SPRINGDALE, Ark. -- When Julio Pimentel threw the first pitch at home in Northwest Arkansas Naturals history at 6:40 p.m. local time -- a called strike to San Antonio's Drew Macias -- Kansas City Royals owner David Glass was sitting somewhere in brand new Arvest Ballpark with a smile on his face.
It's not just that it was his Royals' Double-A affiliate playing -- and losing, it turned out, to San Antonio, 7-1, in front of 7,820 fans -- in this HOK-designed stadium. This was much more than a hands-on owner checking in on his farm system. For Glass, the former CEO of Wal-Mart, this was a dream fulfilled.
"We've wanted professional baseball here for quite some time," Glass said.
Wal-Mart has its corportate headquarters here and Glass spent 25 years with the company, serving as president and CEO for a dozen years. When he was first approached about the prospects of maintaining a Minor League club here, it was nearly 20 years ago and talk centered around a Class A team. The only problem was, Glass explained, there was no league at that level that would put a team in this region of the country.
Little did Glass know what would transpire. The region remains among the fastest-growing in the country, even with the recent economic downturns, thanks largely to Wal-Mart and other companies (Tyson, J.B. Hunt) maintaining headquarters here. The surrounding area, the Royals owner says, is home to 350,000-400,000 people and ripe for a pro team. The opportunity to leave Wichita and move the team here arose at just the right time.
"We didn't realize that it would grow to the point where we could support a Double-A team. When the opportunity came, we jumped at it," Glass said. "The icing on the cake is the fact the Double-A team is the affiliate of the Kansas City Royals."
It made for a quick drive for Royals farm director J.J. Picollo. It took him about 3 1/2 hours to get it here from Kansas City, and he was excited about what Arvest Ballpark could mean for these future Royals.
"It's almost like a little taste of the big leagues here, the new amenities and the [crowds]," Picollo said. "That's what matters to these guys. Playing in front of good crowds can only be good for their development. The players are excited and the staff is as well."
The excitement was tempered somewhat by the final score -- and the fact that the postgame fireworks display was canceled due to strong winds (Naturals fans were invited to pick up two free tickets for the home game on April 21 against the Springfield Cardinals).
Northwest Arkansas managed only three hits and the only time a hometown favorite reached third base was during the typical kid racing the mascot promotion between innings. That was until first baseman Kila Ka'aihue homered in the ninth to give the fans something to cheer about before the game ended. It may have been meaningless in the context of the game, but it was the first homer, run scored and RBI by a Natural in Arvest Ballpark history.
"Hopefully, I'll hit a lot more," Ka'aihue said. "It's nice that my name will always be there, but hopefully I can do something like hit the last one of the season to give us the win."
Missions starter Will Inman, who joined the Padres organization late last year in a trade with the Brewers, went five strong innings, allowing just one hit and three walks while striking out four. He's 2-0 and hasn't allowed a run over his first 10 frames of the season.
"There's never a bad time to do well," said Inman, who's yielded only four hits and five walks while striking out nine. "But I did want to start the season off strongly. It makes it easier and I wanted to show the Padres what I can do."
While it wasn't the storybook ending for which folks in Springdale were hoping, they know this is only the beginning of what everyone hopes is a long relationship with baseball. Even with the loss, it probably would have been hard to wipe the smile off the Royals CEO's face.
"It doesn't get any better than this," Glass said before the game. "The only thing better would be to be able to play with them. If you can't, this is the next best thing."