Take Me Out to the Ballpark
24 Apr, 2019By: Michael Popke
Whenever someone tries to say baseball is no longer America’s pastime, bring up Round Rock, Texas, where a Minor League Baseball team co-owned by Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and a nearby 20-field complex keep the city’s bases full. Or Surprise, Arizona, spring training home of two Major League Baseball teams who share one stadium that sees action all year. Or Valdosta, Georgia, a place many sports fans consider football country but one that boasts a dozen baseball complexes that host high-profile youth and collegiate tournaments.
In fact, baseball’s popularity is hardly waning. According to the 2018 Sports & Fitness Industry Association, participation in the sport increased 1.5 percent in 2018 to 15.9 million participants; baseball also was the third most-played sport in 2018.
What follows is a look at 10 baseball-savvy communities that are ready to help event planners hit the ball out of the park.
Long before Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers made this south-central Arizona city their spring training home in the early 2000s, baseball was part of the fabric of Surprise.
But spring training “launched our city’s evolution into becoming a sports destination,” says Kendra Pettis, the city’s sports and tourism director. “Our entire city plays a role in spring training, and that dedication carries over into all of the tournaments and events that we host. This environment fosters a culture of volunteer support that you can absolutely see during spring training and our other sports tourism events.”
Both the Royals and Rangers play at Surprise Stadium, which holds more than 10,000 fans and anchors a complex boasting an additional 12 practice fields, two bunting fields and two agility training fields. Completed in 2002, the stadium earned the top Cactus League spot in USA TODAY’S 2018 ranking of spring training venues, and it bested all 23 spring training facilities in both Arizona and Florida in the categories of facility and fan experience.
After Major League Baseball’s regular season begins, Surprise Stadium hosts year-round MLB operations with the Arizona Fall League and the Arizona Instructional League, as well as the Sanderson Ford College Baseball Classic and amateur tournaments sanctioned by USA Baseball, Perfect Game and Wilson Premier Baseball.
Baseball history runs deep in this south-central Georgia city, which hosted several Minor League teams dating back to 1906, and Valdosta-area high school and college baseball teams boast long winning traditions.
So it should be no surprise that the city offers at least a dozen baseball facilities that range in size from one field to the 12 at Freedom Park. Owned by the Valdosta-Lowndes County Parks & Recreation Authority, that complex provides eight adult diamonds and four additional diamonds with shorter outfields. A Miracle Field complex also is part of Freedom Park, offering fully accessible dugouts and a custom-designed diamond with cushioned, rubberized turf for participants with special needs. According to Chris Hamilton, president and chief executive officer of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Conference Center & Tourism Authority, it is the only Miracle Field in the country able to host four sports: baseball/softball, track, soccer and basketball.
“Freedom Park is a jaw-dropping sports venue,” Hamilton says. “Its beauty and amenities are the best in South Georgia. But there are diamonds and parks all over the county. Sports of all types are a big deal here because of spectacular weather year-round, a comprehensive and extremely well-maintained parks system and a long history of success with local sports teams.”
Panama City Beach, Florida
When this Florida panhandle coastal city started adding baseball fields in 1998, Panama City Beach quickly evolved into a sports vacation destination for youth baseball and softball tournaments. Today, the city is home to the Grand Slam World Series of Baseball and the United States Fastpitch Association’s World Series/College Showcase — events that bring in 800 teams every summer, according to Chris O’Brien, director of sports marketing and special events for the Panama City Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“We are an ideal location for Southeast travel teams within an eight- to 10-hour drive,” he says. “We have over 16,000 hotel and condo units, the majority of them with Gulf frontage, and lots of tourist-based activities.”
Most of the current baseball activity in Panama City Beach takes place at Frank Brown Park, which offers nine lighted youth fields located one mile from the beach. Later this summer, the city plans to open a new facility with 10 lighted fields that also will include a dedicated tournament building.
That facility (the result of a public-private partnership) sits on 210 acres of donated land and will place a strong emphasis on high school and college tournaments, O’Brien says, adding that it will be one of the largest baseball complexes in the Southeast. The venue will include two championship fields, each with seating for up to 1,500 fans.
Greenville, North Carolina
It’s fitting that Stallings Stadium at Elm Street Park will host the annual Tournament of State Champions for Little League Baseball’s Southeast Regions 8-10 and 9-11 this summer. In 2017, Greenville’s Little League team, with players between the age of 10 and 12, made it to the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, losing in the semifinals to Texas.
