On the Road: Right and Natural in Northwest Arkansas
After the non-stop endurance test that was my night in Tulsa, I could’ve used a breather. But there’s no rest for the wicked, as they say, and, independent of that, there’s no rest for self-pitying Minor League Baseball writers either. So straight outta Tulsa I went — and straight into Northwest Arkansas!
That would be Arvest Ballpark, specifically, the home of the NWA Naturals. Upon pulling into the stadium, I told the parking lot attendant that I was with Minor League Baseball’s website. His response?
“That’s close enough to media. You can go in.”
Folks were lined up early on this fine Saturday evening, milling about the general area and planning their point of entry attack.
The reason for this punctual approach was because it was Eric Hosmer bobblehead night. I realized after the fact that I neglected to get a photo of this item, and part of my excuse for that is because bobblehead giveaways are really boring. I’m not knocking bobbleheads themselves (that would be like a prominent pontiff saying he’s not all that into mass), it’s just that as a promotion it involves a bunch of people forming a line and, eventually, being handed a white cardboard box. The bobbleheads themselves are rarely seen.
The vagaries of my schedule had precluded me from attending the night before, when the Naturals staged a promotion I was really and truly interested in: a “What Might Have Been” theme night in which they imagined that they were known as the “Thunder Chickens” (the runner-up in a 2007 “Name the Team” contest). An in-depth piece on the promo, which you will surely read and tell your friends and family about, can currently be found over on MiLB.com. But let it be known that the players took the field in these jerseys:
Meanwhile, Thunder Chickens hats and t-shirts were available in the team store (and only in the team store, in a run of 125 for the hats and 250 for the shirts). When I was there on Saturday, the only hats left were in “off” sizes such as this Bruce Bochy-esque 8.
The shirts were a bit more plentiful.
My first game day duty on this particular trip was to interview pitcher Steven Dwyer in the home dugout. From there I was summoned to the home radio booth to be the interviewee, as part of broadcaster Steven Davis’ pre-game show. This was my third radio appearance in as many stops, and I am currently 5-for-6 on this still on-going trip.
The view from the booth.
As you can see from the photo, Arvest Ballpark is surrounded by, well, not much. The facility, owned by the city of Springdale, AR, was envisioned as the centerpiece of a larger development project that has not yet materialized. So, for better or for worse, coming to Arvest Ballpark simply means coming to Arvest Ballpark. There aren’t any peripheral complementary entertainment options.
Upon finishing my interview (in which, upon review, I found myself to be kind of a jerk) I did a 360 degree lap around the outside of the stadium.
Nobody here but us Thunder Chickens!
I couldn’t help but wonder how the occupants of this home felt, living directly across the street from a stadium.
Now how’s this for a spacious berm? It’s a nice place to relax, for the short term (“Weekend at Bermies”) or long (“Bermanent Vacation”).
To my right (baseball field left), I was pleased to see a team-sanctioned Wiffle Ball game in full swing.
Then it was back inside the ballpark, for a little pre-game wandering prior to the first pitch.
Weighing the options:
The long and (not-so) winding road leads to both inflatables and a playground, depending on which way you take it.
Warming up for the game, as the kids look on:
The National Anthem was pretty cool, as the performer whistled it. (I’ll try to confirm the guy’s name, in my notes it looks something like “Stephen Spino.”)
With the game underway, I took a tour of the ballpark with GM Eric Edelstein.
The “Community Room,” available for your next board meeting.
I didn’t even use the fish-eye effect for this locker room shot:
The weighting game? (Maybe you can come up with something better. Why do I have to do all of the heavy lifting?)
But the subterranean wanderings soon came to an end, in favor of an extended stint at “The Cider Shack.”
Concessions are handled by the Patina Restaurant Group, and the Naturals are the only Minor League team in their portfolio. There is some seriously high-quality stuff on offer, just check out this triumvirate of a bbq brisket platter, funnel dog, and BBQ Nachos.
The brisket is one of several BBQ platters available in the Cider Shack (which, incidentally, is located down the right field line). Everything but the slaw is housemade.
The Funnel Dog is one of the team’s signature items, and has garnered attention across the land in various “crazy Minor League food items” articles that end up plagiarizing off of each other in an infinite internet loop. The story behind it is that one of the grounds crew members wanted a corn dog for his birthday, and since the chef didn’t have corn dog batter he used funnel cake batter instead. It went over well, initially, but it wasn’t until the inspired addition of powdered sugar that it became a sensation.
I wasn’t expecting to like the funnel dog, but it works! Edelstein said that some fans put mustard on it, and I tried it that way as well. The mustard gave a tart counterbalance to the sweetness of the funnel cake, but, ultimately, I decided that I liked it unadorned.
But the piece de resistance was the BBQ Nachos, possibly the best nachos I’ve ever had at a ballpark. This is a work of art: avocado cream sauce, mango, red pepper, scallions, pulled pork, sour cream, and a few other things (my notes at this point in the evening were too sloppy even for me to read, and stained with BBQ sauce).
So, yeah, BBQ Nachos at Arvest Park are now on my “best Minor League food” short list. As soon as I make such a list.
While the food tasting was going on, the Naturals ran one of their nightly adoptable dog promotions. A dog from one of two local shelters is taken on to the field, in the hopes of finding him or her a home. The program has been very successful, and has certainly saved the lives of abandoned pets who would otherwise be euthanized. Edelstein later sent this photo to me, taken last month. He wrote that the dog in the photo “was from the Rogers Shelter so this family took custody at the game and went home with their new family member that day…Pit bulls are so tough to get adopted once they enter a shelter, so this one made me especially happy.“
The Naturals are a very animal-friendly team in general, and I’ll have more on that in tomorrow’s “Farm’s Almanac” piece on MiLB.com. For example — groundskeeper Monty Sowell always comes to work with Ruby, a 12-year-old black lab. In this photo, she couldn’t be bothered to look at the camera and I don’t really blame her.
Ruby is well-known around the ballpark, a bonafide canine celebrity. These items, in fact, are hot sellers in the team store. Ruby dolls!
Lest the evening go totally to the dogs, I adjourned to the press box and eavesdropped on a passionate debate regarding arcane scorekeeping decisions.
While I was up there, the following graphic was displayed on the scoreboard while an instrumental track from founding NWA member Dr. Dre played over the sound system. Coincidence?
This leads to an interesting debate — if you ran the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, would you incorporate “NWA” into your logo in the hopes that the hats and jerseys would be worn as a hip-hop/pop-culture fashion statement? You couldn’t market it as such, obviously (given NWA’s lyrical content, not to mention the acronym itself), but it could be a nice way to boost merchandise revenue. The long-rumored NWA biopic is apparently moving forward, so the group’s exposure is only going to increase…
But I digress, and while digressing the game nearly came to an end. I took this picture of Strike the Sasquatch when the Naturals were on the cusp of victory. Two outs and two strikes in the ninth, and then a pitch that was called a ball that just missed the plate. Strike looked incredulous, but then again this is how he always looks:
But the borderline call merely delayed the inevitable: a home team win.
Afterward, the bat boy hung around to sign autographs (yes, this is really the bat boy).
And with Hosmer bobbleheads in hand and BBQ nachos in belly, the crowd streamed toward the Arvest moon.