Exclusive look at Sod Poodles’ palace

Text and photos by Joe Mock
All rights reserved

The San Antonio Missions of the Texas League are moving to Amarillo, Texas for the 2019 season. Enticing them to make the move was the promise of a state-of-the-art ballpark in Amarillo’s downtown. That puts the facility in stark contrast to San Antonio’s Nelson Wolff Stadium, which is both woefully inadequate by today’s standards and in an undesirable part of town.

The Double-A franchise made national news on November 13 when they announced that the new team nickname will be the Sod Poodles. See our account of the festive announcement ceremony here.

Even though I covered the ceremony in person, of greater interest to me was seeing the construction site of the new ballpark. Brian Simpson, Senior Associate at Populous, and Brandon Robertson, Project Director, Western | Hunt, obliged me by giving me a personal tour of the facility. Populous, by the way, are the architects, and Western Builders and AECOM Hunt are in a joint venture to construct the stadium.

It would’ve been nice if a rare layer of snow hadn’t been coating everything, but that didn’t prevent me from being very impressed, as the project includes a number of architectural features that aren’t typical in new ballparks. And as I’ve often remarked, I like different.

The still-unnamed ballpark sits on the site of the former Coca-Cola plant, which relocated two years ago. It’s at the corner of South Buchanan Street and Southeast 8th Avenue, just south of Amarillo’s fairly nondescript City Hall, which will be visible beyond the park’s left field. Directly across Buchanan from the home-plate entry is the gleaming new Xcel Energy building (seen at the left of the photo below). Unlike, say, the recently constructed stadiums in Nashville and Columbia, SC which are a block or so off a major street, Amarillo’s park will have a great deal of visibility, as Buchanan is a major northbound thoroughfare downtown.

The masonry of the park’s exterior (see above) matches a commercial building and parking garage across the street from the left-field entry. The rotunda behind home plate is the most noteworthy feature of park’s exterior, as it will remind many of the stunning main entrances to Pittsburgh’s PNC Park or Busch Stadium in St. Louis (both Populous projects), but on a smaller scale.

Simpson said that they expect most fans to enter the park on its northwest corner (below), because most of the parking is on that side of the facility. These gates are close to the souvenir store (there will be some really cute merchandise with the Sod Poodles logo) and ticket windows.

The park’s structure down the third-base line (below) will house the team’s offices as well as the store, which (smartly) will have doors on both the exterior and interior of the ballpark.

If you look carefully at the shot above, you’ll notice the parking garage in the upper left of the image (that has similar masonry to the ballpark’s exterior) and in the upper right is the Embassy Suites, where the team-nickname announcement was held.

The most stunning aspect of the park’s interior is the mammoth lounge on the upper level behind home plate (yes, that means that the pressbox isn’t where it should be. More on that later). It will feature a see-through bar, air conditioning (very welcome in Texas) and lots and lots of square feet.

This lounge overlooks the entry rotunda, and will look out at the street and the Xcel building. On the field side of the lounge will be club seating. The photo below is taken from the back of where those seats will be … but there is something rather shocking about this photo.

If you look closely as the image above, you’ll notice that the area outside the luxury suites is level, not pitched like you’d expect if there were going to be a couple of rows of seats, like at virtually all other baseball suites in the land. No, here there will be no seats. It will essentially be patio space, where suite dwellers will stand and mingle while the game goes on below.

This is a reflection of how sports architecture is keeping up with the demands of the modern-day fan. More than ever, attendees at sporting events — especially baseball — like to socialize while the game is going on. And since it’s easier to socialize when standing up than sitting in immovable seats, the spaces outside the suites will give patrons the flexibility to move freely and place the patio furniture how they wish — just like at home.  I can’t wait to see how this concept plays out.

No, the press area isn’t behind home plate. It’s still on the upper level, but it’s down the first-base line. Unlike at Reno (where the radio booths are on a completely different level than the writers and the rest of the production folks), the broadcasters here will be in the same general area as the writers, scorer and video operators. The space shown above is where the “working press” will be, and it possesses a feature I’ve never seen before — windows at a 90-degree angle. If it didn’t have these, those in the second, slightly-elevated row would never see home plate. I’m so glad they thought of this before I was sitting on this back row on opening night, tweeting out how horrible the view is from the pressbox (like I did at the first game at Hartford’s otherwise-perfect ballpark).

The shot above shows the first-base concourse. For the most part, it will be open to the field. When I commented to Simpson that the concourse seemed ridiculously wide, he pointed out that some of the space will be taken up with people waiting in line for concession stands. Further, there will be “concourse suites” — two on the third-base side and two on the first-base side.

The first time I saw such suites was at the Populous-designed park in Columbia, SC. These spaces (one of which is in the foreground of the shot below) will have short walls separating the occupants from the last row in the seating bowl and traffic on the concourse. Again, they will facilitate socializing among members of the group that rents the suite for the evening.

This also gives you an idea of the intimacy of this park. It’s certainly not over-built, as there will be about 4,500 fixed seats, which will permit a capacity crowd to be about 6,500 — 7,000 if they want to pack the fans in tightly.

This structure also avoids Nashville’s “cave effect” experienced by those toward the back of the field box seats, where the bottom of the second deck hangs very low over your head. Those rows are extremely dark because so little illumination can make its way from the light towers. To compensate, the Nashville Sounds installed fluorescent lights along the underneath of the upper-level club seats — giving the park an odd look, to say the least.

Thankfully, this undesirable effect is avoided in Amarillo — and there’s even more headroom than usual because there’s no incline at the front edge of the second deck. It’s level because, remember, it’s essentially a patio. I expect there to be plenty of light at the back of the seating sections here.

We ventured across the ice and snow to where the field boxes will be behind first base (above). From here, you can see the dugout taking shape, and to the left, just behind the backstop, are where “dugout suites” will be — much like in Nashville.

The debut of the new $45.5 million ballpark is scheduled for April 8, 2019.  I will be on hand to tweet photos from the opener, and prepare notes and photos to do my usual extensive review.

I’m anxious to see how the patios, dugout suites and concourse suites function in real life. I hope “different” translates into “better.”

In case you’re concerned that the blast of winter weather is causing massive delays in the construction that could necessitate pushing back opening day … don’t be. Robertson told me that before the blizzard and deep freeze hit the Texas Panhandle, the installation of the playing-field sod had been completed, and the roof over the upper deck was fully in place. This prevented a disaster from happening if the sod hadn’t been down, and while there’s ice and snow on top of the roof, work can continue in the suites and lounge.

I want to thank Simpson (on the left in the photo) and Robertson for spending so much time with me, showing me everything there is to see at the new palace for the Poodles!


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