America's National Pastime
28 Feb, 2011By: Juli Anne Patty
In the almost two centuries since America's unofficial national sport was born in Cooperstown, N.Y., the United States of America has undergone countless changes, but one thing has inarguably endured:baseball. Just ask the tens of thousands of kids and adults who play the game every year. The third most popular sport in the U.S. for kids six and up, baseball remains the sport at the center of America's heart, and a diverse array of meticulously and lovingly maintained baseball facilities from coast to coast means that every player at every age can enjoy a piece of America's classic pastime.
Just 150 miles west of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex is a town where western spirit, contemporary culture and traditional values-like baseball-are alive and well.
"There are three universities in Abilene with excellent baseball facilities," says Debi Schultz, sports sales director, Abilene Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Relationships are very important to us, and we have great working relationships with all of the universities. We work together to use those baseball facilities whenever we can."
Those facilities, at Abilene Christian University (lighted, seats 4,000), Hardin-Simmons University (lighted, seats 1,500) and McMurry University (lighted, seats 875), are home to one of the city's biggest baseball events, the Texas Showcase League (TSL). Bringing together some of Texas' top 18 and under baseball talent, the TSL exposes high school baseball players to college and professional scouts on a series of summer and fall showcase tournaments throughout the state.
Youth baseball also has a home in Abilene. The Abilene Parks and Recreation Department has 10 fields, including five Little League and five Junior/Senior League fields. The fields are owned by Parks and Recreation, but maintained by individual Little League organizations, a partnership that creates a variety of scrupulously cared-for facilities.
"Abilene's largest complex has five fields, other facilities are within 12 minutes driving time. Abilene is the perfect size city -nothing is too far away," explains Schultz.
Abilene has more than just size, location and good Texas manners on its side. With over 3,200 rooms in a wide range of prices, as well as 300 new hotel rooms in the last two years, Abilene offers baseball event planners a family-friendly and cost effective destination for any event.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Travel a few hours north, and you'll find one of the country's premier championship baseball facilities, Redhawks Field, home of the Oklahoma City Redhawks.
"Redhawks Field is one of the country's finest AAA baseball stadiums, and it's a great venue for both fans and athletes," says Sue Hollenbeck, assistant director of sports business development, Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's in the heart of our entertainment district, which works out beautifully for fans. And for athletes, it's like playing in a big league stadium, without 80,000 or 60,000 seats. A lot of the national championships we host can come close to Redhawks Field's 8,900 seats, and the players get that amazing experience of playing for a full crowd under the lights."
Redhawks Field has hosted the Phillips 66 Big 12 Baseball Championship for 11 of the past 13 years as well the AAA Championship. And though the close of baseball season is a sad day for many fans, at Redhawks Field it's the start of another joyful tradition: Downtown in December "Snow Tubing at Redhawks Field," with one of the nation's largest man-made snow tubing slopes.
Bryan-College Station, Texas
In Aggieland, home of Texas A&M University, sports play a focal role, and baseball is one of the big players on the scene.
Little League has a big place in Texas baseball, and Bryan's Little League teams each maintain their own facilities, providing a number of carefully maintained fields for youth baseball in the city. The city is also home to a number of youth and senior league fields, as well as baseball facilities at both high schools, Bryan High School and James Earl Rudder High School.
Championship games as well as a number of other events find a home at Brazos Valley Bank Park. The historic field underwent renovations in 2007, including bringing the park's capacity to 2,121. The improvements continue each season, with a new ticket office and bathrooms added in 2008.
"Fans and athletes really love Brazos Valley Bank Park," says Jeremy Montoya, destination sales and servicing executive, sports, Bryan-College Station Convention and Visitors Bureau. "In addition to a variety of baseball events, the facility hosts parties, picnics, concerts, all sorts of exciting events."
In nearby College Station, two baseball complexes await, one with three youth fields and another six-field complex that is home to four youth fields as well as two adjacent senior league fields. Another high school facility, as well as Texas A&M's Olsen field, currently undergoing a $24 million renovation and expansion, round out the College Station offerings.
Event planners searching for a championship field will find an attractive option a short drive away from Hershey's Chocolate World.
"Our number one facility would be a minor league one, Metro Bank Park, home of the Harrisburg Senators, affiliate of the Washington Nationals," says Gregg Cook, sports marketing manager, Hershey-Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau. "The stadium was completely renovated prior to the 2010 season, and it now features amenities of big league baseball parks, just on a smaller scale, including suites, a club lounge, the biggest video board in minor league baseball and a boardwalk completely surrounding the playing field."
Championships aren't the only games in town, though. A wide variety of Hershey-Harrisburg's baseball facilities will be in play when the area hosts the Triple Crown Father's Day Challenge, an 18 and under tournament, now in its 7th season, that attracts teams from ten states.
"We have 28 school districts in the region the Bureau serves, and a number of them feature tournament quality baseball diamonds," says Cook. "For the Triple Crown event, for example, we use about 16 different fields, hosting over 100 teams."
