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Fielder's choice 

At Dickey-Stephens, it’s hard to miss Ray Winder.

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They call it the Green Moment: That first glimpse you get of a new or unfamiliar ballpark, when you come out of the tunnel or up the ramp or around the corner and all at once your entire field of vision is filled with a great expanse of emerald turf.

For a baseball fan, there’s nothing like it — especially in spring, when the weather’s finally warming up after too many long cold months without a game to watch.

I got lucky: My Green Moment at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock came March 7, a bright, almost hot Wednesday when construction was far enough along that it was easy to imagine it finished — although hardhats were still required — but long before there were any crowds to keep me from wandering the place at my leisure.

There weren’t any bases on the field, and most of the seats still didn’t have their backs attached, but otherwise it looked ready for Opening Day — shiny and new and optimistic.

As much of a rush as that first look was, though, it was nothing compared with seeing the park actually filled with people, a real live game going on, drunken hecklers razzing the other team’s third-base coach, crawling over 15 sets of knees on your way to the beer line or the bathroom.

By now, anyone who cares is familiar with the objective description of Dickey-Stephens Park: The cost overruns that pushed the price tag past $40 million; 5,288 fixed seats; the million-dollar scoreboard; the luxury suites; the four-face clock tower with a single clock, etc. You know the Travs lost their first game there, and that almost 8,000 people showed up to watch.

So with the full disclosure that I love baseball and live in North Little Rock, and am therefore predisposed to like the place, what follows is a more subjective take on the new home of the Arkansas Travelers.

Overall design

Thumbs up. Even with 7,943 people crammed in on opening night, it never felt claustrophobic. The final game at Ray Winder, with 8,307 fans attending in a park designed to hold 6,600, it was all but impossible to move through the aisles, let alone find the end of the line at the concession stands. At Dickey-Stephens, the concessions are on a wide, open concourse that runs behind the seats, so you don’t have to leave the game to get a hot dog.

Dugouts and bullpens are bigger and nicer as well. There actually are bullpens at Dickey-Stephens, out beyond right field, not just those narrow strips of grass along the baselines they had at Ray Winder.

They’ve made life easier for the press, too — a room above home plate with huge plate-glass windows that swing completely out of the way for game time. No impeded views. And there’s a little space next to the Travs dugout for photographers to set up — unlike at Ray Winder, where they had to either find an empty seat or block a spectator’s view to get their shots.

The bathrooms

This may tell you all you need to know: The only bathroom line I saw all night was outside the MEN’S room. And yeah, it was a pretty satisfying sight.

As for the bathrooms themselves: OK, so the feminine-products dispenser on the first-base side had an out-of-order sign on it before the game even started (I strongly suspect it actually did work, but given the male-dominated nature of both professional baseball and the construction industry, someone just forgot to order the Tampax) and the doors on a couple of stalls were already so out of square they wouldn’t close. But overall? Vastly improved over Ray Winder. Tile floors, automatic flush toilets, changing tables, plenty of space, 24 stalls on the third-base side, 20 on the first-base, with a third outpost near the right-field grass berm. I understand the men no longer have the infamous Trough — to the relief of some and the chagrin of others — but I heard positive reviews of the auto-flush urinals that apparently have replaced it.

The view

Ray Winder didn’t have one. Dickey-Stephens wins by default, but even so, it’s hard to beat the downtown skyline.

The food

The Travs organization made a point of saying they’d continue to serve the same Petit Jean hotdogs they’d sold at Ray Winder Field. I had hoped they’d at least figure out a way to get them hotter than lukewarm, but alas, that wasn’t my experience last Thursday.

On the other hand: Damgoode Pies pizza and Pig-n-Chik barbecue are sold. Food and soft drinks are available IN THE SAME LINE. I think I’ll live.

The beer

Draft beer is new this year, but otherwise the selection’s still the same: PBR, Diamond Bear, Foster’s, Bitburger, Miller. Prices are reasonable. The lines are still long, but there are more stations than at Ray Winder — a half-dozen or so at Brewski Junction on the third-base side, plus another set-up on the other side of the park in the bleacher-area beer garden — and seemed to move pretty quickly. At any rate, there was certainly no evidence I could see that anyone was forced into a greater state of sobriety than they desired.

The fireworks

Big and sparkly and a proper celebration after Curtis Pride’s three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth. But whoever put together the musical accompaniment montage must have had one too many Foster’s oil cans beforehand. The theme from “Star Wars,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” that song from “Top Gun,” “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” fine. But “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”? Yeah, nothing goes with big booming fireworks like a cheesy ballad from a “The Lion King.”

