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When 4,029 baseball fans gathered Easter Sunday at Ray Winder Field, the scene was no different than countless other days at the ballpark. The pace of the game was slow and lazy, there were the same old contests between innings, and the crowd got more vocal with every beer.
It was almost impossible to tell that it was the first day of the last season for the Arkansas Travelers at Ray Winder.
The Travs, AA-minor-league affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels, next year will make their home at a stadium being constructed near the Arkansas River in North Little Rock. Called Dickey-Stephens Park, it will offer a view of the Little Rock skyline, skyboxes and other amenities lacking at Ray Winder, where the team has played since the venue opened 74 years ago, in 1932.
Many baseball fans wax poetic about the old-time atmosphere at Ray Winder, one of the last of its kind in the country. But Bill Valentine, the team’s general manager, says he hasn’t had time to get sentimental about the move because he has been busy overseeing work on the new ballpark.
“It has not hit me yet that this is the last season at Ray Winder Field,” Valentine said. “Perhaps as I sit back and reflect on it, there will be a lot of things, but let me tell you something: It’s time for us to move. Because young people do not have nostalgia. The 35-and-younger crowd are looking for what we’re going to give them: a first-class, state-of-the-art stadium, and that is going to reflect in the attendance. The fact is, we’re playing in an antiquated stadium that just doesn’t have the amenities that the core audience wants.”
The rush to move on means there aren’t a lot of special activities planned to commemorate this final summer romp at Ray Winder, which also marks the 100th anniversary of the Traveler baseball team. Valentine said there will be a few special nights featuring giveaways like hats, T-shirts and beach towels. And the Texas League — the Travs’ AA division — will hold its all-star game at the park June 20.
There will, however, be a midget.
“When I first opened with my regime in 1976, I was asked if I would do anything different,” Valentine said. “I said I would open with a midget leadoff hitter smaller than [St. Louis Browns owner] Bill Veeck’s. Rosco Stedman walked in my office six weeks before the season started, and sure enough, he was an inch-and-a-half shorter than Veeck’s leadoff man.”
Stedman will return to be the leadoff hitter for the final game of the last Travelers’ season at Ray Winder Field on Sept. 3.
Valentine can’t wait.
“Everyone is coming up to me saying, ‘We don’t want to leave Ray Winder, we love Ray Winder, we go to all these games at Ray Winder,’ ” he said. “Well, if everyone who told me that comes to just three or four games, we’ll have a record attendance. So come on out, we could use the money.”