The Arkansas Travelers open baseball season No. 72 at Ray Winder Field on Thursday against the Springfield Cardinals. If North Little Rock’s city leaders can somehow find the $25 million to $30 million needed for a shiny new stadium on its riverfront, season No. 73 will be Ray Winder Field’s last.
I know to most of you it sounds like idle threats that usually come from people trying to persuade folks to pony up with the needed funds, but plenty of evidence (re: Jackson, Shreveport) exists that if nothing is done, one of these upcoming seasons will be not only Ray Winder’s final one, but the Travelers’ last.
Then, we’ll be back to 1959 at the old ball park, when minor league baseball didn’t darken the door at all. The old faithful summer pastime that everybody sort of took for granted was now absent, and suddenly people missed it. So a few Little Rock city folks raised money though a stock sale, bought a non-affiliated minor league franchise and brought baseball back to Travelers Field (now Ray Winder) in 1960, where it has stayed ever since.
Take the temperature of the Central Arkansas baseball fan today and you get varying degrees about the Travelers, about whether they should stay forever at Ray Winder Field, or whether North Little Rock should get the team in 2007 in an expensive new stadium. You get the columnists who wax on about the quaintness and charm of Ray Winder and who condemn the need for a new ballpark built in the style of an old one (albeit one that would be more comfortable). You’d think we have Chicago’s Wrigley Field hugging Interstate 630. If I didn’t see one of these columnists actually in the box seats behind me occasionally, I’d think they haven’t driven by Ray Winder in 20 years.
But, let’s spell this out: THIS ISN’T WRIGLEY FIELD. AND IT’S NOT FENWAY PARK. It’s run-down Ray Winder Field, the place that Major League Baseball seems to acquiesce to, but only so far. Someday, the exemptions MLB gives for the tiny dugouts, closet-size clubhouses, World War II-style lighting and congested concession areas will no longer be available. Then, the Travelers will be asked to play somewhere else, like Amarillo. Or Fayetteville. Talk about your Great Stadium Debate if the Travs relocated to Baum Stadium.
It requires more than a simple tweaking that so many Ray Winder fans claim is all it needs. General Manager Bill Valentine and the team keep prices low so it’s affordable family entertainment, but that leaves little cash after the season to spiff up the place. At the least, somebody ought to donate enough paint so that the outfield wall facing I-630 could be jazzed up to advertise what fun exists behind the wall.
Warren Stephens has donated the land in North Little Rock for a new stadium. Pat Hayes, Terry Hartwick and other North Little Rock civic leaders are looking at financing vehicles. In most cases with minor league stadiums, a corporation has had to step up with several million for naming rights or ownership to make it happen. Memphis’ glorified downtown stadium was significantly funded by AutoZone. That’s a stadium costing four times what folks want to spend here. It also led to hundreds of millions of dollars in office and condo development all around the park, and a friendlier and fun downtown.
In the Texas League, the Travs’ seven rivals all have new or renovated stadiums, including Springfield, Mo., with its $35 million complex built by John Q. Hammons.
We have a dump and call it charming. Hey, there’s something to be said for free parking, cheap admission and paying so little as Travs fans have to for box seats for the entire season (most minor-league stadiums are three times as much), and by midseason there’s plenty of room for the anxious child to run around. But Ray Winder Field is not as good a destination for minor-league baseball in the 21st century as this market deserves.