This most recent trip, which I never came up with a proper name for beyond “OKARMOTN,” wrapped up with a return engagement in the “AR” part of the equation: Little Rock, home of the Arkansas Travelers.
Since 2007, the Travs have made their home within the spacious confines of Dickey Stephens Park:
Dickey-Stephens is a great place to watch a game, and I had a phenomenal time during my lone evening there. It was action-packed, full of memorable characters and situations, and there’s a good chance that this post will be broken up into two pieces. (That’ll be a play it by ear kind of situation, keep reading and I’ll keep writing.)
But all that said, I’ll tell you right now that, on one level, my trip to Little Rock was a total failure. This is because I didn’t make it to Ray Winder Field, which served as the Travelers’ home from 1932-2006. (This photo taken from ArkansasRoadStories.com)
Word has it that the facility is in bad shape these days, a most dispiriting situation, but I wanted to get to Ray Winder because nearly everyone I spoke to at Dickey-Stephens said I needed to. It is a place with mystique, where irascible owner Bill Valentine (now retired) ran a no-tech operation that was high in charisma and “only in Minor League Baseball” eccentricity. Broadcaster Phil Elson, who spent six years at working at Ray Winder, regaled me with tales involving beer can pyramids, midgets on scooters, and not-fit-to-print owner-umpire repartee before wrapping it up like this:
“You can come to a game here [Dickey-Stephens] and enjoy it. It’s great. But if you used to go to games at Ray Winder, then you still have Ray Winder in your heart.”
(So, yeah, I’m frustrated I didn’t make it there. I didn’t have the time, pre-game, because of an agonizingly slow drive coming in from Jackson on I-40 that afternoon. And, my attempt to stop by the next morning before flying out of Little Rock was stymied by what was, apparently, the wrong address. But enough rambling justifications, which I wrote down solely to appease my own tendency toward self-criticism…)
There is still PLENTY to write about, live and direct from Dickey-Stephens Park!
That post-game Diamond Dig was just fantastic, and we’ll get to that in due time.
But the first order of business was, as usual, a player interview. While I waited for Elson to procure a victim (thanks, Darwin Perez), I followed up on a commenter’s tip and investigated the interior of this unassuming structure located down the right field line:
It looks like it would house team offices, perhaps, or maybe a storage area. But, no — this is an intern living area! Six young men in their early 20s, co-existing in harmony (more or less). Steven Kettler, a West Virginia native, was the only one “home” when I stopped by for a visit.
Kettler gave me a tour of this humble abode, which has been used as such since Dickey-Stephens opened in 2007. It consists of a living room, kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms (with two beds apiece) and, as you might imagine, is a bit on the “messy” side of the housekeeping equation. For more, read THIS MiLB.com article.
The top TV simply carries a live feed of the nearby baseball field, so that the occupants always know what’s going on and what may need to be done (setting up and taking down BP is one of their many daily duties, for example).
This hallway leads to the bedroom suites, which are, of course, impeccably maintained. Just take my word for it.
Reminders of Ray Winder Field are plentiful throughout Dickey-Stephens Park. This storage shed, located a proverbial hop, skip and a jump from the intern apartments, has seats from the old stadium stacked up against it.
Meanwhile, these Winder relics have been pressed into active duty at Dickey-Stephens:
Dickey-Stephens boasts a downtown location, and plenty of Little Rock landmarks can be seen from the outfield concourse. The white structure in front of the skyscraper is the Old State House.
Per that unassailable information source that is Wikipedia, the Old State House is ” the oldest surviving state capitol building west of the Mississippi River. It is known best as the site of President Bill Clinton‘s election night celebration in 1992.” It has since been designated a National Historic Landmark.
I made my way back to the front entrance just before the gates were scheduled to open. Outside, a crowd had formed.
Many of these early arriving partisans were eager to get their hands on the evening’s giveaway, which was stacked up in huge quantities on a full-to-bursting concourse table.
That would be a Garrett Richards replica jersey t-shirt, distributed to the first 1000 youths in attendance. Many of these youths made an immediate wardrobe change upon procuring one.
Upon entering the stadium, many of the fans make an immediate right. To the beer garden!
The beer garden’s bleacher seating is an homage to Ray Winder Field.
“Hook Slide Corner” is what this area is officially known as, and boy oh boy is there a story behind that. To a large degree, this drawing tells the tale:
Walter “Hook Slide” Bradshaw was a regular at the Ray Winder beer garden. His nightly routine, as captured in the above drawing, was to do his “hook slide” into a popcorn box base, on concrete, while wearing jean shorts. And the reward for his effort was free beer from his fellow fans, which, once consumed, would inevitably end up as part of a teetering can pyramid.
It’s hard to imagine a Minor League team condoning such behavior, let alone making it a part of its franchise mythology, but this is just one of the reasons that the Travelers stand out. I couldn’t find any pictures of Bradshaw online, but here’s a shot of a newspaper tribute that I took while visiting the ballpark museum (more on that later):
And now, Hook Slide Bradshaw has obtained Beer Garden immortality!
A mascot based on Hook Slide Bradshaw would be awesome, but the Travs, understandably, went a safer route:
That’s Shelly the Horse, hanging out by the inflatable-laden “Kidz Korner.”
A better vantage point can be obtained simply by turning in the other direction, however. Texas League Baseball!
Some 1050 words later, I’ve finally reached a point in the narrative where the ballgame is underway. And there’s still so much more to write about! Including but not limited to: a roller-skating, car-washing member of the grounds crew, a phenomenal seventh-inning stretch, an encounter with this season’s premier Minor League nomads, and the embarrassment of riches that was the post-game Diamond Dig.
Yep, this one is definitely gonna be a two-parter. Thank you for your patience; it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.