May 29th, 2012

On The Road: Tulsa and Northwest Arkansas

Texas League travel is renowned in Minor League Baseball circles for the toll it takes on players, coaches, bus drivers and, yes, broadcasters.  With airfare too costly for Double-A teams, all of the trips in the TL are via chartered bus rides.  Google the route from Corpus Christi, Texas to Springfield, Missouri and you’ll get the idea of what sort of monstrosities take place for some teams in our eight-squad circuit.  Fortunately for the RoughRiders, Frisco’s central location makes our travel somewhat more advantageous than for some of our peer teams, notably those from the South Division.

As far as road trips go, the six-game Tulsa-Northwest Arkansas swing has been one of the more enjoyable of the season, with the travel being one of the reasons why.  For most road series, we will leave as a team the day before our first game in a particular city so that the players can salvage as much rest as possible prior to playing.  For example, we left at 3:30 p.m. for Corpus Christi (our longest trip at over seven hours) on a Wednesday with the first game of our series on Thursday night at Whataburger Field.

With Tulsa only about four hours north of the Metroplex, we were able to leave the day of the game last Wednesday.  However, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, which proved to be the case when we arrived in “The 918.”  Our hotel did not have our rooms ready for the team to check in, meaning that we had to wait up to two hours in the lobby to head to our homes away from home (I drew the lucky straw for getting to his room last, leaving me 15 minutes to unpack, change clothes, gather equipment and catch our bus to the ballpark).

The hotel “in” Tulsa is barely in the city; it’s located near the southern edge of its borders, not far from the campus of Oral Roberts University.  Generally, we will have two scheduled bus times to take the team to the ballpark when we are on the road: one at 3 p.m. and another at 4 p.m.  Most of the team will get on the earlier bus, with that night’s starting pitcher taking the other, often by his lonesome self.

The first thing that sticks out about the Drillers’ ballpark is its location.  ONEOK Field (pronounced “one-oak”) is directly adjacent to downtown Tulsa, giving it a terrific view of the skyline over right field and a setting that feels urban, the way it should feel in my opinion.  There is a dearth of views like this in the Texas League (Arkansas’ vista with downtown Little Rock looming past the Arkansas River, is Tulsa’s closest competitor), so it’s a treat to look at the cityscape for three nights.

The second appealing aspect of the Tulsa trip is the ballpark itself.  Built in 2010, ONEOK Field, named after a natural gas utilities company, is the newest park in the TL and it is impressive.  Aside from views it possesses, it boasts a huge clubhouse, a terrific press box and plenty of fan amenities.  I thought the name of a group seating section – “The Oil Field” – was particularly clever, given the importance of the oil industry in Tulsa (hence, the nickname of the team).  The fans support the Drillers in droves, sending Tulsa to the second-highest average attendance in the league (Frisco leads the way by a large margin).  Our final game drew 8,207 fans, making it the largest crowd we have seen at an opposing ballpark this season.

After each game, the players will shower up, have dinner in the clubhouse (as prepared by the visiting clubhouse manager) and load back up onto the bus to head back to the ballpark, typically 45 minutes or an hour after the game ends.  This takes a bit longer on the last day of the series, as the team needs to bring all of its equipment and uniforms to whichever city is next on the travel log.

The trip from Tulsa to our next destination, Springdale, Arkansas – the home of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals – is the shortest route between any two cities in the Texas League.  After numerous seven-hour bus rides this season, the sub-two hour journey following Friday’s game was a welcome trip, especially so because we played a four-hour game against the Drillers in the series finale.  We arrived at our hotel at a reasonable 2:15 a.m. with game time less than 18 hours later.

When ONEOK Field opened, it replaced the Naturals’ Arvest Ballpark as the newest yard in the league (Arvest is a bank headquartered in nearby Bentonville).  Like Tulsa’s home park, Northwest Arkansas’ is quite nice, though the area around it could not be much different.  Instead of the bustling downtown atmosphere you get at the home of the Drillers, Arvest Ballpark is located in a very rural area in the southwest corner of Springdale, a city of close to 70,000 residents.  Grazing horses and cows are not an unusual sight when one looks out onto the rolling fields that surround the ballpark.

While this gives the sense that you are located in the middle of nowhere, people from the area don’t seem to have a hard time finding Arvest.  The park is not far from Interstate 540, the main thoroughfare in the area that runs north to south from Bentonville (the home of Wal-Mart) to Fayetteville (the home of the University of Arkansas).  The rationale for calling the team the “Northwest Arkansas Naturals” and not the “Springdale Naturals” is in part so that the other communities in the region feel a connection with the team that is not exclusive to one city (the Texas Rangers can relate).

While the setting couldn’t be described as exciting, the brand of baseball through two games in Springdale has been, with Frisco and Northwest Arkansas combining to score 29 runs.  The teams have split the first two contests and played a rubber game on Monday afternoon.  A RoughRiders win made the five-hour bus ride back to Frisco seem a lot shorter and truly made this a road trip we won’t mind experiencing again.

Written by: Alex Vispoli

Photos by: Alex Vispoli

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