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Trip 5: Mid-South to the Majors

7/26/2006 - Cleveland Indians

Previous: Trip 4 - Carolinas | Next: Trip 6 - Midwest

The first stop, at a 75-year-old stadium in Little Rock on the verge of retirement, provides a stark juxtaposition to each successive park on the trip, all of which are consistently cited as being among the most beautiful and fan-friendly newer venues in all of baseball. The Triple-A Memphis, Louisville and Indianapolis stadiums -- all built within the last decade -- draw raves for scaling major-league amenities to a minor-league audience, while Dayton proves that a Single-A team can indeed compete with the big boys. The tour wraps up on the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland, where Jacobs Field stands as a facility that helped usher in the current wave of new ballpark construction in the wake of its runaway success.

• Six more great ballparks: make sure to include Evansville

Look for dates for this trip in the Baseball Road Trip Planner
(Schedules for minor-league teams in independent leagues are not available)


ico_orbitz Memphis: Plan Trip | Hotel | Flight

ico_orbitz Indianapolis: Plan Trip | Hotel | Flight

ico_orbitz Cleveland: Plan Trip | Hotel | Flight


LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS
Ballpark: Ray Winder Field
Address: Ray Winder Field at War Memorial Park, Little Rock, AR 72205
Capacity: 6,083
Opened: 1932
Team: Arkansas Travelers (Angels)
League: Texas (AA)
Web site | Directions |
Schedule (Apr.-Sept.)

Time is running out to catch a ballgame at this Texas League relic in Little Rock. The Arkansas Travelers -- "the greatest show on dirt" -- will move to their new home at Dickey-Stephens Park beginning with the 2007 season, leaving behind a real throwback to old-time baseball. Opening its doors in 1932, Ray Winder Field retains many quirks that are now either rarely found or even non-existent elsewhere.

First off, there are no assigned seats -- save for those occupied by season-ticket holders -- meaning it's a first-come, first-served, Southwest Airlines-style dash for the best spots. In the left-field bleachers and box seats, smoking is still permitted, and at the rear of the seats behind home plate, an organist provides the only music or sound effects you'll hear at the stadium. Metal girders spaced intermittently around the seating bowl support a wooden roof that covers much of the grandstand and holds the press box. Along the first- and third-base lines, the tiny dugouts sit virtually within the stands, and spectators in those areas are right next to the players and tight to the action on the field.

ico_orbitz Little Rock: Hotel

Driving distance from Little Rock to Memphis: 141 miles

MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE
Ballpark: AutoZone Park
Address: 200 Union Ave, Memphis, TN 38103
Capacity: 12,512
Opened: 2000
Team: Memphis RedBirds (Cardinals)
League: Pacific Coast (AAA)
Web site | Directions |
Schedule (Apr.-Sept.)

Might as well take a plutonium-powered DeLorean for this leg of the trip -- traveling from Little Rock's Ray Winder Field to Memphis' AutoZone Park is a 141-mile ride back to the future. Gorgeous red-brick AutoZone opened in 2000 as the most expensive minor-league venue ever built, constructed at a cost of $80 million right in downtown Memphis. With room for nearly 13,000 fans, AutoZone has the feel of a major-league park, with no advertising on the outfield walls, the largest video board in the minors, an open concourse with views of the field and three levels of seating, including luxury boxes.

Still, AutoZone hasn't neglected the perks associated with attending a minor-league game. Despite the large capacity, sightlines are good from everywhere, and there are no seats in the outfield, where traditional grass berms offer a picnic-style setting. There is also a playground on hand for the kids. Of course, no trip to Memphis is complete without some barbeque, and the Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous stand offers pulled-pork nachos that will pass the test for any seasoned cholesterol aficionado and artery-clogger.

ico_orbitz Memphis: Hotel

Driving distance from Memphis to Louisville: 384 miles

LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY
Ballpark: Louisville Slugger Field
Address: 401 E Main St, Louisville, KY 40202
Capacity: 13,131
Opened: 2000
Team: Louisville Bats (Reds)
League: International (AAA)
Web site | Directions |
Schedule (Apr.-Sept.)

One of the early and successful attempts to incorporate an existing building right into the architecture of the park, Louisville Slugger Field took an old railroad car depot -- the Brinly-Hardy warehouse, built in 1889 -- and turned it into the main entrance and team offices. Like AutoZone, the facility is large for a Triple-A venue and achieves major-league quality with its seating, amenities and attractive look.

