If you're going to replace a legendary ballpark, you had best make sure the replacement is a worthy successor. In the case of Dickey-Stephens Park, the new home of the Arkansas Travelers is a worthy successor to Ray Winder Field, the team's longtime home.
Year Opened: 2007
Capacity: 5,288 fixed seats; berms can accommodate hundreds more
Owner: City of North Little Rock
Architect: HKS Sports Entertainment Group
Construction Manager: East-Harding/Hensel Phelps Construction, Little Rock
Cost: $40.4 million
Dimensions: 332L, 360LC, 400C, 375RC, 330R
Playing Surface: Bermuda grass
League: Texas League (Class AA)
Parent: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Parking: A parking lot west of the ballpark on Broadway fills quickly; the cost is $3. Entrepreneurs have filled the gaps by opening lots near the ballpark, ranging from $5 to $10. There's plenty of street parking north of the ballpark off Broadway Street. (It can be a little confusing: the ballpark is on the corner of Broadway and Broadway.) The River Rail streetcar runs from downtown Little Rock as well.
Address/Directions: 400 W. Broadway Av., North Little Rock. Most fans in the region will want to make their way to I-30 and take the Broadway exit. From there, head west on Broadway six blocks; the ballpark will be on your left. The way to the ballpark is marked with signs on I-30 and the Broadway exit.
Ray Winder Field was one of the great old ballparks of minor-league baseball, filled with quirks, life and history. While Dickey-Stephens Park doesn't have many quirks or much history yet, if opening night was any indication the place will surely be full of life.
Perfectly situated on the shores of the Arkansas River with downtown Little Rock as a scenic backdrop, Dickey-Stephens Park is a community resource of the best kind. Ray Winder Field was the home of the Travs for more than 70 seasons; we'd be very surprised if future editors of Ballpark Digest didn't return to Dickey-Stephens Park in 70 years and find the place as lively as ever.
The ballpark design is basic: a grandstand features concessions and luxury boxes, while a concourse wraps the playing field. You've got your standard picnic areas and what's basically a drinking-and-smoking section down the first-base line. The most distinctive element of the ballpark is one of the first things fans will see: the clock tower. Past that, an entrance reminiscent of a trainyard is where most fans will enter.
Despite the history, Ray Winder Field lacked many of the amenities fans expect as part of the baseball experience. While us ballpark insiders loved Ray Winder Field, the greater Little Rock community didn't; attendance there put the Travs near the bottom of the Texas League attendance rankings, and the Travs front office faced the uncomfortable decision of renovating Ray Winder Field (not very feasible, given the physical limitations of the site) or building a new ballpark. Not an easy decision, but we think the right one was made, as purists will admit the design of Dickey-Stephens Park will be more inviting to the casual fan. The little touches do matter. Take, for example, the berms in the outfield and down the left-field line. They'll allow fans to watch the game in a more relaxed atmosphere; while the berms aren't especially big, we expect them to be popular. Now, there's nothing earth-shattering about outfield berms -- but they just weren't possible at the old ballpark.
This does lead us to one central design point: the ballpark was purposely designed to be intimate. The designers had more land to work with at the site -- there's a large open spot beyond center and left field -- but chose to bring in the boundaries of the ballpark and keep everyone close to the action. The concourse in the grandstand is wide, but not too wide, and there are very few places in the ballpark where you can't see the action.
You can even get a good view of the action from beyond the fence in the outfield; more than a few fans without tickets were watching the game for free.
In fact, there are some seats in the ballpark that are uncomfortably close, like the first few rows between the dugouts. There is no backstop per se, just a concrete lip in front of the grandstand and netting going all the way to the ground. That lack of a barrier makes you feel like you've just thrown a seat at the edge of a game as you would at your neighborhood park. Players will need to be aware of this; nets do have some give, and a 250-pound first baseman running in to catch a foul ball has the potential of running into the net at enough speed to knock over a beer or two on the other side. (A good reason to keep that beer in the cupholder located at every seat.)
