Baseball comes to Wal-Mart country 

NATURALLY: Work on the new $33 million, 6,500-seat stadium is underway near I-540 and Hwy 412.
  • NATURALLY: Work on the new $33 million, 6,500-seat stadium is underway near I-540 and Hwy 412.

“I think the regional rivalry that already exists makes it a perfect fit. It’s the first opportunity for Central and Northwest Arkansas to stand off and battle for supremacy. I think it’ll be big. People will enjoy it. It’s too bad we’ll have to kick Little Rock’s butt.” — Eric Edelstein, general manager of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, a Springdale-based professional baseball team that will begin play next year and whose opponents will include the Arkansas Travelers.

“I think it’ll be a healthy rivalry. I’ve already talked to Mayor Hays about an award we can pass back and forth.” — Mayor Jerre M. Van Hoose of Springdale, referring to Mayor Pat Hays of North Little Rock, where the Travelers’ ballpark is located.

“We hope to have fun with that. I told them the first time the Travelers and the Naturals play each other, we’ll have to get all the elected officials there.” — Perry Webb, president and chief executive officer of the Springdale Chamber of Commerce.

“I doubt you’ll have a rivalry. Our players aren’t from Central Arkansas and their players won’t be from Northwest Arkansas. Unless hard feelings develop between players [over hit batsmen and the like], there won’t be a rivalry. Outside of the Cubs and the Cardinals, and the Yankees and the Red Sox, there aren’t really any rivalries in major league baseball. … We’re not planning any big promotion for Springdale’s first trip to Little Rock.” — Bill Valentine, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Travelers.

Like beauty, rivalry is somewhat in the eyes of the beholder. For years, the Arkansas Razorbacks’ fiercest rivalry, in Razorback eyes, was with the Texas Longhorns, who never took it quite so seriously. Games between Tennessee and Vanderbilt look bigger to Vanderbilt. Britons claim to have won the Battle of Britain, Germans say there wasn’t one.

At this point, the idea of Central Arkansas and Northwest Arkansas settling their differences on the baseball field has more legs in Northwest Arkansas. (Although North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays also hopes for “a neighborly, in-state rivalry.”) It’s the Northwest that’s the challenger; until recent years, Little Rock was uncontestably the hub of Arkansas — the governmental, financial, retail and media leader, the biggest city, the capital.

It’s natural, with a little “n,” that Bill Valentine would be more blasé about a baseball match than his Northwest Arkansas counterparts. Little Rock has had professional baseball since 1901, when the Travelers were founded. Springdale has never had a professional baseball team. There’ve been pro teams in Northwest Arkansas, including one at Springdale’s next-door neighbor, Fayetteville, but always playing in lower classifications than the Naturals will play in. The new team will be a member of the Texas League, the same class AA league that the Travelers belong to. The two Arkansas teams will make up half of the North Division of the Texas League. Tulsa and Springfield will constitute the other half. It will be a compact division, and minor league operatives always like that — saves on travel expenses. At 200 miles, Little Rock will be Springdale’s farthest divisional trip. Because the Springdale team will move from Wichita, Kan., the Travelers will swap a 350-mile trip for a 200-mile trip.

The Northwest Arkansas corridor has boomed in comparatively recent years, economically and otherwise. It’s expected to surpass Central Arkansas in population eventually, and many of its residents feel the area is given insufficient attention by lawmakers and in-state media. Conversely, there are those in Central Arkansas who think the Northwest and its prized institution, the University of Arkansas, get more attention than they deserve. People at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) complain about the University system’s oldest and largest campus calling itself “the University of Arkansas.” They say the proper name is “the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville” or “UAF.”


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