words: Dwain Hebda
images:courtesy Arkansas Travelers, Northwest Arkansas Naturals
“Baseball was, is and always will be to me the best game in the world”
In the cool of the Arkansas evening, the unmistakable waft of popcorn floats through the fourth-inning breeze. The tranquil park hums with casual conversation, punctuated by the snap of leather, the whistle of horsehide and the crack of hickory. Organ music provides a soundtrack for the lucky patron who’s been called to the field for a test of skill during changeover. It’s hard to get too worked up about wins and losses this early in the season when the beer is cold, and there are fireworks later.
Welcome to summertime in Arkansas, whiled away in the embrace of minor league baseball.
“I love big league baseball, but it’s a much bigger venue, it’s a bigger everything,” says Justin Cole, general manager of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals based in Rogers. “We want to have the affordable, family-friendly entertainment that reflects a lot of what the minor leagues are about.
“When you work in the industry, sometimes you roll your eyes a little bit because that’s all you hear, but it’s true, and it has not changed, and it’s something that you almost take for granted. That’s the bedrock of who we are.”
Minor league baseball can trace its Arkansas roots to 1895 with the formation of the Little Rock Travelers, later renamed the Arkansas Travelers. The lineage isn’t unbroken as sputtering financial woes took time to iron out, but the Travs remain one of the oldest franchises in baseball. In 2008 the state welcomed its second club, the Naturals, from Wichita, bringing baseball back to the northwest corner of the state for the first time since the 1930s.
For a state this small that’s an unusual feat; for the two squads to be in the same division is about as rare as the unassisted triple play.
“There’s two teams in a lot of states, but one might be in Single A and the other might be in Double A,” says Rusty Meeks, assistant general manager for the Travs. “For us to both be not only in Double A in the Texas League, but in the same division is pretty neat for our fans and just baseball fans in general.”
Those expecting a Hatfield versus McCoy-level rivalry will be sorely disappointed, even with the teams’ head-to-head records nearly square over the past two years and the Naturals nipping the Travs for the division title by a single game last year. That smarts, but you’d never know it talking to the brass.
“I definitely would say it’s a very friendly rivalry especially between the front offices,” Justin says. “We like to have some fun with it, we still track the standings, but I think for both teams if it doesn’t favor us we don’t promote it as much.”
The professional pleasantries are genuine and a hallmark of the minor league game where salaries are low enough and hours are long enough to give most front offices common ground. As a kid, Rusty was batboy for the Travs and worked in the Naturals’ front office before coming home to take his dream job with the Little Rock club.
“Unfortunately I’m going to say just great things about the Naturals,” Rusty says. “I hate to let you down, but they’re tremendous people. Front office staff as nice as can be. It’s just been fun.”
No one’s hit the big money at the Double A level, although some of the players can see it from here. Over the years, both squads have seen numerous players ascend to the major leagues. The Travs have been affiliated with a string of major league clubs during their history, this year for the first time with the Seattle Mariners. The Naturals have been particularly prominent in kicking top prospects upstairs to eventually land with their MLB affiliate, the Kansas City Royals.
“The Royals’ success has been just spectacular these last four or five years, and it’s neat having so many Naturals players contribute to that,” Justin says. “We had twelve former Naturals on the Royals’ twenty-five-man roster that won the World Series.”
In fact, it is this level of upward mobility that keeps a true rivalry from growing its bitter legs. In the bigs, teams stay intact longer, and certain players perform in the clutch to break one fan base’s heart while thrilling another’s soul. You learn to hate the players and club that keeps sending your team home early.
In the minors, the team’s ace slugger could be next to you in the grocery store line, and chances are you wouldn’t know him. And by the time he did gain some local recognition outside of die-hard baseball fans, he’s likely headed elsewhere.
“The players are always trying to advance to the next level, so you just don’t have the continuity with the players,” Justin explains. “We’ve lost in the championship the last two years to Midland [Texas] but with completely different teams on both sides each year. In theory, Midland should be a pretty good rival for us because we have not been able to beat them these last two years of that championship. As much as I want to get back there and win it, I know full well it’s going to be with a newer team, and their team is going to be drastically different as well.”
If anything tells the story of where the competitive relationship lies between the two Arkansas clubs, it may be the tale of the turnstiles as fan interest upticks when the two squads meet in a classic old school-new school showdown.
When the Travs roll out the red carpet, figuratively speaking, it’s 122 years long (less a handful of seasons due to wartime and other complications) and edged with five Texas League championships, the most recent coming in 2008. But the upstart Naturals have won and won fast since arriving in Rogers. The squad claimed the 2010 Texas League championship in just their third season in Arkansas as well as three divisional titles including the past two years back-to-back.
“I would say it’s getting to be more of a rivalry every year as it goes on,” Rusty says. “Over the years our attendance has increased a little bit from when we play the Naturals.”
Still, there’s a lot more that unites than divides Arkansas’ two baseball clubs. Seats are still cheap and easy to get, particularly during the week, and promotions and concessions often upstage the game itself, especially a 1-0 two-hitter at the height of an Arkansas summer.
Justin says Arvest Ballpark, celebrating its tenth year, is known for its main concourse that links the vendors while providing an uninterrupted view of the action. Locals love the fireworks nights and opt for the barbecue nachos, a stadium specialty. Also not to be missed is the funnel dog, a hot dog dipped in funnel cake batter, fried and dusted with powdered sugar.
“That’s in our Sweet Spot concession stand with all of our desserts, ice cream and sundaes and all that good stuff,” he says. “Not good for you, but it’s good food.”
Travs’ fans flock to Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock for Faith and Family Night which features a Christian concert after the game, and they also love a good fireworks show. Order the Philly cheesesteak, the corndog or the fried Oreos, then find your seat to bask in the sparkling evening view of the Little Rock skyline over the outfield wall.
As for promotions, it’s not even close, Rusty says.
“If you’re going to see one promotion, you’ve got to come to midget wrestling,” he says. “You’ve got Beautiful Bobby and Little Kato out there wrestling each other, throwing each other on a mat. It’s fantastic.”
To catch the next match-up between these two teams or any game this season, call or visit:
Northwest Arkansas Naturals