“Stallings Stadium is one of the nicest in the world, and by far the nicest in the Southeast,” says Gray Williams, director of sports development for the Greenville-Pitt County Convention & Visitors Bureau. The stadium offers 234 chairback seats, 400 outfield bleacher seats and standing room/lawn seating for almost another 1,000 spectators.
Clark-LeClair Stadium at East Carolina University boasts a 5,000-seat stadium that hosted a regional round in the 2018 NCAA baseball tournament. Other baseball events Greenville recently welcomed include the Dynamic Baseball Showcase East Coast Championship and World Series, as well as multiple Impact Baseball tournaments.
“[We] pride ourselves on being a baseball community, and we have a city- and county-wide culture that is very involved and supportive of sports,” Williams says, adding that Greenville Mayor P.J. Connelly, pitched for the ECU Pirates baseball team and played in the Los Angeles Angels organization in the mid-2000s.
Seven grass baseball fields and five grass softball fields debuted last October as the final major component of the epic 194-acre Orange County Great Park Sports Complex in Irvine. Each diamond provides lights and bleacher seating, while a championship baseball stadium holds 1,000 fans and the championship softball stadium seats 300. The fields already are generating global interest, according to Dave Lucey, director of sports sales for Destination Irvine.
The Great Park Sports Complex, owned by the Southern California city, is more than twice the size of Disneyland. Orange County voters approved the Great Park project in 2002, with the goal of making the area an arts and sports recreational hub. All told, the elaborate complex offers opportunities to host baseball and softball games, a variety of field sports, tennis events, volleyball and basketball tournaments, as well as ice competitions.
Among the new baseball events at the Great Park is the SoCal All-American Games, which attracted some of the best youth baseball players from around the country in January. Other tournaments, including USA Premier Baseball’s Firecracker Classic, have relocated to the Great Park after hosting events at multiple fields throughout the Irvine area in previous years. Additionally, a Korean baseball team recently trained at the Great Park, and the facility might also serve as a training camp for a Japanese team, according to Lucey.
“We have great weather, and the fields are in really good condition because they’re so new,” he says. I think it’s going to do quite well, simply because there are so many fields at one location. We’re just getting started.”
With multiple baseball destinations in Texas, there’s no shortage of complexes looking to host tournaments.
Round Rock, which bills itself as “the sports capital of Texas,” is located 15 miles north of Austin and offers two premier facilities in Dell Diamond and Old Settlers Park. Ranked No. 4 by BaseballAmerica.com in a 2018 list of Minor League Baseball parks in the United States, Dell Diamond is home of the Round Rock Express, a Triple-A affiliate of the Houston Astros.
“In the past 20 years, Dell Diamond has become a staple in the Round Rock community,” says Andrew Felts, the team’s manager of public relations and communications. “The Round Rock Express strive to embody all that Nolan Ryan stood for during his prolific 27-year playing career, and the Express are proud to play a role in the great baseball culture that has developed in Round Rock since the team’s founding.”
This year marks the 20th consecutive season that the Texas University Interscholastic League State Baseball Tournament has been held at Dell Diamond, and next February will see the debut of the Round Rock Classic, a three-day collegiate baseball tournament.
Less than a mile from Dell Diamond sits Old Settlers Park, an expansive complex with 16 lighted fields and four fields without lights. Four championship fields each accommodate seating for 250 fans, with bleacher seating for 60 at the other fields.
“Round Rock combines classic Texas charm with a dynamic, forward-thinking attitude, giving athletes and their families a hospitable visit while also providing the infrastructure and entertainment options needed to host large events,” says Nancy Yawn, director of the Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Another large multi-field complex can be found just east of Houston, at the Ford Park Entertainment Complex in Beaumont. As the first completed component of the complex, which opened in 2002, Ford Fields is comprised of 12 championship-caliber youth softball/baseball fields with synthetic turf infields and covered seating. Renovation and expansion of the concessions facilities are planned within the next 18 months, according to Claudio Oliveiro, general manager of Ford Park.
Ford Fields host more than 30 youth baseball and softball tournaments a year sanctioned by Nations Baseball, USSSA Baseball, Stars Over Texas Softball and the United States Fastpitch Association. They also are home to more than 50 local league teams.
In 2017, new management in the form of Philadelphia-based Spectra Venue Entertainment took over Ford Park — which also includes a 14,000-seat concert pavilion, an arena and exhibit hall, and a midway — and subsequently increased corporate advertising and local partnership opportunities.
“Fans are as passionate about baseball in southeast Texas as they are about football,” Oliveiro says.
On the opposite side of Texas (south of Amarillo) sits Lubbock, home of two popular collegiate turf baseball facilities: Dan Law Field at Rip Griffin Park at Texas Tech University and Hays Field and City Bank Clubhouse at Lubbock Christian University. Additionally, the Berl Huffmann Athletic Complex offers four baseball fields and is undergoing $7 million in improvements.
