When creaky little Ray Winder Field is stuffed with people, it's possible to think that the spectacle of minor league baseball is appropriately prized by your fellow citizens and that you are lucky to have a seat.
When attendance is low, and an eventful game does not draw the witnesses it deserves, you might see the city's priorities as mixed up.
I am here to share the little secret that the baseball played by the Arkansas Travelers and their opponents is one of the sublime entertainments that our city has to offer.
There are Aerosmith concerts, garage sales, three-star restaurants, championship boxing bouts, horse races nearby, Paris Hilton sightings, happy hours, and, dare I say it, football games, that aren't as enthralling as an afternoon at Ray Winder Field.
So why don't more folks go to Traveler games? (Average attendance is 3,100.) My theory is that there are people in Little Rock who would fall for the Travelers - madly, foolishly, hyperbolically - if they only gave the experience a chance.
The belief that there is nothing pressing you to hurry over to a Travelers game is one I understand. Though I classify myself as a baseball nut of the inside-baseball, fantasy-obsessed, analyze-the-boxscores species, I waited all the way until last August before I attended my first Travelers match (and became irrevocably hooked). But now I know that sunny weather is pressing, life is pressing, and the Travs are still within spitting distance of first place.
The good news is you don't have to be an inside-baseball type to become attached to the minor-league milieu in general and the Arkansas Travelers in particular.
There are in fact plenty of non-"Moneyball" reasons to entice you to Ray Winder.
1. HALLOWED GROUNDS
After a proliferation in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s of bland stadiums, the notoriously slow-moving owners of baseball teams somehow saw the light and began to incorporate aesthetics into what they built. When fans responded with gusto to good-looking structures that were modeled on flavorful, turn-of-the-century ballparks, the neo-traditional style became all the rage (see: Camden Yards in Baltimore, AutoZone Park in Memphis, etc.).
Our Ray Winder Field is an anomaly in that it is neither retro nor bland; it's just doggone old. Having debuted in 1932, Ray Winder ranks with Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, and Fenway Park as one of the more ancient baseball sites in the country. Initially praised for being a cutting-edge "steel and concrete facility," Winder is now seen as out-of-date and even a little shabby. But, by God, that's its charm!
However tantalizing the talk of putting up a new downtown home for the Travelers may be, you can delight right now in a ballpark whose very lack of frills is its allure. Whereas modern-day complexes, with their special effects and mall-like amenities, make you feel as if you've walked into a TV commercial, Ray Winder, with its cramped wooden seats, tinny loudspeakers, horse-trough urinal, low-tech scoreboard, and county-fair atmosphere, is a park that is simply true unto itself, and true unto Little Rock.
2. STAR PLAYERS
The Travelers are the Double A affiliate of the Anaheim Angels. There is one minor league higher than this (Triple A), but many authorities consider the quality of play to be more advanced in Double A, and the best Double-A players frequently skip Triple A to go straight to the majors.
Such a progression occurred recently in the case of a supremely skilled batsman named Casey Kotchman who played only 10 games in Ray Winder Field before the Angels grabbed him for themselves. Kotchman continues to hit in the bigs - some have compared him with a young Will Clark - so he isn't giving the Angels any reason to send him back down here. You have probably seen the last of Casey Kotchman in Arkansas.
Another recent Traveler who blazed through town was the almost-mythic Bobby Jenks, a machine-gun-armed starting pitcher for last year's team who routinely fired baseballs over 100 mph. His problem was hyper-erratic control and a reputation as a troublemaker and drinker (while drinking, according to ESPN Magazine, he once used a lighter to set fire to his hands and the underside of his forearms). The drama of watching the 6-foot-3 Jenks struggle to tame his homicidal fastball was memorable.
But sometimes he'd get into zones where he had pinpoint control. When that happened, his fastball suddenly made the batters look like second-graders. Not even Randy Johnson could have pitched better. Jenks is now in Triple A recovering from an injury.
The moral of the Kotchman/Jenks stories is that you need to watch some of these guys while you can because if they are really, really good their time in Arkansas is brief.
Even without Kotchman and Jenks, a high number of intriguing players are currently on the Little Rock rosters - guys who, if they continue to progress, could end up as major-league stars:
Dallas McPherson. The towering McPherson has emerged from a sluggish spring to tear apart the league with blistering line-drive singles, doubles, and home runs, which is how he left off the 2003 campaign.
