In late February, virtually everyone in Arkansas was hunkered down to avoid glazed roads and the bracing bite of winter. But for many, even the weeklong sleet and cold could not quell their spring fever. Justin Cole, vice president and general manager of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, was one of them.
After two seasons of canceled games and shortened seasons, Cole’s championship squad is set to open this spring for a full year’s slate of games, promotions and ballpark food. With a little more than a month to go, it would take more than a little ice to cool his enthusiasm.
“Last year was great to get the season going and get the guys back on the field, but all normal timelines were kind of thrown away,” he said. “We got our  schedule last August, and we were able to get all those plans set and those details for all the promotions and those kinds of things. It’s created within our office, and I hope within our community, more excitement that the Naturals will be back in April this year, not May, and we are full schedule through mid-September. Can’t wait.”
Throughout the minor leagues, the refrain among clubs and fans is the same: Let’s play ball. In Arkansas, whetted by the Razorbacks opening the collegiate season ranked as high as No. 2 in the land, baseball fans are starved for the minor league season, if only to claim another yard of normalcy in a period that has been anything but.
Awaiting them are the state’s two Double-A franchises — the aforementioned Nats and Little Rock’s Arkansas Travelers — as well as one right over the border in the Springfield Cardinals. All beckon with their attendant retinue of goofy in-game promotions, affordable family entertainment and sultry nights taking in America and its pastime.
“The last two years have had a very different narrative. Knowing that we are starting in April and on time is imperative, and it’s great for our fans,” said Dan Reiter, vice president and general manager of the Springfield club. “I do think the effects of the pandemic are going to last for many years in terms of people’s comfort level to go out, depending on where we stand with different spikes.
“But I would say overall, the industry is thriving. There’s a lot of idea-sharing, there’s a lot of creativity. I think communities are embracing what a positive effect [baseball] can have on the culture of a community.”
Professional baseball is a game of split personality and has been throughout at least the modern era. The major leagues and their feeder systems — the minors — play with the same equipment during a comparable period of the year, but the games are night-and-day-different in culture and feel.
Major League Baseball is a monolithic, multibillion-dollar, star-driven business with a knack for appearing out of touch with its target audience. The two-month-and-counting MLB lockout is the most recent example, as multi-millionaire players quibble with billionaire owners about how to carve up the revenue pie, coming dangerously close to baking the golden goose in the process.
Such events can erode a fan base and have, in baseball’s case, following strike seasons. But whatever’s going on at the big-league level, it doesn’t seem to dampen what’s happening in the minor league game. In contrast to the big leagues, minor league baseball (MiLB) feels more like a hometown entity. Players are generally lesser-known and those with exceptional talents aren’t in the farm system very long, Therefore, affinity for a minor league team focuses more on the name on the front of the jersey than the one on the back.
“It’s like everything else, there’s always going to be opinions on both sides,” Reiter said. “Overall, I think communities are just excited to have Minor League Baseball. It’s more positive over being local; communities that have Minor League Baseball know it’s a big deal.
“If you just do the simple numbers, there’s 30 big league teams, there’s 30 in AAA. Springfield is not the 61st biggest city. We’re not the 90th biggest city. For us to have a Double-A team in Springfield, Missouri, is a huge deal. And on top of it, to be affiliated with the St. Louis Cardinals that are three hours away, that’s really a dream scenario.”
The Central Arkansas franchise has shown particular attention to the universality of the game through its multibranding approach, billing itself in-season as the Diamantes in a nod to Hispanic fans, something NWA is planning to replicate this season. Meanwhile a new promotion, The Nine, acknowledges Black fans by paying homage to Jackie Robinson’s jersey number. It also will roll out soon.
“Baseball, especially Minor League Baseball, is not for one group of people. It’s affordable fun, and everyone should have an opportunity to experience it,” said Rusty Meeks, CEO of the Arkansas Travelers. “Through the Diamantes, we’ve seen a big difference with a lot of the Hispanic community coming out here for those nights, and that’s what we wanted to do.
“We’re also doing something called The Nine with Minor League Baseball. It’s the exact same as Diamante but focused on the African American community. We’ll be doing alternate jerseys, not this year but probably next year, which will be just like the Diamante thing. I’m really proud of those two initiatives because it’s including everything and everybody.”
Economics and accessibility have also kept MiLB in good graces with fans, reflecting a more accessible entertainment option than taking in a pro game. According to Yahoo Sports, MLB lost around $3 billion due to the pandemic in 2020, causing a major spike in prices in 2021. The average price tag for a group of four last year was more than $250 covering four tickets, parking, two beers, four hot dogs and soft drinks and two souvenir ball caps.
The tab represented a 4.5 percent hop from what teams were going to charge in 2020 and continues a trend of MLB’s prices marching steadily upward. Samford University reported in 2018 that prices to attend an MLB game grew 176 percent between 1991 and 2016. (In fairness, that was only the second-largest growth percentage among the Big Three professional leagues, the NFL being first. And, per that report, pro baseball was still the least expensive outing; the same four fans laid out $339 to watch an NBA game and $503 to see the NFL.)
By contrast, a comparable purchase for a family of four at a minor league park routinely comes in at well under $80.
“I think last year was more than I expected it to be. Meaning I think so many fans and even we took what we have here for granted,” said Meeks. “We really missed the fans in 2020; it was an extremely lonely year. And I think that they realized just how much they missed the ballpark, just being able to have a beer with some friends, bring your family, have some hot dogs, watch some baseball.
“Last year, we were on track to beat 2019 numbers before [COVID variants], and that was with fewer games and at limited capacity. I think that kind of speaks for itself that people were coming to the park. And this year, we’re seeing an increase in ticket sales. Groups are picking back up which is what really hurt us in ‘20.”
Heading into this year, questions arose as to what changes could be anticipated when Major League Baseball took over management of the minor leagues, wresting control from the Minor League Baseball governing body in late 2020. In the contraction and realignment some clubs experienced, many fans saw the big hand of corporate baseball interfering with their beloved local teams.
The Nats, Travs and Cards didn’t experience any such changes, yet all three executives admitted the transition to MLB control has been an adjustment.
“I think it’s like anything. When you have a change that big, there’s just a lot of adjustments to make and then you’re also trying to get seasons underway with COVID and how you are going to get the players moved around and all that,” Cole said. “I thought everybody dealt with it as positively and productively as they could and I think we’ve all been able to go, ‘What lessons did we learn going into this year?’
“My biggest takeaway is that you can tell everybody wants this to work. Not that you wouldn’t have assumed that, but the collaboration has been really strong. We have nine more years on our license agreement, and I think it bodes really well that things are continuing to become more synergistic between Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball. And I think it just ties you even closer to your big-league affiliate, which is only something that can help what we’re trying to do.”
The clubs’ 2022 campaigns begin April 8. The Travs will open on the road in Texas against the Frisco Roughriders, while the Cardinals open at home against the NWA Naturals at Hammonds Field. The Travs’ first homestand comes against the Cardinals at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock April 11 while the AA Central champion Nats open their home slate April 12 against the Wichita Wind Surge at Arvest Ballpark in Springdale.