At the beginning of the summer I set a goal of watching games at three Minor League ballparks. I recently moved out of my apartment in Stillwater, Okla., and incorporated two stadium visits into my trip. On the way from Georgia to Oklahoma, I stopped in Northwest Arkansas to do some sightseeing and saw my first game at Arvest Ballpark in Springdale, Ark., home of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.
Like many stadiums built in suburbia, an expansive parking lot surrounds Arvest Ballpark. The city built the stadium in hopes of spurring development in the area, but so far nothing has arisen near the intersection of South 56th Street and Watkins Avenue. Across from the stadium there is a sign welcoming people to Springdale that says “Home of Tyson and the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.”
The stadium’s location on the outskirts of town not far from I-540 means the backdrop for games isn’t a towering city skyline or a set of scenic mountains. With those limitations in place, the Naturals did a good job of providing a pleasing backdrop. There is plenty of berm seating, especially on a Monday night, a good scoreboard, and the trees beyond incorporated into the batter’s eye provide a break from an otherwise bland backdrop.
A closeup of the scoreboard further illustrates the point about the lack of an eye-catching backdrop, but not every ballpark can have a downtown location with a stunning view.
There are two notable food items served at Arvest Ballpark. The best known is the funnel dog, which was the Naturals’ featured item in MiLB.com’s Food Fight contest earlier in 2013. The funnel dog is similar to a corn dog, but the the dog is deep fried in funnel cake batter instead of the traditional corn-based batter. I opted to eat the funnel dog with just the confectionery sugar as a complement. In hindsight I should’ve tried finding an appropriate dipping sauce for the dog, but the dog seemed to have been grilled before it was deep fried in funnel cake batter which gave it a slightly smoky flavor.
Where can you buy the funnel dog? Only one place at Arvest Ballpark serves them up …
The other recommended food item was the BBQ nachos, which I admittedly did not want to try because I’ve found that a handful of ballparks (Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, Pringles Park in Jackson, Tenn., AutoZone Park in Memphis, Tenn., Regions Park in Hoover, Ala.) in the Southeast carry them. So while they might be delicious, they are not as unique as some are led to believe. However, the funnel dog was not sufficient for dinner so I needed to get something more to eat. Due to the recommendation, I opted for the BBQ nachos, and I was not disappointed.
Although I had a difficult time finding a craft brew from Arkansas at the stadium, the Naturals have a concession stand that serves nothing but craft beers. I opted to skip the craft brew selection and enjoyed a Shiner Bock with my nachos.
Another unique feature of games at Arvest Ballpark is Ruby, a 13-year-old black Labrador Retriever. According to information I found online, she comes to the stadium with groundskeeper Monty Sowell. If I hadn’t read about her beforehand I would’ve been quite confused, and I still don’t understand her role considering that she comes onto the field when the grounds crew manicures the infield. Granted, it’s a dog’s life and she seems quite happy.
Although the stadium opened in 2008, the designers (Populous) and team did not create a retro stadium reminiscent of the jewel box ballparks (Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, and others). Instead it’s a very crisp, modern ballpark with all the necessary amenities fans expect at new minor league stadiums. The sleek design of the stadium is clear when you view the grandstand from the outfield.
Many minor league teams now feature multiple mascots, and I was able to capture a photo with both mascots for the Naturals: Strike the Sasquatch and Sinker the Lake Creature.
Sinker was the Naturals nominee for MiLB.com’s Mascot Mania contest, which saw it’s league round conclude on Aug. 1. So I bagged two mascots, although I was unable to get them together in the same photo.
Arvest Ballpark lived up to expectations on a Monday night. The crowd was sedate and the stadium location lacked any sort of ambiance or charm. It was easy to reach the ballpark, but the lack of any restaurants or bars or any sort of local entertainment across the street from the stadium diminishes the fan experience.
However, the atmosphere inside the ballpark makes up for the surroundings. The gift shop has a huge selection of items. The concession stands offer the standard ballpark fare, but features a few unique items that separate Arvest Ballpark from other minor league stadiums. One funnel dog may not be enough for dinner, but it’s an excellent item that every fan should sample. While I cannot say the BBQ nachos are totally unique, they are certainly delicious. I could’ve eaten just the nachos for my meal and been quite full, so fans get their money’s worth.
Ultimately, the visit to Arvest Ballpark was very good. My stadium visit was complete: first pitch photo behind home plate, local encased meat on a bun, photo with mascot(s), and good on-field entertainment between innings.
Final: Arkansas 10, Northwest Arkansas 3