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New ballparks invigorate city centers04/23/2010 10:00 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com
This season, two teams are fortunate enough to be playing in sparkling new facilities: the Tulsa Drillers and the Winston-Salem Dash. Both clubs have successfully made it through their season-opening homestands, the crucial first step of any hometown baseball renaissance.
In this, the season's first edition of Farm's Almanac, we'll take a closer look at Minor League Baseball's newest ballparks before providing some observations on what is still to come.
Everything's OK in Oklahoma
When discussing the Tulsa Drillers' new stadium, it's important to get one thing out of the way: Oneok Field is pronounced "one oak" (just imagine a solitary tree, and you'll be fine). The ballpark is named for a Tulsa-based natural gas distributor, who paid $5 million in exchange for a 20-year naming rights deal.
Oneok Field replaces Drillers Stadium, which had served as the club's home for the previous 29 seasons. The 7,800-seat new facility, located in Tulsa's historic Greenwood District, is the centerpiece of a revitalization project meant to spur the growth of Tulsa's downtown area.
"Downtown Tulsa had always been dead after 5 o'clock. It would be like in 'The Flintstones,' when that whistle blows to end the work day and everyone evacuates," explained Tulsa GM Mike Melega, who is in his 17th season with the ballclub. "But over the past four or five years, there's been a lot of progress here. [Oneok Field] is at the center of three entertainment districts -- Greenwood, Brady and Blue Dome -- and we're connected to all three. Downtown is going to continue to grow. Restaurants, bars and art galleries are opening, and with the ballpark now in place, the development will only continue."
As befits a "centerpiece," Oneok Field is architecturally impressive and oozing with character. The stadium's exterior combines brick and zinc to remarkable effect, one meant to evoke Tulsa's past, present and future. The brick fits in with the old buildings and warehouses that are prevalent in the area, and the zinc -- which has never been used in a ballpark design before -- provides a shinier, more modern feel. The exterior also features Art Deco-style medallions, each sporting a different design, including scenes from Tulsa's oil-rich past, the Drillers logo and Jackie Robinson.
As for the inside of the ballpark, highlights include a wraparound concourse, 48-foot wide videoboard, greatly increased food and beverage options and a playground area that allows antsy youngsters to blow off steam -- "the No. 1 amenity, in my opinion," stated Melega.
And the action on the field can be experienced in new ways as well.
"At Drillers Stadium, we didn't have outfield seats, so it's been great watching fans catch home run balls and throwing home runs by the visiting team back out on the field," said Melega. "And the [Drillers Stadium] outfield walls were 13 feet high, so you never saw any home runs getting robbed. But the walls here are eight feet and just four feet along the bullpens. ... There are also some weird angles, so the ball could take some bad hops and give hitters a chance to leg out a triple or even an inside-the-park home run."
What it all adds up to is a greatly improved baseball experience, and after two years of preparation, Melega and his staff are now reaping the benefits.
"The last two years, I think we all worked harder than we ever had in our professional lives," he said. "But we're all walking around with smiles, and our spirits always remained high."
Here he pauses, as if still not fully adjusted to the Drillers' new reality.
"I mean, how could they not? This place is beautiful."
Good things come to those who wait
The transition to a new stadium is inevitably a stressful time, but in Winston-Salem, the situation was even more fraught with hardship than usual.
The Dash were originally slated to move to BB&T Ballpark in 2009, following more than 50 seasons at Ernie Shore Field. But a host of funding issues and business disputes delayed construction of the new facility, and the team was forced to return to their old home for an additional season -- this time as tenants of Wake Forest University, the stadium's new owner.
This state of flux came to an end once and for all on April 13, when the Dash enjoyed the first of what will be many home openers at BB&T Ballpark. Ryan Manuel, the team's vice president of baseball operations, was able to find the positives in the Dash's recent difficulties.
"It was an abnormal time, as far as stress goes, but we got through it," he said. "[The delay] gave us extra time to evaluate things, and that sure helped out when it came to Opening Night. We didn't have any issues, at least not when it came to things the fans were going to notice."
The team pulled out all the stops on Opening Night, eager to prove that Winston-Salem baseball was ready to enter a splendid new era.
"We had flyovers, parachuters, fireworks, live bands -- you name it," said Manuel. "But in a way, we didn't have to do much because it was already so apparent how different the atmosphere was from Ernie Shore Field. You could tell that just by walking in."
Immediate signs of this difference came in the form of a 360-degree concourse, a state-of-the-art LED videoboard, a unique press box location on the concourse of the main level and a dugout party suite allowing revelers to utilize the same tunnel used as the players.
Manuel also lauds the stadium's Kid Zone, which features inflatables, a carousel, clowns and face painters.
"It's like we took a Chuckie Cheese and threw it in the ballpark," he said.
Like in Tulsa, Winston-Salem's ballpark is in a downtown location that is ripe for a rebirth. Bars and restaurants are popping up in close proximity to BB&T Field, a trend Manuel expects to continue.
"It's going to be a gradual change," said Manuel. "But things are picking up and we're feeling good."