McPherson is not a guy who gets cheap hits. In one Ray Winder game last year he crushed three no-doubt-about-it home runs. This season, he hit four dingers in a double-header. He was also named by Topps as the best minor-league hitter for the month of May. With the Angels all-star third baseman Troy Glaus out for the season, McPherson has a chance to be called up before the year is over.
Jeff Mathis. He is expected to be the Angels' starting catcher by 2006. Right now, he's playing as if he wants to get there even sooner. A lot of people regard Mathis as the best catcher in the minors.
Erwin Santana. The oft-injured Santana is ranked by some experts as one of the 10 best starting pitchers in the minors. He probably only needs to stay healthy to become better known and so far he's been racking up the strikeouts.
Other Travs to keep tabs on include centerfielder Nick Gorneault and shortstop Alberto Callaspo, both of whom seem destined for major-league action. A few more blue-chip players (such as Brandon Wood and Erick Aybar) are working their way up to the Travs from the lower leagues and it's worth noting that the person widely regarded as the most dominating pitching prospect in the June amateur draft was Jared Weaver, the Angels first-round selection.
3. SUPPORTING CAST
Last season, an unpredictable Travs third baseman named Junior Zamora ended up being my favorite player. (It's a rather undignified childhood relic for an adult to have a "favorite player," but that's the way this game yanks on you.) I'm not sure why I targeted Junior, who now plays for another team. Maybe it had to do with there being no in-between with him: Junior was either very good or very bad. In one at bat, he would hit a hard liner and then, his next time up, he would miss each ball by a foot (players like Mathis and McPherson seem to miss only by inches). He'd also follow up deft fielding at third with boneheaded errors that, damn it, I could have handled. Through it all, though, Junior projected an indomitable swagger that somehow upped the ante on his personal (epic) drama. That's another fun part of being able to watch these players from the up-close seats at Ray Winder (all the seats at Ray Winder are up close): the characters of the ballplayers begin to emerge until, if you watch it in a certain way, the game takes on soap opera dimensions (minus the soundtrack). In any case, Junior, I miss ya.
One argument I've heard for building a downtown ballpark is that Ray Winder Field lacks an innate community since nobody lives in the immediate area and you have to drive to get there. But, as one fan told me, part of the attraction of watching games at Ray Winder is that you get a "strong but false sense of community." By "false," she meant that while the community at the ballpark is technically "false" (in the sense that it dissolves within a few short hours), it is, for the duration of its fleeting lifespan, the real thing. And like any other community, we who gather at Ray Winder Field have a common goal, which in this case is: To be here.
For between-innings reading, I always bring along a novel or magazine, but I never get any reading done because the between-innings entertainment, if that's the word, casts a spell over me.
The best feature is the "dizzy race," wherein two fans dizzy themselves by spinning around a stationary bat and then dash off towards a finish line some 20 yards away. Of course, being dizzy, they trip over themselves and run loop-de-loops in the wrong direction. Not the subtlest humor in town, but it gets the job done. Another dopey and yet compelling test is the rubber-chicken throw in which two opponents throw rubber chickens into buckets. (Life can be simple.)
The appeal of all this probably has to do with how adults like watching other adults embarass themselves. But some of these non-baseball hijinks go further than that. For an adventure the Travs call "Run the Bases," which is held after Friday and Sunday games, children - many of them smaller than puppies - run with abandon around the sacred infield for no other reason than it is sacred and they can. Even if you don't have any sprinters of your own to cheer on, and even though it is not really a race but instead just a joyous admission of cacophony and movement and aliveness, this event, which says something poignant about the American character - although I'm not quite sure what - is impossible to resist.
Many special days pervade the Travs calendar: So far in June we've seen Midget Wrestling Day (which pitted Beautiful Bobby against Little Kato) and Cornetto Day, which featured Cornetto, a horn player in clown makeup.
But the most popular day of them all - get your tickets now, it's usually packed - is August 10th: Clunker Car Night, in which used cars are raffled off every inning. If you think a Dallas McPherson shot can get fans screaming, you've never heard the uproar caused by the entrance onto the field of a rusting 1983 Dodge Omni that's missing a passenger-side door and cannot move in reverse.
All of these gimmicks may not by themselves be much to brag on, but together they contribute indispensably to the Ray Winder experience.
