This serves as the fourth post in my third season of a series called “Down on the Farm” that chronicles visits to various minor league parks throughout the 2013 campaign. (All prior editions can be accessed here.)
Just a few days before visiting the Cardinals Triple-A affiliate in Memphis, I was in the Queen City of the Ozarks, Springfield, Mo. On a perfect Mother’s Day afternoon with sunshine and temperatures in the 60s, my buddy and I enjoyed Springfield Cardinals baseball against the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.
“Cardinal Nation,” which spans the Midwest and South — from Indiana, Tennessee and Alabama, across the Mississippi Delta to as far northwest as Iowa and Nebraska — is also the region containing the team’s main farm clubs.
John Hammons Field, which opened nearly a decade ago as the centerpiece of Springfield’s midtown development project, is a gem. Though parking is a bit steep and the stadium lacks a general lot, once inside, you’re rewarded with inexpensive tickets close to the action ($12 for seats in the third row above Cards’ dugout), a clean environment and fan-friendly experience. These three aspects separate Minor League Baseball from professional sports, especially football.
Springfield actually sits 50 miles closer to Kansas City than St. Louis, but bringing the Cardinal name to southwest Missouri brought fans too, as red dominates the stands. The park, shared with Missouri State University since 2004, faces away from downtown, so there’s not much view beyond the outfield walls, but everything else is first-rate, starting with its red brick exterior, complementing a large front gate plaza.
This town gets muggy weather, and despite scheduling most games at night come June, a covered concourse is welcome. The “Redbird Roost” section perched high atop the third base line offers a nice panorama, more shade, and all-you-can-eat-food. Lawn seating, a basketball court and other options to keep youngsters busy, are mainly ensconced in the outfield section. The press box is located on a third level, towering above 24 luxury suites.
As you’d expect with serious fans, the atmosphere is very baseball-oriented, just like Busch Stadium. While a few contests, and some excellent music, are played between innings, the focus is mainly on the game. Classy, knowledgeable crowds reward players and management with a passion for the team unseen at most other minor league facilities I’ve visited.
Though only 4,100 fans joined us for a 7-4 triumph, Hammons Field attracted averages of more than 5,000 fans over the past three seasons, more than 7,000 in its early years and nearly 6,500 spectators per game for all eight years of franchise history — in a small market compared to other Texas League teams (Dallas, Tulsa, San Antonio, Little Rock). The ballpark seats roughly 8,000 with room for more than 2,000 additional folks on outfield berms and via general admission.
Mr. Hammons, 94, was born in a farm town about an hour southwest of Springfield. This American icon was a teacher, coach and World War II veteran, who made his fortune in real estate ventures after returning from war. Hammons built the beautiful park using his own money before procuring a team to play in it, always assuring local residents the stadium would be home to the Cardinals Double-A affiliate.
Now the defending league champs, the franchise finished its tenure in El Paso as ground was broken on Hammons Field in 2002. After two seasons in Knoxville, Hammons had the Cardinals in Springfield in time for the 2005 opener.
With arguably the best run baseball system on earth, nearly 50 former Springfield Cardinals — in just nine campaigns — have made their big league debuts with St. Louis through 2012.