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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.”

For the rest of this season, the Wichita Wranglers will continue to be the Class AA farm club of the Kansas City Royals. Next season, that role will belong to the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. According to people who were involved in the move, a certain synergy was at work.

The Wranglers are owned by the Rich family, which has made a lot of money in the food business. Robert E. Rich is president of Rich Baseball. “They’re known by a lot of people in the food business in Northwest Arkansas,” Van Hoose said. Those people include the Tysons of Tyson Foods, who also have prospered in food. Helping facilitate relations between Northwest Arkansas and Wichita was David Glass, the former president and CEO of Wal-Mart who is now the owner of the Royals. The Royals own the Wichita players, as they will own the Springdale players.

While all these connections were being made, a local business paid for, and city leaders studied, a report on what Northwest Arkansas needed to keep growing. One of the needs was identified as more forms of entertainment, particularly things for families to do in the summer. According to Van Hoose, the study showed that “a baseball team could be successful here if it could go into a ballpark owned by someone else.” In this sort of thing, “someone else” usually means “the public.” The Travelers’ new ballpark in North Little Rock was built with the proceeds of a tax that North Little Rock residents voted on themselves.

Around the same time as the report,Van Hoose heard from Wrangler officials who said they’d been looking to relocate for years.

Was this a case of a city looking for a team or a team looking for a city? “Probably a little bit of both,” Edelstein said. He was general manager of the Wranglers at the time. He moved to Springdale in October. He says he’s doing almost everything that general managers do. “We’re building a franchise, we’re selling season tickets, we’re building a stadium. We just don’t have games at the end of the day.”

The Wranglers were handicapped in Wichita by an old stadium, but “we couldn’t get anything going to renovate,” Edelstein said. In other words, they couldn’t generate any public involvement in fixing up the stadium. Attendance kept falling, down to an average of 2,700 a game, and that’s not enough in today’s Texas League, Edelstein said.

To build a ballpark, the Springdale City Council proposed a three-year extension of a one-cent city sales tax that was originally imposed for road improvements. The Chamber of Commerce did much of the promotional work for the ballpark tax. On July 11, 2006, the tax was submitted to the people. Baseball won by 15 votes, 2,408 for the tax, 2,393 against. Edelstein was asked what the Wranglers would have done if the tax had been defeated. Stayed in Wichita and carried on as best they could, he said.

Not Van Hoose, not Webb, not Chip Souza, sports editor of the Morning News of Springdale, remembers an organized campaign against the tax, nor any recognized spokesman for the anti’s. “Nobody called me up and said, ‘Mayor, you’re crazy for supporting this,’ ” Van Hoose said. There was just a large group of people who didn’t want to pay more taxes. Some of them may have especially wanted to not pay more taxes for a baseball field.

The University of Arkansas has a strong college baseball program in a strong college baseball league, the Southeastern Conference, and the team draws well at its Fayetteville park. The UA stayed quiet during the Springdale election. If UA athletic officials had misgivings about a professional competitor next door, they swallowed them, and were probably advised to do so by big-money contributors in the area. “We’re working to create a harmonious relationship with them [the UA]” Edelstein said. There’s relatively little overlap of schedules, he said. The Razorbacks begin playing in February and finish around the first of June. The Naturals will begin in April and play to September.

And the two baseball teams will appeal to different crowds, locals say. “The big growth in Northwest Arkansas is people moving here from all over the country,” Souza said. Primarily, they move in because of Wal-Mart. “They don’t have a tie to the University of Arkansas.”

(For what it’s worth, the overall quality of play of a professional AA team is better than that of even a strong college team, though the college team may have one or two players who are better than any of the pros. AA teams make the plays defensively; college teams don’t always. It may have something to do with repetition. The pros play more games than the collegians do. Another advantage for the pro game: their wooden bats sound better striking the ball than do the collegians’ aluminum sticks.)

Work on the new $33 million, 6,500-seat stadium is underway near the intersection of Interstate 540 and U.S. Highway 412.

Just as you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, you can’t tell the teams without names. Finding a name for the new team was an important part of the preparation for Northwest Arkansas baseball. It was widely recognized that a used name (“Wranglers”) wouldn’t do, that a new name with a specific application to Northwest Arkansas was needed. Team officials solicited nominations. In March, those officials announced that the new name would be the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, and they claimed to be excited. Others were unmoved, one suggesting that Naturals would be appropriate only if the team played in the nude. “Thunder Chickens,” a reference to the poultry industry, was probably the popular favorite among the nominees. It may have been considered too colorful.

While Springdale looks hopefully to the future, the outlook isn’t brilliant in Wichita. Attendance at the games of the lame-duck Wranglers has been less than robust. In mid-June, Wichita was averaging 1,983 fans a game. The Texas League team with the next poorest attendance, Midland, was averaging 3,899. The Travelers were averaging 5,794. (“People are coming to see the ballpark,” Valentine growled. “The team’s not helping.” The 2007 Travs have thus far shown an affinity for losing games in the late innings.)

The Naturals, on the other hand, are undefeated. They’ll play their first game in their new stadium April 10, 2008.

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