The great Ray Winder Field seat grab drew a massive crowd this morning, stretching from the gate of the ball park, looping around by the freeway, and up the shoulder of Monroe Street. While we were there, the tail of the line had grown even more, stretching almost to the farthest-south entrance to the parking lot of War Memorial Stadium. Some we talked to had waited since 6 p.m. last night outside the ballpark for a chance at one of the 500 wooden-and-iron seats the city planned to give away this morning starting at 8 a.m.
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For each pair of seats given away, workers had to destroy at least one other, sawing through the boards that make up the back and seat. The orange seats with armrests from high up in the bleachers were hot tickets, though folks were scooping up whatever they could. Officials were letting them in ten at a time.
Brian Chilson offers up this video, including a speed-run down the long and winding line as of about 8:30 a.m. today.
City Manager Bruce Moore, who first mentioned the idea of a seat give-away last month, was on hand, looking decidedly nervous with a cell phone plastered to his ear and conferring with city workers on possibly cutting more seats for removal, or giving away around 200 other, newer seats from under the north side bleachers. Still, he said he wasn't surprised by the turnout. "We know there's a lot of great history here. So I'm really not surprised," Moore said. "It's a great old ballpark and I'm really glad we were able to have this day."
Travs manager Bill Valentine was on hand as well, signing seats and chatting about the ballpark with folks as they exited the park. He said he wasn't planning on being there that day, but had remembered the seat give-away while driving down I-630 after taking his wife to the airport. The turnout, he said, had him "amazed."
"Unfortunately a lot of people are going to be disappointed, I think. One thing I know is crowds, and there's more than 500 here," Valentine said. "I think it's kind of neat. This ballpark just had so much nostalgia for so many families. Three generations came out to this ballpark. It's old, and it's neat, and it's the past. Everything we build today is modern, like Dickey-Stephens — voted the best ballpark in double-A (baseball) — but still it's not the nostalgia of Ray Winder Field."
Back near the end of the line stood a man who only wanted to be called "Citizen." Holding a blond, chubby-cheeked boy in his arms, he said he'd watched games at Ray Winder his whole life, and had box seats along the third base line for awhile. For Citizen, losing Ray Winder Field means losing a chunk of our collective past. "It's a piece of our history that some people disregard and want to get rid of," he said. "You can build another ballpark in Chicago, but it wouldn't be Wrigley Field. You can build another ballpark in North Little Rock and name it after two rich people, but it's not going to be the greatest game on dirt."