OPINION | REX NELSON: It screams baseball

April 26 was a banner day in the short history of North Little Rock's Dickey-Stephens Park. During the day, a crowd of 6,671 watched the Arkansas Travelers defeat the Wichita Wind Surge in a Texas League game. That evening, 10,333 people looked on as the University of Arkansas Razorbacks defeated the University of Central Arkansas Bears in 10 innings.

Between the two games, the Travelers' staff worked feverishly to get the ballpark cleaned and ready for the next game. Downtown North Little Rock restaurants were packed throughout the gorgeous spring day.

It was the kind of day for which Dickey-Stephens was built. In August 2005, North Little Rock voters narrowly approved a temporary 1-cent sales tax to provide $28 million for the park. Little Rock financier Warren Stephens donated land near the Arkansas River along with another $400,000.

The park was named for two sets of brothers. Bill Dickey was a catcher from the New York Yankees from 1928-43 and in 1946. He later was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. His brother, George "Skeeter" Dickey, was a catcher for the Boston Red Sox in 1935-36 and the Chicago White Sox in 1941-42 and 1946-47.

Prattsville native Witt Stephens founded the investment firm Stephens Inc. during the Great Depression of the 1930s. His younger brother Jack (Warren's father) was the Stephens Inc. CEO from 1956-86 and the company's chairman from 1986-2005. Both Dickey brothers worked for Stephens Inc.

At the November 2005 groundbreaking for Dickey-Stephens Park, Warren Stephens said: "My father and uncle loved the game of baseball and cherished their relationship with the Dickey family. ... There are four good men smiling about this project and being able to keep baseball alive and well in central Arkansas. There was something pure about their love of the game and the relationship they shared. I knew what we wanted to call this park before there was any certainty we would be able to get it done."

Construction began in January 2006 and was completed in March 2007. The first game was played the following month. Fifteen years later, Major League Baseball is demanding expensive renovations. Those required renovations were the subject of Wednesday's column.

What's evident is that the city of North Little Rock, which owns the ballpark, must find a way to enhance a facility that was named the nation's Ballpark of the Year by BaseballParks.com in August 2007. Previous winners of the award included the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2001 and the home of the San Diego Padres in 2004.

Joe Mock of BaseballParks.com wrote at the time: "When they took the field on April 12, it had been three-quarters of a century since the Arkansas Travelers had been the home team in a brand-new stadium. That evening began a magical season for the Texas League's Travs as they smashed attendance records and provided their loyal fans with the kinds of comforts and high-tech niceties previously found only in parks in other parts of the country.

"Indeed, Dickey-Stephens Park was a complete revelation to residents in central Arkansas. After all, for decades they had been attending games at an antique of a park called Ray Winder Field. Charming and beloved, yes. Modern and comfortable, not at all."

Mock further explained the selection by saying: "The land in North Little Rock that was donated by Warren Stephens is along the banks of the Arkansas River, making it simply perfect for a ballpark. That's because spectators can gaze across the river at the beautiful skyline of downtown Little Rock as they munch on their hot dogs and watch the team play.

"Two of the best parks in the majors are PNC Park in Pittsburgh and the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis. What if you took some of the nicest elements of each of these two parks and incorporated them into a new minor-league facility? Then you would have Dickey-Stephens Park."

Mock added that the ballpark "screams baseball, from its brick exterior to its concourses, and from its outfield fences to its bullpens. At the foot of the Broadway Bridge in North Little Rock, you know you're looking at a baseball park--and a very, very special one at that."

Thanks to North Little Rock voters, the Travelers had a state-of-the-art stadium. North Little Rock, in turn, had a franchise that's unique in the annals of professional sports. This historic Arkansas baseball club has played on only three fields in more than 125 years, is one of the few teams in professional sports in which fans were able to buy ownership shares, is the first professional team to be named after an entire state, and is among only a handful of minor-league teams to have its own museum.

"Travelers" is the second-longest-running nickname in minor league baseball, trailing only the Buffalo Bisons.

Visitors to the museum at Dickey-Stephens can see artifacts ranging from the team's 1901 charter into the Southern Association to all team photos from its years as an affiliate of the Cardinals, Angels and Mariners. Fans can learn about team officials, players and others--Ray Winder, Judge William Kavanaugh, Jim Elder, Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Bunning, Travis Jackson, O.C. Otey and even superfan Walter "Hookslide" Bradshaw.

There are signed baseballs, game equipment, uniforms and photos of Kavanaugh Field and Ray Winder Field. There are team photos from 1901, 1903, 1904 and 1905. Through the years, people have donated items ranging from Western Union telegrams to player contracts, baseball cards and game tickets.

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.