That's not the only thing on the field players will need to heed. At a time when giant walls a la the Green Monster are being installed in minor-league ballparks, the Travs went small with a four-foot-high fence in right field, in front of the bullpens (both bullpens are side by side, close to a party area). You can expect lots of outfielders -- especially those just called up from Class A -- to take a dive or two into the dugouts. Another potential hazard: not all the concrete walls in the ballpark are padded. The outfield walls and those directly down each line are padded (not that there's a lot of room there; the wall comes out to within a foot of the foul line), but there's lots of exposed concrete down each line past the below-grade concrete dugouts. We suspect this will be corrected in the future; intimacy is one thing, but a potentially dangerous situation is another.
The intimacy also leads to an understated atmosphere at the park. True, you have the obligatory scoreboard in left field -- a big one, with the videoboard measuring 18 feet by 32 feet -- but that's the only electronic signage within the park; no race-track displays on the grandstand, no videoboards on the outfield wall. The center-field batter's eye is a pretty basic building, complete with a shingled roof. It contains batting cages and ballpark storage.
There are some nice touches where the Travs pay homage to their Ray Winder Field roots. Three memorial plaques -- including one honoring former Travs owner Ray Winder -- were moved from the old ballpark and installed in the concourse. A Travs history museum is perhaps the best we've ever seen at a minor-league ballpark: the large room contains a wealth of memorabilia, including Bill Valentine's old box seats and desk from Ray Winder Field, some turn-of-the-century team photos, a video showing historic broadcasts from Ray Winder Field, and much more. It's well worth the $1 admission fee.
And, of course, the ballpark was partly named for Bill Dickey, who played minor-league ball at Kavanaugh Field (Ray Winder Field's predecessor) and later managed the Travs at Ray Winder Field, and his brother George Dickey, who played for the Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox. (Local financier Warren Stephens actually bought the naming rights; he chose to honor the Dickeys and also affix his name to the ballpark.)
As stated earlier, one of the nice things about the ballpark is the view of downtown Little Rock across the Arkansas River. Technically, the ballpark is in North Little Rock, and some Little Rock civic leaders were a little miffed when the team announced the move across the river. We suspect that will die out quickly: you get a pretty good view of the ballpark from across the river, and many fans will make the walk across the Broadway Bridge after work. There is also a Doubletree Hotel and a Peabody Hotel directly across the river from the ballpark, and if you're visiting from out of town it's the perfect place to stay and attend a game.
Not all seating is equal. Most of the seats are standard chairback seats, but down the first-place line is a set of backed bleachers in section 101 and 102. These bleacher seats are in front of the Hook Slide beer garden, where beer is on tap and smoking allowed. (On Opening Night fans were openly smoking in non-smoking areas on the berm; you can allow this on a night where a larger-than-average crowds is at the ballpark, but in the future the Travs will need to enforce the smoking regulations a little better.) This area also features picnic tables and a large area for just standing around.
We do have a few quibbles with the design. The ballpark ostensibly has a railroad theme (partly evidenced by the miniature trestle bridge in the right-field corner, as shown above), but that theme's really not carried out fully. True, you can't expect every ballpark to feature a working train -- as is the case with Minute Maid Park -- but except for the aforementioned bridge, the entrance and the concession signage, you don't get much of a feeling of a train theme. (Why the train theme? Union Pacific in Little Rock's largest employer, and there's a rich rail tradition in town.) Perhaps the team can do something with in-game graphics as the season progresses. We're also not a fan of the aisle intersecting the grandstand seating, with six rows in front and the rest of the seats in the back. Having fans mill through the grandstand is a distraction, and it also forced designers to insert some awkwardly pitched steps between the aisle and the concourse. It probably also led to aisles between sections being a little too narrow; at Dickey-Stephens Park, an aisle seat is definitely not a spiff. That six-foot-wide aisle makes getting around the ballpark too difficult.
At Ray Winder Field, the Travs would announce by the fifth inning or so that all seats were now open, so fans buying the cheap tickets could move down to the good open seats. We're guessing that won't be an issue at Dickey-Stephens Park for years to come.
In the end, we'll give longtime Travs GM (and current team president) Bill Valentine the last word, delivered during the pregame dedication for the ballpark. "They said, building and they will come. We did," he said to the cheering crowd. "I plan on being here a long, long time. Let's play ball!"
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