Both the exterior and interior at Louisville Slugger Field are heavily brick, with especially nice touches under the scoreboard, along the concourse and above the roof. Spectators are also treated to spectacular views of the Louisville skyline and two bridges spanning the Ohio River as well as the field itself, notably from two grass berms in the outfield that are right on top of the action. Beyond the right-field wall are a large patio and a children's play area that includes a carousel. Concessions are plentiful along the concourses, but there are also two full-service restaurants on site that are open year-round, Wellinghurst's Steakhouse and Browning's Brewery, named for 1880s-era Louisville star Pete Browning, whose Hillerich & Bradsby-made baseball bat would become the Louisville Slugger.

ico_orbitz Louisville: Hotel

Driving distance from Louisville to Indianapolis: 115 miles

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA
Ballpark: Victory Field
Address: 501 W Maryland St, Indianapolis, IN 46225
Capacity: 12,500
Opened: 1996
Team: Indianapolis Indians (Pirates)
League: International (AAA)
Web site | Directions |
Schedule (Apr.-Sept.)

The tour of top-rated, modern Triple-A parks continues in Indianapolis, where Victory Field is the acclaimed home of the Indians. Built in the shadows of the RCA Dome, the brick stadium boasts excellent views of the downtown skyline, just like AutoZone Park and Louisville Slugger Field. Interestingly, the main entrance to the park is not under the grandstand or along the baselines, but behind center field, providing fans with a spectacular welcome as they enter the park and are greeted with the green expanse of the outfield.

Inside, the stadium is pristine. Two decks of seating and a row of luxury boxes are all within tight proximity of the immaculately groomed field, and a grass berm rings the entire outfield (aside from a small grove of trees in the batter's eye). The wide main concourse offers the usual concession fare and runs all the way around the park, allowing spectators to wander throughout the stadium to check out different views or picnic at one of the many available tables.

ico_orbitz Indianapolis: Hotel

Driving distance from Indianapolis to Dayton: 118 miles

DAYTON, OHIO
Ballpark: Fifth Third Field
Address: 220 N Patterson, Dayton, OH 45402
Capacity: 8,200
Opened: 2000
Team: Dayton Dragons (Reds)
League: Midwest (A)
Web site | Directions |
Schedule (Apr.-Sept.)

One of three ballparks in the Ohio-Michigan region to which Fifth Third Bank owns the naming rights, the home of the Dayton Dragons plays more like a high-level minor-league stadium than a Single-A field, with its two decks of theater-style seating and 360-degree concourse. Fans in Dayton certainly are enamored of the place and their team; entering the 2006 season, the Dragons had sold out every game for six years and there was a waiting list for season tickets.

The brick façade of the stadium blends right in to the downtown Dayton neighborhood where it was constructed, and there's even a special touch for the deadbeats who can't score tickets: open sightlines from behind a wrought-iron fence that surrounds the park offers views of the game to passersby on the sidewalk, a nice bonus considering how tough it is to actually get in. The stadium's interior is simply state-of-the art. There are no bleachers, only theater-style seats and, naturally, a grass berm in the outfield for sprawling out. The main concourse, like those at larger stadiums, allows fans to circle the entire field and get an up-close look at the pair of classy and sophisticated giant dragons that adorn the video board in left field.

ico_orbitz Dayton: Hotel

Driving distance from Dayton to Cleveland: 214 miles

CLEVELAND, OHIO
Ballpark: Jacobs Field
Address: 2401 Ontario St, Cleveland, OH 44115
Capacity: 43,345
Opened: 1994
Team: Cleveland Indians
League: American (MLB)
Web site | Directions |
Schedule

The Jake took the baton from Baltimore's Camden Yards when it opened in 1994 and helped kick the urban retro-ballpark craze up another notch. Like Camden Yards, Jacobs Field used the surrounding downtown architecture as inspiration in its own design, in this case going with a lot of exposed, white-painted steel rather than red brick. The Cleveland skyline provides the backdrop behind the outfield wall, and a monstrous video scoreboard -- one of the largest in the world at 149 feet wide by 36 feet high -- finally does justice to C.C. Sabathia's head shot.

Although seating in the upper deck is pretty far from the field due to two levels of luxury boxes, as in most new ballparks, the concourses encourage fans to wander throughout the stadium and check out the game from various vantage points. The spacious area behind center field is an especially good spot to camp out, with an array of food options and picnic tables overlooking the action. Be sure to treat yourself to Cleveland's signature sandwich, the panini, available in several varieties, including Cuban (pork, peppers and provolone) and Italian (ham, salami, pepperoni and provolone).

ico_orbitz Cleveland: Hotel

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