sums erecting palaces for their baseball programs. This year, rebuilt facilities opened on the campuses of Grand Canyon University, Virginia (see photo by Lincoln Barbour, courtesy of DLR Group) and Mississippi State, while Boston College opened a completely new park. In the next two years, new stadiums at Kentucky, Florida, Oklahoma State and Boise State will be debuting.
“It’s not so much a lull in professional venues as it is a booming collegiate market,” explains Jason Ford, Senior Associate at sports-architecture firm Populous. “More and more players are using the college baseball path to get to the Major Leagues. Facilities have become increasingly important to top recruits when comparing programs, putting the collegiate baseball market in the heat of an arms race.”
AND THE WINNER IS …
With its eye-popping architecture and anchor position of an ambitious commercial development along the riverfront, SRP Park is the winner of the 19th annual BaseballParks.com Ballpark of the Year. Says Eiseman, “When you have an outside, independent, respected voice that has done its due diligence seeing every ballpark, recognize our park with this award, it’s truly special. We’re in tremendous company considering the other parks that have won it.
“It’s affirmation of what we believed.”
A version of this article also appeared in USA TODAY Sports Weekly. The press release announcing the Ballpark of the Year award can be read here.