Down on the Farm: Deep in the Heart of Texas and Signs of Improvement in Indianapolis

This is the second in a monthly series called “Down on the Farm” that will chronicle my visits to various minor league parks throughout the 2011 season. (Part 1 can be found here.)

In May’s edition, I regale you with tales and photos of my journey to Round Rock (Texas) to watch the Express on a lovely Saturday night with my wife. I’ll also update you on the progress of the Indianapolis Indians.

Dell Diamond and Nolan Ryan’s Round Rock Express

At the time of this publication, the Express are off to a franchise best start at the Triple A level (24-14) — which goes back to 2005. The Rangers affiliate is comfortably perched atop the Pacific Coast League’s American Southern Division.

We took in a game on Saturday, May 7, on a warm but pleasant night, from the comforts of their spacious press box. The stadium sits about four miles east of I-35 — adjacent to farmland and, naturally, railroad tracks — on the outskirts of Round Rock. Roughly 20 miles north of the state capital in Austin, and basically equidistant from Houston or Dallas, Round Rock was the second fastest-growing city in America as of 2009.

The Dell Diamond itself, as expected, was a beauty, and Round Rock runs a first class operation to match. The fixed-seating capacity of the stadium is just under 9,000 with room for more than 3,000 more on the grass berm beyond the outfield wall.

A left-field upper deck — extremely rare in minor league facilities — similar to that of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, with room for 600, was added for the move up to Triple A in 2005.  It’s only 370 feet from home plate, and Round Rock’s Chad Tracy hit one up there during the contest. Right field is open air with a sprawling view of the central Texas plains.

There was a large weekend crowd of over 10,000, which was quite enthusiastic, especially when the Express came back from a 6-2 deficit against lowly Nashville to win 9-8 on a walk-off single by former Texas Longhorn Omar Quintanilla — on  “Longhorn Night” at the ballpark, no less.

The Diamond has 30 private suites, a 20 by 50 foot swimming pool, hot tub, basketball court, a 26-foot high rock wall, and a 500 person capacity conference center along the right field line, among other amenities.

But folks meandering the ballpark didn’t interfere with the bulk of the crowd that was focused on the game. A few between inning games are performed along with some clever TV/movie clips, however the staff certainly does not go overboard — which is a plus.

The Express spent five seasons as members of the Texas League (2000 to 2004), attracting nearly 3.5 million fans, good for the most successful five-year stretch in Double-A history. In the inaugural season as a member of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 2005, Round Rock drew over 700,000 fans, or about 10,000 per contest. At 8,000 per game, they lead the PCL in attendance so far in 2011.

Round Rock’s ownership group is led by Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, while his sons (Reid and Reese) hold executive positions. Reid, who designed the ballpark as well the even-newer Whataburger Field in Corpus Christi (named best venue in North America over the last two seasons), was in the box this night, and my wife enjoyed hanging out with his daughters inside the air-conditioned press lounge.

As we departed southward back toward San Antonio, there was no doubt this was one of the finer minor league properties in America.

Indianapolis Indians Update

When I last updated you, the Indians were struggling a bit at 2-9, but also enjoying short-term progress; well, 30 days later, much the same can be reported. The team was a brutal 8-19 when they left Circle City for Norfolk and Durham on May 4, but after a 4-4 road trip — including a “Back in Time” game at Durham Athletic Park, the 85-year-old ballpark made famous by the movie Bull Durham — the Tribe stood at 12-23, coming home to face Columbus, the best team in all of Minor League Baseball. (The Clippers lead the International League in batting average, runs, hits, home runs, RBI and walks.)

So what did the erstwhile “lowly” Tribe do? Indy responded by taking three of four from the first place squad in the just-completed series, allowing only 14 earned runs over 36 innings.

The Clippers had previously defeated the Indians in seven straight contests entering the four game set that wrapped up Monday afternoon before a season high crowd of 12,168 at Victory Field. Indianapolis is drawing about 5,500 fans per game over 21 dates, good for middle of the pack in the International League.

Indian pitching has been solid of late, but not top prospect Rudy Owens so much as starter Justin Wilson and the bullpen, led by Nebraskan Tony Watson and Cesar Valdez. Brian Burres, who spent parts of the past five seasons in the Majors, has also had three quality starts after struggling early on in 2011.

Indianapolis is still running like crazy, easily pacing the IL in steals with 53. Hitting has come along with guys like Alex Presley, who leads the IL in hits and stands third in average. Speedy Chase d’Arnaud, serving as the lead off man of late, is 11 for his last 21.

A huge help came in the form of John Bowker, who joined the club on May 8. Tribe play-by-play man Scott McCauley said the outfielder, who split last season between San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Indy and Fresno, “immediately becomes the Tribe’s best power hitter.” Indy is currently near the bottom of the IL in homeruns.

On his MLBlog, McCauley added, “The hard-working Bowker has an incredible work ethic and it will be important for the young players to see how you properly go about your business.”

Media Relations Manager Brian Bosma deems this “The Bowker Effect,” as John’s bat has shifted the lineup around to aid others as well. First baseman Matt Hague, who moved down from 4th to 5th in the order, has responded by going 9 for 20 in his past five games.

Overall, the Tribe has a 6-3 record with Bowker in the lineup, and the offense has averaged over five runs and ten hits per game during that stretch.

Indianapolis still sits in the cellar at 15-24, but they’re also 7-5 in their last 12, and just had a season-best four game win streak. The Indians may trail Columbus by 11 and a half games, but they won’t see the league’s best team until mid-July. Indy welcomes Buffalo (17-22) to Victory Field this evening.

About the Author

AJ Kaufman

A former schoolteacher and military historian, A.J. now works in public relations. As an MSF columnist since 2009, he supports anything baseball-related. Raised in San Diego, A.J. has since resided in numerous parts of America, including Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Ohio and Washington State. After departing the coasts in 2005, he's traveled the back roads of all 50 states and prefers the Heartland. Married to Maria, A.J. is the author of three books and enjoys reading presidential biographies.