The seats

They have cupholders. I love cupholders. They also seem to have inadvertently been wired into the ballpark’s electrical system. Every time I moved, I got shocked. One time my husband and I moved at the same time and bumped hands, and you could hear the crackle three rows down.

Ray Winder partisans have bitched about all the fixed seats being assigned at Dickey-Stephens, rather than the free-for-all system at the old ballpark. Meh. It was nice knowing I had a seat no one could take from me, and from what I could see, vacant seats — even the really good ones — were fair game after a couple of innings.

Ours were in the last section down the third-base line, and I wouldn’t sit there again if I had a choice: Home plate was 90 degrees to the right, the scoreboard video screen 90 degrees to the left. Your vertebrae will thank you if you just head to the outfield berms.

Those luxury suites

Back in early March, they had one suite fully finished and furnished. I can see how they might appeal to a certain type: The one I saw was set up like a living room, with leather couches and chairs and some occasional tables, and there’s a little kitchenette along the back wall. Outside, there are three rows of regular ballpark seats in front of each suite.

That’s all fine and dandy if you’re into that sort of thing — and they certainly raised a pretty penny for the Travs — but to me it cuts out half the point of going to a live ballgame if you’re just going to sit inside on a couch and not mix with anyone but your own 17 invited guests.

That’s just me, though, yapping from my place in the cheap seats.

The tickets

Yes, they’re more expensive. And the $10 box seats will be hard to come by, although as at Ray Winder, you’re not missing much except possibly the chance of getting beaned in the forehead by a line-drive foul if you have to sit a few rows back or a little further down the baseline in the cheaper seats.

Still, I can’t complain about paying $6 for a general admission ticket. It’s still cheaper than a matinee movie, and you don’t have to worry about some jerk talking through the whole thing. And, you can drink beer.

Knowing your reserved seat is yours for the game costs $8. But children can get in for $4 in the reserved section and $3 to sit out in the berms.

The outfield wall ads

There’s one for Hamburger Helper. Hamburger Helper. I am mystified.

Home-run-catching possibilities

Well, it is in fact possible to catch a home run at Dickey-Stephens, so that’s a step up. Long balls simply disappeared behind that big wall at Ray Winder, or maybe once in awhile went sailing over I-630, but the outfield berms at Dickey-Stephens are ideal for snagging a homer. Too bad the one Curtis Pride hit on opening night came after they’d cleared the right-field berm in preparation for the post-game fireworks display.

The opening ceremonies

Lots of dignitaries, lots of northside pride. “People of North Little Rock, give yourselves a hand,” emcee Pat Summerall said. “Just look at what you’ve given to the great state of Arkansas.” (You’re welcome.)

And overheard from a guy talking on a cell phone behind me: “You’re missing the opening ceremonies. They’re recognizing everybody. I’m waiting on a beer.”

Travs Executive VP/Chief Operating Officer Bill Valentine had the quote of the night, though: “If you build it, they shall come. We did. You did. Let’s play ball.”

Parking

Not exactly the most organized operation I’ve ever seen. We got to the ballpark about 5:20 p.m., not long after the gates opened, and they were still waving people in to the official ballpark lot. We handed over our $3, and the attendant directed us toward the gravel back part of the lot, where, she said, they’d have someone lining cars up. Except that someone wasn’t there. Confusion reigned, and it appeared from all the cars already parked along curbs and aisle-ends that there weren’t any actual spaces left. We snatched the first open piece of curb we saw, only to find as we walked toward the ballpark that there were at least a dozen honest parking spaces still open a few rows over. The threats to tow cars that were blocking in others started coming over the loudspeaker around the fifth inning.

Best pitch of opening night

It came from Anthony Lowery Jr., a 10-year-old kid from the Dalton Whetstone Boys and Girls Club, who brought the high heat for one of four ceremonial first pitches. Fast, hard and straight into the catcher’s glove. The crowd went nuts.

The opening game itself

Let’s be honest: Nobody goes to a Travelers game expecting a win. And we didn’t last Thursday. But there’s a respectable way and a not-so-respectable way to lose a baseball game, especially when you go into the bottom of the ninth down 6-1. The Travs put up a by-God fight, and anyone who left early missed the best part of the game. They hit, they walked, they stole bases, they got one run in and had two more on when Curtis Pride came up to bat with one out. He knocked a beautiful shot into the right-field berm, and we all screamed like he’d just won the ballgame. Final score was 6-5, Frisco, but the crowd stood up and applauded after the final out anyway. If you can’t root, root, root for the home team, you might as well just not come.

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