Editor’s Note: Mark Cryan, former MiLB general manager and Ballpark Digest contributing editor, is embarking on an epic ballpark tour this summer, and he’ll be filing regular dispatches from the road. Day Two: a trip to Johnson City’s Howard Johnson Field.
Day 2 of our great adventure took us to visit another rookie-league Appalachian League park: Johnson City’s Howard Johnson Field, which is now being branded as “Cardinals Park.”
There’s a lot of history in Johnson City, and we all know that “historic” can mean “run down” or “out of date.” And, there are a lot of quirks to this park that you wouldn’t find today. For instance, from our chosen seats near the top of the small grandstand, our view included no less than seven thick poles that were either supporting the grandstand roof, or the backstop netting. Sightlines here are something of an issue in general, as there are big chain link fences over the dugouts in place of netting, and there is tall chain link running down in front of the left-field picnic pavilion, making it nearly impossible to see anything but the left fielder. The location is nothing special, with a good-sized parking lot next door.
But, enough complaining. Sometimes, the imperfections are what makes something wonderful. There are lots of things to love about Cardinal Park and what’s happening there. First, this place oozes with history; the Cardinals have been sending their prospects here for decades. Second, starting last year, they are selling beer. Anyone who understands the economics of minor league baseball knows that this is a big deal. Not surprisingly, attendance is up. There have also been some nice renovations to the park since I last visited years ago, including a wider concourse surrounded by wrought iron fencing, and a wide concourse that includes a kids activity area with free inflatables and other games.
The game program is the freebie “Play Ball”-type and it’s nicely done. The playing surface looks great, and there are lots of fence signs visible on the outfield wall. Second-year GM Tyler Parson’s staff runs tons of on-field contests, much like his former boss, Gastonia ringmaster Jesse Cole. The atmosphere was friendly and very active, and the rolling Tennessee hills above the outfield wall make a beautiful backdrop.
The weather had cooled down by game time, and despite the gripes about poles blocking our view, at least there is a roof to provide some shade, and after an inning or so, you barely notice them. The grandstand is split in two, and press box straddles the main tunnel into the seating bowl. There are also lots of on-field contests that kept people engaged and smiling, including several featuring the many dogs that were in attendance for “Bark in the Park.”
In the end, we had a true “throwback” experience, enjoying a great old park, but with fun promotions and lots of modern fun. This is the kind of old-school night at the ballpark that you can’t find in many places other than the Apply League.
Random Fact: This stadium used to back up to Steve Spurrier Field, a municipal football stadium, but that’s gone, replaced by a senior center. Perhaps Coach Superior can return to his hometown to play some shuffleboard when he’s done with the Gamecocks.
Johnson City — Kid’s Eye View
Johnson City had a whole section of their stadium dedicated to keeping young fans busy. All of the activities are free. There is an inflatable batting game, jumbo” jenga” and two sets of jumbo bowling pins with an enlarged ball. There is also a place where you could put on a Cardinals jersey and take a batting stance or pretend you are in the field inside a baseball card frame. Clearly, the Cardinals are working hard to make the ballpark a fun place for kids, although this park could also benefit from a playground, even a small one for the younger kids (and their parents!).
Gray Fossil Site is a must visit. While relocating a road in Gray, a community near Johnson City, a road crew found a fossilized skull. It turned out to be a prehistoric alligator, and the road work was called off while one of the world’s greatest treasure troves of fossils was unearthed. There is now a museum on the site, as well as a working paleontology lab. The site is still being explored and there is an active dig behind the museum.
East Tennessee’s “Mini-Dome” is a real unique experience for the facility nut. This is both ETSU’s basketball arena, and the former home of the their football team. With a barrel-shaped roof and roughly 17,000 seats, this was supposed to be an exciting place to see a football game, particularly when they hosted a big high school rivalry game. It officially carries a long, generic name, but just ask a local where the “Mini-Dome” is.
My trusty co-pilot Ty is doing a bang-up job as navigator and also providing the “Kid’s Eye View” section to these posts. The good news; we have working air conditioning in the van! The folks at Carl Gregory Chrysler Jeep got us in and out, replaced the AC blower motor, and their courtesy driver, Alan, carried us to ETSU, and made the great recommendation to visit the Gray Fossil Site. We have cold air, and were able to complete our first successful night of “Wal-Mart camping.”
Next stop: First Tennessee Park, Nashville.