6. HAMMOND ORGANIST
I wanted to tell you about Rich Pharris, the stadium organist, who pounds out tunes on the ballpark Hammond that you or your grandparents haven't heard since grade school, such as "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain," "You Are My Sunshine," and "I've Been Working on the Railroad." (The most modern song in his repertoire appears to be "The Mickey Mouse Club Theme.") I was going to tell you that his selections are so different from the rap and metal that's pumped in at most big city arenas that you might think you've time-traveled. And that the effect is not of simple nostalgia because when Rich Pharris gets going on "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain," he does so with such relish and oomph that - regardless of your musical preference - you'll get stirred up. But none of this is true any more, because in early June, after four long seasons of service, Rich Pharris quit his job as the Arkansas Travelers organist. "We're taking auditions from people," says the team's spokesman, Phil Elson. "I think Pete Laven, our assistant GM, is having a couple of ladies come in for a tryout when we're on the road." Who knows, in short, what awaits us; the familiar has vanished.
7. OUR MAN VALENTINE
Bill Valentine is the general manager of the Arkansas Travelers. He is at every game either in his regular seat near or roaming the stadium with a walkie-talkie buzzing in his hand. Bill's an older gent whom you can recognize by his trademark suspenders and loud shirts. He is also a local treasure and you should go up and talk with him. From 1964 until 1968, Bill was a major league umpire, which means he had remarkable views of such Hall of Famers as Brooks and Frank Robinson and Carl Yastrzemski. One day I asked him which pitcher was the best he ever saw. Bill said most people expect him to say Sandy Koufax, but it was actually Sudden Sam McDowell, an extremely hard-throwing lefty for the Cleveland Indians who put together a couple of knockout seasons before drinking himself out of the game. Bill also revealed that he and Mickey Mantle, the Yankee legend, had a long-running dispute. That's because the first time Mantle ever batted in front of him, Bill called a strike on a close pitch. Apparently, Mantle was used to having close pitches called balls - he was a Yankee legend, after all - and for a rookie ump, of all things, to call one a strike, well, that was, to Mantle's thinking, unconscionable. So when you see Bill Valentine walk by in his jazzy suspenders and Hawaiian shirt, remember, there goes a man Mickey Mantle knew and hated.
8. NO JUMBOTRON REPLAYS.
TV's over-reliance on instant replays has reached an insane level. A good play at a sporting event, or a close call, will be repeated on your screen so many times that the power and beauty, or mystery, of the original play is utterly stolen from you. Unlike most ballparks, Ray Winder does not have a gargantuan instant-replay monitor on its scoreboard, so when a snazzy play flashes up and just as quickly disappears, you either see it or you don't. Because we've become accustomed to relying on replays, you almost have to re-train your eyes to seeing and preserving one-shot imagery. Last year, a serious line drive was hit way out of reach of Travs shortstop Brian Specht. Or it should have been out of reach, but Specht executed the most implausible dive for a batted ball that I've ever seen. He seemed to stay airborne longer than I thought was humanly possible.
Go to enough games and you'll get used to seeing ballplayers make acrobatic catches. But I've never seen one like Specht's and so this scene was seared into my memory - and not because it was instant-replayed so much that I couldn't forget it if I wanted to, but simply because the surprise and poetry of it was so abrupt and overwhelming that it only took one solitary instance to remember it.
City dwellers need to get their nature kicks where and when they can. Going to Ray Winder gives the harried urbanite a valuable opportunity to immerse him- or herself into the spring or summer climate. For those of us who exist too much indoors and under the lock-and-key of air conditioners, there is no revitalization more instant and all-encompassing than a breezy, sunny afternoon at the ballpark.
10. COMMUNAL ZEN
Because it has so many pauses, baseball forces contemplation on you. And so all around you are people who are also in states of contemplation. Maybe we are not always contemplating the game in front of us (those pauses often get you to start thinking about other things), but there you have it. I sometimes believe that we go to Ray Winder Field, whether we realize it or not, to slow down and brood over our lives - and the baseball exists solely to prod the process along. Conversely, I sometimes sense that people attend football games or drag races, or anything that's hyped, to get revved-up and loud, and to lose themselves inside a mob.
But without that kind of mob scene or mania, and without a Jumbotron Instant Replay forcing selected images on you, the Ray Winder experience works on you differently. It reminds you of all the choices you possess, which include looking away and thinking about things not in front of you. Like everyone else at Ray Winder, you are more or less on your own.
Postscript: Tickets for Travelers games are fiendishly cheap: $6 per adult or half that for Tuesday and Wednesday games if you use the $3 coupons that are given away at local stores or printed in the sports page. For more info, go to www.travs.com. Marc Smirnoff is editor of The Oxford American.
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