South Sioux City, Nebraska
Events of any size will find a home in South Sioux City, home to twenty baseball fields in four complexes- Riverview Sports Complex, Cardinal Park, Clacy Park and Voss Field.
"All of our fields are covered in agrilime, meaning they have excellent drainage," explains Brent Clark, director, South Sioux City Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Three of those 20 are sand and dirt infield, and each complex has an amazing concession stand in the middle of three of our baseball/softball fields, which includes an overlook, umpire seating and a press box that tournament directors and head umpires can use."
South Sioux City's facilities host regular American Legion and Amateur Softball Association tournaments. One of the area's most unique features is a 115-site campground. A popular stop for Nebraska visitors, the campground had visitors from every state except Hawaii in 2010.
"The campground and complexes are all part of over 20 miles of paved trails within South Sioux city - which will soon be 30 miles and expanding," says Clark. "Those paths go right by and through all of our baseball and softball complexes. You could walk from complex to complex and pass amongst them to touch three states: Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota."
Spring 2011 will bring the Houston Astros to Osceola County Stadium for the team's 27th spring training in Kissimmee, Fla. After $18.5 million in renovations in 2003, the 5,300-seat stadium, which was built in 1984, is now equipped with the most up-to-date amenities, including armchair seating, a new press box and separate major and minor league clubhouses with state-of-the-art training facilities.
One of the most popular of the new additions, however, is "Autography Alley," a standing-room area lining the teams' entrance and exit that allows fans to get up close with their favorite players. Recognized as one of the very best "fan friendly" parks in the Grapefruit League, Osceola County Stadium is the perfect place to watch a Spring Training game or to host a baseball event of any kind.
Versatility is the key to the life of the stadium.Beyond just Spring Training games, the facility hosts Winter Nationals, which welcomes 35-40 competitive teams. Next up is the Jim Evan Academy of professional Umpiring, an event hosted at the stadium for 15 years. Rookie league players spend much of the summer and fall at the stadium, as well as a number of lucky youth baseball players who attend the stadium's star-studded baseball camps.
"Our goal is to bring quality events that enhance the quality of life in our area," says Pete Rodriguez, stadium manager. "But most of all, we want to be sure that when you come, you're going to come back. We treat 14 year-old kids like they're the Astros. That's just how we do things."
Host of the annual Show-Me State Games, as well as many soccer, football, lacrosse, softball, golf, mountain bike, and skateboard tournaments and events, the 533-acre Cosmopolitan Park is Columbia's largest facility. It's also a great place for baseball, offering four lighted 250-foot fields, two lighted 200-foot fields and two T-ball fields.
Nearby, Twin Oaks field is another feather in Columbia's baseball cap. Host of a variety of USSSA events, Twin Oaks offers another six high-quality baseball fields. Columbia is also home to the University of Missouri and its Taylor Stadium, which is home to regular Big 12 and NCAA regional tournaments.
Columbia provides a unique feature for sports event planners: its sports development fund. "In 2006, we realized that what a lot of sports events need is help getting started, so we setup the fund and event planners can apply," says Julie Ausmus, tourism development program manager, Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau. "The money is awarded based on several criteria, but mainly how many overnight stays an event will generate, as well as its potential to grow. We have had several events get up to $10,000 or $15,000 to use for bid fees, officials, trophies, whatever they need that is allowed under the SDF guidelines."
"When you talk about baseball in Tuscaloosa, you think of baseball at the University of Alabama," says Don Staley, executive director Sports, Tuscaloosa Tourism & Sports Commission. "Their facility keeps getting upgraded, and I'm not sure what coaches would say, but I'd say it's one of the top 10-15 facilities in the country."
While the Crimson Tide might be an impressive presence in Tuscaloosa's baseball world, the city also has an eight-field complex in Taylorville, as well as a six-field complex in Cottondale. Tuscaloosa's Parks and Recreation Authority (PARA) hosts a variety of travel and competitive baseball teams and tournaments throughout the season, bringing some of the sport's best players to the area.
The Real Field of Dreams
Just a short drive from Tuscaloosa, tucked into swaying cornfields, is a baseball facility like no other. Baseball Country is a baseball camp and training facility offering camps taught by high school, college and professional coaches and players. With over 50 acres, Baseball Country features three immaculate fields as well as a 2,500-square-foot facility with a large screened sleeping porch that accommodates 18 campers in bunk beds. All told, it's kind of a magical place to play.
"It's kind of like Mayberry without the town, and it's a lot like the movie ‘Field of Dreams,'" says Kenny Burns, director, Baseball Country. "The key word here is experience. We've got hunting, fishing, all kinds of outdoor activities, and of course, we've got baseball. We're 12 miles form nearest gas station, 25 miles from Tuscaloosa, and we're becoming a favorite southeast regional camp facility. If you're looking for a baseball experience you can't get anywhere else, this is where you come."