With the makeover of Smokies Park the last two years, the Tennessee Smokies (Class AA; Southern League) have positioned the facility as “America’s Friendliest Ballpark.” The label fits, as the franchise continues a needed ballpark refreshing.
The ballpark has always been defined by its bucolic setting, with the grandstand facing a lovely hillside forest. That setting is still there, though over the years commerce has developed in the area (fast food near the freeway, a Bass Pro Shop and other retail up the hill to the west), but the basic nature of the ballpark remains the same. It’s very easy to forget you’re close to a busy freeway when you’re at a Smokies game.
Opening in 2000, Smokies Park has a basic two-story grandstand, with the concourse at street level, a sunken playing field and second story with suites, press box and group spaces, with parking and other distractions shielded from most fans. Replacing Bill Meyer Stadium – since torn down – Smokies Park opened to wide acclaim, with the team doubling attendance after setting up shop in suburban Sevierville.
Fast forward to 2013, when Randy Boyd buys the team from Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam. He brings in Chris Allen as team vice president and COO with a clear mandate: to modernize the ballpark.
And he did.
While there was nothing wrong with the old Smokies Park, the new Smokies Park is a new and improved model, with new outfield seating, a wraparound concourse and upgraded concessions. An old, tired ballpark restaurant has been upgraded with the help of a new partner, and both group areas and concourse concessions have been improved this season and last. A visit to Smokies Park is worth the effort, both for the ballpark and for the experience.
Let’s begin with the ballpark grandstand. The theme here is country bucolic, with lots of green touches (including a pine-tree-green roof), a brick exterior and space devoted to the Smoky Mountain Visitor Center. It screams country-style architecture.
Once inside the gates, fans are presented with a wraparound concourse allowing good views of the ballpark from any vantage point. Once the outfield berm was strictly a grass affair, but changes the last two seasons have upgraded seating for groups and single-game attendees alike. Last season saw the addition of Calhoun’s At The Yard in left field and down the left-field line, while this season saw the addition of a new seating space in right field.
Calhoun’s At The Yard is basically two areas: a bar open to all and an all-you-can-eat area that opens to the public if not rented out by a group. (Alas, we didn’t eat there. Our loss: the menu for groups includes hickory smoked pork barbeque, grilled barbeque chicken breast, baked beans, and cole slaw.) There’s a reason why baseball teams now locate bars in outfield corners: it’s a great place to watch a game while perched on a bar stool, and it monetizes what can be awkward spaces.
This season sees an expansion of the partnership with the Copper Cellar Family of Restaurants, a Knoxville-based operation that includes Calhoun’s, the Copper Cellar and Smoky Mountain Brewery. For fans, that expansion includes a full line of Smoky Mountain Brewery microbrews on tap and a new menu from Calhoun’s in a renovated concourse-level restaurant, with the Smoky Mountain Brewery Bullpen replacing the Double Play Cafe. The renovation was extensive: the bar was moved from the back of the restaurant to the front (meaning fans can order drinks from the open bar without leaving the concourse), while new finishes (including new flooring) updated the restaurant’s look, which hadn’t changed since the 2000 opening. During our visit, the restaurant and bar were plenty busy, with fans lining up to order from the concourse.
The Copper Cellar partnership also yielded a gem on the suite level: the Copper Cellar Clubhouse, an indoor/outdoor group space with new finishes (including a hardwood floor), high-def televisions, buffet, and craft brews from the Smoky Mountain Brewery. It’s a good group choice for a hot night: the indoor area is air-conditioned, but there is also outdoor seating as well.
The other addition this season: the sponsored Pioneer Porch on the right-field concourse, giving fans another specialty space to watch a game from the outfield. These additions last season and now didn’t really impact the view from the grandstand – those woods are still there, as is the HD scoreboard – but they did help to disburse fans throughout the ballpark on an average game night.
Add in concourse stands featuring other local operations, Old Forge Distillery and Thunder Road Distillery, and you’ve got the essential Tennessee experience of ribs and moonshine. Here, local is truly local: the Thunder Road Distillery is just a short drive away, next to Bass Pro Shop.
Another change overseen by new ownership: a renovation of the playing field, allowing for better and quicker drainage. The 2014 season saw the installation of a new Latitude 36 Bermuda grass turf overseen by Brickman Sports Turf Services.
The suite level contains all manner of Knoxville baseball memorabilia, including old jerseys. Four blue seats salvaged from Bill Meyer Stadium, installed in the right-field corner, also mark Knoxville baseball history. Those seats are a good refuge for parents tired out by their kids, as the play area – bouncy houses and more – are located in the right-field corner.
To sum up: the ballpark experience at Smokies Park is great, the food and beverages are top-notch, and changes to the facility in the last two years have only improved the game-day experience. Highly recommended.
Opened: April 20, 2000
Dimensions: 330L, 400C, 330R
Surface: Latitude 36 Bermuda grass
Owner: Sevier County / City of Sevierville
League: Southern League (Double-A)
Affiliate: Chicago Cubs
Address: 3540 Line Dr., Kodak, TN 37764
Directions: Take I-40 to exit 407, Hwy. 66; the ballpark can be found directly upon exiting.