A Night with The Naturals

By Maylon T. Ric

It began as it does for all boys on a warm summer afternoon carrying along a leather baseball glove. We are magically drawn to almost any diamond shaped playing field. We run at the sight of a ball field, faster and faster until we arrive, out of breath and at ease with the location.
It was like a trip back in time recently as a night with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals took place. But back to that bond of a boy and an old leather glove now some 45 years old.
The magic of baseball is still there. There was the overwhelming comfort found in heat of the afternoon sun. The savory smell of freshly mown grass. That unmistakable crack of a bat striking that leather covered ball.
For me it was all of these things, along with the anticipation that the 45-year old left-handed, all-purpose fielding glove—a Wilson, Model Number A284, the Big Scoop with a split-lock, grip-tite pocket—might, just might, snag a loose foul ball hit off the bat of a wanna be major league baseball star of tomorrow.
There was also the draw of being at Arvest Ballpark, for the first time. Oh, myself, like thousands of others have watched the dirt work being done, the cranes hosting the bare beams of metal. We have watched from afar as countless workmen and their service trucks of all brands flew in and out of what was once serene pastureland just east of I-540 that slices the southwest corner of Springdale.
But woo wee. It was more, much more than imagined or as billed by all the media hype for the ballpark’s sponsors and promoters in this first season of the minor league affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.
The ballpark was up to its expected billing: a beautiful, eco-friendly complex of concrete, steel, and muted, natural colors and glass to mix with the lush green area surrounding most of the park.
Even the color of the plastic (and recycled, I heard) chair back seats are a deep grassy green and easy to both the eye and the lower back for the evening.
A mix of young and old and lots of middle-aged children were on hand on a hot, humid night for a home stand against those red and gray clad young lads from down North Little Rock way.
The friendliness of The Naturals staff, from the ticket-takers at the gate to those doing mundane jobs inside like helping folks find their seats and picking up after those who had tossed their trash, was felt by this first-time visitor.
The coolness of the breeze up in the upper mezzanine and the ready-to-serve attitude of the food and drink vendors was refreshing.
The Naturals staff wore bright red shirts with tropical designs. Everyone was courteous and helpful in the first year of existence of this new park on the rolling plains of Springdale.
While the sun was hanging on up there baking one-half of the 6,500 of us on the sold-out evening, Ashlyn Metheny started things off right with her rousing rendition of the national anthem. Ball caps perched on the heads of little boys—and some little girls—all came off. Hands were laid over hearts and subtle singing could be heard following Metheny’s fine lead.
There were lots of promotions going on that night. In between each inning there was some kind of game on the field with pre-selected participants and a local TV newsman urging the audience over the public address system to join in the fun.
Several foul balls filtered up into the stands in the first few innings. None within my reach through. But my trusty Wilson glove, looking a little shop worn after 45 years of play, was at the ready.
Old Strike, the Naturals Mascot, a furry looking monster-type, was in resplendent form messing with little kids and making lots of the seniors at the ballpark laugh at his antics. He prowled the stands and was often on the field for those between inning games. Strike is one busy dude, that’s for sure.
There were lots and lots of little kids’ ball clubs at the Saturday game. One group from Greenland had about 20 seats all meshed together in one section.
A loose pop-up almost made it into my section. The trusty glove was jammed on in a hurry, ready for work. Alas, it fell short, but a kid who looked to be about nine-years old snagged it in his glove. Ah, the envy.
The baseball group from Greenland was apparently having their end-of-the-season awards program in one of the ballpark meeting rooms. Boxes of trophies and photos of the year’s accomplishments were everywhere. So were the younger brothers and sisters of these ballplayers.
The dads seemed to favor this location over the previous years’ end-of-the-season parties at local kiddie pizza joints. Ice cold beer, you see, can be consumed at the ballpark and there’s a game to watch.
The young ball group from Greenland was in good spirits, always hoping for that loose fly ball. They all had their gloves. Only one of two balls even came close. I felt a little ashamed, I just knew if one flew in my direction the little kids from across the aisle would converge on the ball and I would have a definite height advantage over even the biggest of them. But none came our way.
As the game progressed and the hot sun sank lower in the western sky casting the entire field in the cooler shade, the ballplayers from Greenland became bored. The foul balls weren’t flying their way.
But, a near riot broke out when someone skimmed down the aisle with a plastic major league batters helmet full of ice cream. Snacks, you see, are plentiful at the ballpark. The smell of popcorn, fried stuff and grilled dogs is, well, overwhelming. And so are the prices. But hey, what the heck? Buying a mouse hat with ears at the Disney parks ain’t cheap either. And all the snacks were delicious, because the concession stands are some of the busiest places in the park.
All night we watched the big screen as much as we watched the ballgame from our first-base seats. The evening was all it was billed to be. In the latter innings more than one mom and dad came wagging little Junior or Janie up the aisle asleep on their shoulder.
The game ended in a win for the North Little Rock visitors but even the locals didn’t seem to mind. For in baseball there will be another game. Another day to win. Another chance to snag an errant fly ball and hear the roar of the crowd.
And hey, it was a big fun Night with The Naturals. That’s for sure.

Beer Here
One of the biggest draws for the fans sitting along the first-base dugout side of Arvest Ballpark are the tandem beer salesmen.
Two middle aged men, hawking ice cold, plastic bottles of alcoholic brew from small tubs filled with ice. One glides down the steps at breakneck speed, actually running downhill with his plastic tub of ice softly ching-ching-chinging down to the bottom of the stairwell. The first couple of passes down your aisle, the sight takes your breath away. This guy sells a lot of beer.
The other hawker of the cold adult beverages can literally throw his voice. As he looks left, the sound “Cold Beer, Ice Cold Beer,” magically comes out of his mouth, but bounces to the right and about to the mid-section of the stands. Wow!
He too, sold a lot of beer.
The price was $5 a bottle. Both men worked with hands full of sweaty $20’s, $10’s and lots of $5’s. I think they could change a $100 bill with change to spare.
Few fly balls flew their way that night. As the innings wore on, the guy running down the steps never let up. He was getting a workout and so was a guy in our section. I think he cashed in an entire C-note that night, at $5 a pop.

Counting nickels and noses
While the Northwest Arkansas Naturals haven’t made a big deal out of their attendance numbers, the numbers are big—as in lots of folks checking out the new Springdale baseball park. Since opening day on April 10 when 7,820 fans filled the park, through June 7, some 129,493 fans have shown up. Average attendance has been 4,046 for each home stand, with the lowest numbers on April 14, a chilly 7 p.m. game against the Corpus Christi Hooks squad. The NWA club should break the 150,000 mark by the time you’re reading this.

And that’s not all, folks
There’s more going on at Arvest Ballpark, than just baseball. First off are the food options: Cider Shack, War Eagle Café, Spring Creek Treats and Grist Mill Grill. And, it’s not just beer and hot dogs. Find ice cream, cotton candy, pizza, BBQ, burgers, Brats, funnel cakes, popcorn and the baseball standard: Cracker Jacks. If that’s not enough to get you there, how about a little music? Tonight, the North Arkansas Symphony will help celebrate our nation’s birthday with a concert and of course, fireworks. There will also be fireworks on Friday with music by Jazzmopolitan, the duo of Pamela Nelson and Greer Gambill. Upcoming music dates from Musical Arts Productions are: Tricia McGarrah on July 7, Pamela Nelson on July 23, Kory Montgomery Band on July 25, Earl’s Garage on Aug. 9 and Jazzmopolitan again on Aug. 22. There are often food and drink specials, so check out The Naturals website at www.minorleaguebaseball.com/index.jsp?sid=t1350.

Categories: Features