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A renewed baseball spirit

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“The minors,” novelist Richard Ford observed, “are where the basic matters of baseball can most conveniently and lovingly be observed.”

On April 12, a loving and excited sellout crowd in North Little Rock was lucky enough to observe the opening of Dickey-Stephens Park, the new home of the Arkansas Travelers.

Grateful to be among those fortunate first observers, we made a point to arrive early enough to allow ample time to wander and stare. A trip up and down the third-base line concourse yielded a beer and a hot dog before we made it to our seats, about seven rows up from the opposing team’s dugout.

Depending on the tilt of your head, the view from those seats offered the patron stunningly different but altogether wonderful experiences. Looking down, the plush green field was so finely manicured that the outfielders must have been tempted to play barefoot. Looking evenly across the diamond, the beer garden was overflowing with revelers, while families perched atop the grassy hills in right field anxiously awaiting the first home run. Down the third-base line, where the seats met the wall, children, wearing their Little League gloves, hoped for a foul ball to come their way. And finally looking up, there was the skyline of Little Rock, the light in some windows reminding us to be thankful that we were in our seats rather than our offices.

This is the picture of baseball. The calm of the field, the fun of the crowd, and the grace of the players, working together to take away urban dwellers like us, if only for nine innings, from the hustling pace of everyday life.

And it’s why Ray Winder Field, for all its nostalgia, was a park that Little Rock forgot. The weathered aluminum seats built to match the weathered aluminum roof were tired. The electronic screen above the scoreboard was like playing an ATARI game on a 1981 Zenith. And the monstrous outfield fences conjured images of ballgames played on jailhouse fields.

Having gone to game after game at Ray Winder, with scarcely few others, we wondered whether this community, on both sides of the river, had turned its back on the great American pastime. Before plans for Dickey-Stephens were announced, we thought that baseball, like Ray Winder Field, might be dead in this town.

And that is why Dickey-Stephens Park is such a wonderful gift to baseball fans. For years, Arkansans heard about Auto Zone Park, home to the AAA Memphis Redbirds. Built in the heart of downtown Memphis, the park not only revitalized baseball, it revitalized the city itself.

Amidst initial opposition from Travelers General Manager Bill Valentine and scores of fans holding on to the past, North Little Rock, with more development space, struck a deal through Warren Stephens to build the park just off Main Street and within shouting distance of the Arkansas River. The only wrinkle was that the voters had to approve it.

Smartly, and overwhelmingly, they did. Construction was fast-tracked and the park opened on time.

It is easy for one to become mythical and perhaps even lyrical in describing something well experienced. Baseball parks, for many, demand those mythical accolades because of the game’s spirituality, its purity, its democracy. Recall Tom Seaver describing Fenway Park as “the essence of baseball” or Brooklyn’s Duke Snider commenting “when they tore down Ebbets Field they tore down a piece of me.”

Dickey-Stephens Park will never be mentioned in the same breath as Fenway or Ebbets Field. But, like those fields, expect Dickey-Stephens Park to become a part of the game and a part of the team to folks around these parts, not to mention a big part of the steady advancement of downtown North Little Rock. We just hope that afternoon baseball will return with the new park.

At roughly 7:10 that evening, the players took the field. They waltzed through the infield picking up ground balls, tossing them back to the first baseman. You could sense the anticipation. And then the first batter stepped into the batter’s box and in an instant you heard the ball whisk by, followed by a bellowing thud. The sound of minor league baseball reborn in Arkansas at Dickey-Stephens Park: It was lovely and convenient.

J.R. and Henry are a couple of sports nuts and local businessmen who blog a sports column regularly on the Times’ entertainment blog, Little Rocking, found along with the other blogs at www.arktimes.com.

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