Ray Winder Field, the former home of the Arkansas Travelers, is a 1932 gem.
FAST FACTSYear Opened: 1932
Dimensions: 330L, 390C, 345R
Playing Surface: Grass
League: Texas League (Class AA)
Parking: Abundant free parking.
Address/Directions: Ray Winder Field at War Memorial Stadium. The stadium complex is north of downtown Little Rock. Take I-630 to the Fair Park Boulevard exit and go north from the exit. If you're coming from downtown Little Rock. you'll see the ballpark on your right before you hit your exit. Follow the signs and turn right onto Zoo Drive.
The Arkansas Travelers moved to Dickey-Stephens Park in the 2007 season. This story covers visits to Ray Winder Field before the move. As a northerner, one of my favorite things about visiting the South is experiencing the deliberate pace of live down there. No one seems like they're in a hurry to do anything: sure, things will get done, but they get done in a laid-back way.
That's why I shouldn't have been surprised when I showed up early to Ray Winder Field, home of the Arkansas Travelers, only to find out that the gates don't open until an hour before game time (which, I've discovered, is the standard schedule for ballpark openings in the South). What's the hurry?
Indeed, nothing seems to get done quickly at Ray Winder Field. It opened in 1932 as Travelers Stadium, and it was renamed after former team owner Ray Winder in 1966. It's one of the five oldest stadiums still used in affiliated baseball, but don't let the age fool you: it's a great park that fits in nicely with the greater Little Rock community. Just expect to spend a nice relaxing day or night at the park. Who needs to hear rap music between at-bats or between innings when there's already an organist to play your favorites in a laid-back style? Who cares if there's only two windows open for buying software drinks?
Ray Winder Field features the most-laid back atmosphere I've experienced at a ballpark where there was more than 100 folks in the stands. Maybe because I attended on a doubleheader day, but the crowd was really slow to arrive: the locals sure weren't waiting outside the box office an hour and a half before game time, but us tourists were milling around the box office, itching to get a good seat.
Which was not difficult, really. There is no reserved seating in Ray Winder unless you're a season-ticket holder; in that case your reserved seat has your name on the back. When you buy a ticket, you're offered a general admission ticket for $5 or a box seat for $7. The box seats are located closest to the field, and the extra $2 allows you to move into a box seat without a name on the back, which are scattered throughout the box seats.
If you're attending an afternoon game, don't bother springing for the box seat. The general admission seats are covered by the grandstand roof, so they are shaded; the box seats are not, and there's nothing like an Arkansas midday sun burn the flesh from your neck. Also, be warned that if you sit in the front rows of the box seats you do so at your own peril: the netting behind the plate doesn't extend very far down the line, and the playing field is so close to the stands that there's a pretty good chance you could be dinged if you're not paying attention. On the flip side, the dugout sits within the stands, so if you're sitting in the first few rows you have a pretty good view of what's happening with the players during a game.
Architecturally, Ray Winder is a pretty simple ballpark. The vast majority of the seating is in the grandstand, which is entirely full of folding theater-style seats; the newer chairs in the box seats are aluminum, while the older seats in the general-admission area are wooden. Ushers are positioned in the walkways to make sure that only those with box-seat tickets are admitted to that section. It is not a stadium designed to encourage milling around should the game be less than scintillating.
An old steel frame holds a wooden roof, which provides the aforementioned relief against the sun for the general-admission fans. A press box hangs from the front of the wooden roof, while an organist -- playing a real electronic organ, not a newfangled synthesizer -- is at the back from the grandstand. There are also two sets of bleachers down the left-field line, and during a day game this is quite the sun field.
Because the ballpark literally sits next to I-630 and other civic buildings in the area, there aren't any outfield bleachers: in right field, a large fence ensures that home runs don't end up out on the freeway, while left field is dominated by the scoreboard.
This is the last season for Ray Winder Field; it will be replaced next season with a North Little Rock ballpark. It's a shame: Ray Winder Field lacks many of the amenities found in newer stadiums, and larger crowds would certainly provide for some cramped experiences as fans made their way to bathrooms and concession stands.
But Ray Winder has one thing that no retro ballpark can have: a genuine nostalgic experience. And while there are probably some things that could be done to Ray Winder Field to improve the fan experience, any new ballpark will pale in comparison to Ray Winder Field.
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