The city will be busy this summer, with multiple venues hosting the Five Tool West 14U-15U Championships in June and Premier Baseball’s Sophomore Showcase National Championship in July.
“Lubbock is a premier destination for baseball tournaments,” says Scott Harrison, sports director for Visit Lubbock. “The city hosts 10 tournaments on average every year because of its world-class facilities, great weather, convenience and the hospitality in West Texas. The success of Texas Tech baseball has made this area a hotbed for baseball.”
Meanwhile, Cleburne in 2018 hosted for the first time the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference Baseball Championship at The Depot at Cleburne Station (home of the independent Cleburne Railroaders baseball team). The railroad-themed venue opened in 2017 with an all-turf field and hosted the SCAC tournament again in 2019. The Alpine Fresh 4-Him Classic, an eight-team tournament featuring several Christian colleges and universities, was held at The Depot at Cleburne Station in February.
Additionally, Cleburne High School opened a new turf baseball field in 2018 with the goal of bringing even more tournament action to the city, which is located just south of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “Now we have two practically new baseball stadiums with turf,” says Heather Juarez, tourism and marketing director for the Cleburne Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The city also offers the Cleburne Sports Complex, with seven baseball fields (along with 20 soccer fields and two football fields).
Then there are the two new municipal sports complexes with baseball/softball fields in Portland, located along the Corpus Christi Bay shore. They were almost complete when Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast in August 2017, toppling lights, fences, scoreboards and more. A month and a half later, though, both facilities opened and are thriving today.
“We got damage but not devastation,” says Mona Gandy, communications and marketing director for the City of Portland. “We’re pretty proud of the fact that we were able to open six weeks after a major hurricane hit.”
In fact, the Synthetic Turf Council awarded Hellas Construction its 2018 Project of the Year award for the company’s work on the Portland Sports Complex and Municipal Park project.
Municipal Park boasts five baseball fields that also can host softball and soccer, while the Portland Sports Complex, located about a mile from Municipal Park, offers four softball fields that also are suitable for baseball and soccer. They all feature synthetic turf, dugouts, lights, covered spectator seating and scoreboards.
Recent and upcoming events at the facilities include the 2019 USSSA Global World Series, the 2019 USSSA Memorial Day State Tournament and USA Baseball’s 2018 National Team Identification Series tryouts.
“It’s a new day in Portland,” Gandy says, adding that prior to the opening of the complexes, operators of Portland’s nine hotels were hesitant about meeting the needs of a burgeoning sports tourism market. “Now, if we go too long without calling them to notify them of upcoming tournaments, they call us to see who is coming.” SDM
Panama City Beach Sport Complex:
In a League of Its Own
Panama City Beach and the entire Southeast region are already looking forward to summer 2019 when the world-class Panama City Beach Sports Complex opens. Managed by Sports Facilities Management, Panama City Beach Sports Complex features 10 turf diamond fields, five of which are collegiate-size baseball fields, seven batting cages, umpire/referee locker room and lounge and Championship stadium field with seating for up to 1,500 spectators. The facility is the ideal venue for all outdoor sports, including baseball events of all sizes.
After hours, teams and families can visit Panama City Beach, the original Real. Fun. Beach. with 27 miles of sugar-white sand beaches and family-friendly accommodations, restaurants and attractions.
The word is already out. Panama City Beach Sports Complex is developing relationships with some of the top baseball event providers in the country — 2D Baseball, Atlantic Coast Baseball, CollClubSports and Grand Slam, just to name a few.
Visit www.playpanamacitybeach.com to learn more.
Prince George County:
Home Base for Great Tournaments
Prince George County, Virginia, is making its own modern-day history as a desirable sports tourism destination. Nestled between Richmond and Williamsburg in south-central Virginia and considered part of the Greater Richmond Region, Prince George County boasts superior sports complexes, all with easy access from Interstate 295 (just south of Richmond) and in close proximity to each other.
The largest, JEJ Moore Athletic Complex, offers four fields for baseball and softball, one multi-purpose field and 200 paved parking spaces. All fields are natural grass and lighted, bleacher seating accommodates up to 600 spectators and there are walking trails as well.
Scott Memorial Park provides two grass baseball/softball fields with lighting and bleachers that seat 200 spectators as well as 150 paved parking spaces. The Temple Recreation Park has an additional lighted baseball/softball field.
About 600 hotel rooms and almost 30 restaurants are within a 15-minute drive from the parks.