Community Field, the longtime home of the Burlington Bees, just may be the most aptly named stadium in all of Minor League Baseball.
The "Community" in question isn't a local bank or insurance company that sprang for the naming rights, but the tight-knit community of Burlington, Iowa, (population 26,000, one of the smallest markets in the Minor Leagues. The team is truly a community asset, as it's operated by the Burlington Baseball Association.
"We have a board of directors that oversees day-to-day operations, but there's no individual ownership, no one person who has any money in it," explained general manager Chuck Brockett, who heads a staff of four full-time employees. "It's the board of directors that has the player development contract [with the Kansas City Royals], but if we ever lost [the affiliation], our money would go into a fund and be used to support sports in the community.
"Over the past five years, I really think the fans have begun to understand what a unique situation we have here. They'll hear about $30 million and $50 million stadiums being built in other market and think, 'Wait a minute.' Hopefully, attendance will increase along with that realization, but we're able to turn over our population several times a season, and most teams don't do that."
Community Field, and the Burlington baseball experience in general, certainly could be described as "no frills." Save for four rows of seats located behind home plate, the 3,200-seat stadium is comprised almost entirely of general admission bleacher seating. There is no videoboard, no vendors roaming the aisles, and racing anthropomorphic food products and similar Minor League mainstays are entirely missing from the scene.
In larger markets, where the overall entertainment experience often trumps the action on the field, such omissions would be tantamount to financial suicide. But it works just fine for Burlington, where the focus always has been and always will be baseball itself.
"We have a lot of loyal fans who come out to the stadium every night, who are very knowledgeable about the game," said Brockett, a Burlington native in his 11th season as GM. "At some of the bigger [Minor League] ballparks, you get a lot of people who don't know the score or even who won. They're there for the social event. But we really try not to take away from what's on the field. We want fans to know the player's name and try to keep things a lot closer knit as far as that goes."
In that regard, Community Field remains largely unchanged from when it first opened in 1947. The facility has actually undergone some major renovations, most notably when the original grandstand burned to the ground in June 1971. An all-volunteer crew rebuilt the stadium, which reopened in time for Opening Day 1973 (the team played at the site throughout, as the field and lights were undamaged).
More recent renovations, which the team dubbed "Extreme Makeover," came in 2004 and included a new press box, concessions building and restrooms as well as expanded clubhouses and a marquee outside the stadium.
As usual, a cliché says it best: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Bees hosted the Clinton LumberKings on Saturday, and from first pitch to last a timeless atmosphere prevailed. Down the third-base line, a coterie of longtime season-ticket holder leaned against a railing bearing personalized nameplates. Behind them, an old boom box perched on the counter of a concession stand was tuned to the play-by-play. Announcer Nick Devlin's voice mingled with the noise of children playing in the grassy area behind the bleachers, their games of tag interrupted by frantic foul ball pursuits.
Other youngsters chose to stand beside the entrance to the home dugout, slapping baseball gloves with Bees players as they returned from the field following the third out.
After the game -- a 6-1 Bees' victory -- members of the home team and their host families gathered on the concourse for an end-of-the-year steak dinner prepared and paid for by clubhouse manager "Ray-Ray" Romine.
The visiting LumberKings, meanwhile, simply strolled across the street to the conveniently located (and hilariously named) Pzazz! Hotel. The hotel is operated by Dave Walker, president of the Burlington Baseball Association Board of Directors.
"We're proud of what we have here in Burlington, running a grassroots organization," said Walker, who was named "King of Baseball" at the 2007 Baseball Winter Meetings in recognition of his work on behalf of the Bees. "We are what baseball used to be."