Red Barber, Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster for the Reds, Dodgers, and Yankees, was famous for his Southern homespun expressions. One of them denoted a position of great advantage--"sitting in the catbird seat."
James Thurber had a character explain the phrase in a short story of that name: "sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him."
The catbird seat is exactly where Tulsa's minor league baseball team finds itself at the moment. After 31 seasons at the Tulsa County Fairgrounds--27 at the current location--the Tulsa Drillers have their pick of places to play.
As UTW reported last week, City of Tulsa officials have identified a handful of downtown locations for the Class AA ball club, according to Downtown Tulsa Unlimited president Jim Norton.
Norton had announced at a Tulsa Press Club luncheon that he was "80 percent certain" that the Drillers would move to their pick of locations downtown. But within a week, Drillers president Chuck Lamson announced that the club had signed a nonbinding letter of intent with River District Development Group to relocate to the planned mixed-use development south of the Creek Turnpike in Jenks.
Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor responded with a mass e-mail encouraging Tulsans to barrage Lamson with phone calls and e-mails, pleading with him to move the Tulsa Drillers to downtown instead. The City Council unanimously passed a resolution urging the Drillers to stay.
Still in the mix is the possibility of a ballpark as part of a mixed-use development on the west bank at 23rd Street.
As part of the campaign to keep the Drillers in Tulsa, some fans were planning a show of support at last Tuesday's game, handing out signs and bumper stickers. There's even a website: savetulsabaseball.com.
Despite the letter of intent, Lamson is still open to a Tulsa locale.
With all the suitors competing to provide a new location for the Drillers, it's strange to remember a time when they weren't as appreciated. The Tulsa Oilers, resident at the fairgrounds since 1932, left for New Orleans after the 1976 season, when county officials refused to do anything to improve Oiler Park's aging infrastructure.
A group of owners, including country picker 'n' grinner Roy Clark, brought a Texas League team from Lafayette, Louisiana, to begin play the following season as the Tulsa Drillers. In a pre-season exhibition game between the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros, a section of walkway collapsed, injuring several fans.
The stands were condemned and torn down, replaced by temporary bleachers on the same site. That was the Drillers' home for four seasons. Attendance drooped to fewer than 1,000 fans a game.
A 1979 county general obligation bond issue would have built a new fairgrounds stadium, but the voters turned it down. Things looked grim for baseball in Tulsa until an "angel" named Robert Sutton stepped forward with funds for a new park, which opened in 1981.
At a capacity of 10,995, Drillers Stadium is the largest park in Class AA baseball, and is bigger than 13 of the parks that serve the 30 Class AAA clubs. True, it doesn't have the brickwork typical of the neo-traditional wave of baseball stadiums, a trend that began with the opening of Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992.
But during Went Hubbard's ownership, the park was lovingly tended, with the team funding a major improvement nearly every year. Over the years, the box seats were lowered to be nearer the field, artificial turf was replaced with grass, more of the stands were covered, and the outfield stands were angled inward to improve the sight lines. Every aspect of the park--concession stands, restrooms, player facilities, and team offices--has been kept up to date. It's a great place to watch a ball game.
What Driller Stadium lacks is an urban context. Although it's surrounded by residential and commercial development, the layout of the fairgrounds facilities and the Fair Meadows track isolates it from its surroundings. Nothing is within practical, comfortable walking distance. You drive there, you watch a game, you drive home. Everyone leaves at once.
Once again, Oklahoma City provides a model: You walk out of the Bricktown Ballpark and find yourself in the heart of a dining and entertainment district. To get from the park to your car, you'll pass at least a half-dozen night clubs and restaurants. There's every reason to show up early and get a bite to eat, or to linger after the game and at least go for a stroll and people-watch before loading up and heading home.
The Ballpark has probably done more for Bricktown's popularity than the Ford Center. Beginning in 1998, the ballpark has drawn crowds averaging upwards of 5,000 for 72 nights every summer. The games bring these baseball fans to Bricktown when the nights are longer and there's no school the next day--plenty of time to explore and meander. Even the baseball fans who came just for the game would receive an introduction to Bricktown, planting the seed for a future visit when the ballpark is dark.
The proximity to dining and entertainment has helped the Oklahoma Redhawks, too. Attendance is nearly double what it was back at the misnamed All Sports Stadium, a simple single-tier, bowl-style park situated on the far side of the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds.
In Bricktown, a ballgame is one more alternative at the entertainment multiplex. Someone might choose a ballgame on the spur of the moment as a way to spend the evening when none of the movies are appealing. Plus, unlike the movie theatre, the ballpark has beer.
In their 10 years in Bricktown, the Redhawks remain a strong draw. The team drew over half a million fans in 2005 and 2006 and is on pace to repeat the feat this year, averaging 7,440 fans per game through July. (The Drillers averaged 4,594 through the same period.)
All the proposals for a new Drillers park would seek to replicate that success, to put the new ballpark in proximity to places to eat, drink, and shop. The Jenks and west bank plans would design the ballpark into a new development. The same would have been true for the apparently dead Global Development Partners plan for east downtown.
Jenks' demographics are going to be hard for Tulsa to beat. The location is in the wealthiest zip code in the state. Jenks has a strong youth baseball program served by a big new baseball complex just a mile west of the proposed Drillers location. Families who moved to Jenks and south Tulsa for the schools would likely find a suburban location more convenient and appealing than a downtown ballpark.
On the other hand, growth to the north in Owasso, Claremore, and elsewhere is starting to balance out the metro area a bit. A downtown site would be equally convenient to all the suburbs, and the combination of the expressway system and the downtown street grid would make it easy to get there.
There are challenges to a downtown location. A baseball stadium won't fit on a standard 300' by 300' city block. Driller Stadium's footprint, including stands, concourses, and offices, is roughly 500' by 650'.
That means either using an existing superblock, or creating a new one by closing a couple of streets and further disrupting downtown's already damaged street grid. Closing streets removes one of downtown's advantages, making it a frustrating place for both motorists and pedestrians.
The Tulsa Development Authority's Hartford Building site, soon to be vacated for consolidation in the new City Hall, would be convenient to the Blue Dome District, Greenwood, and the hub of activity near 3rd and Kenosha. But either 1st or 2nd Street would need to be closed. The street pair was one of three continuous paths through downtown connecting to the IDL at either end, but the BOk Center has already cut the connection at the west end.
Another TDA-owned site at Archer and Elgin, backing up to the north leg of the IDL, is already a superblock, and is close not only to Blue Dome, Greenwood, and OSU-Tulsa, but is just a couple of blocks from the core of the Brady District. There are nearby buildings available for use as dining and entertainment venues.
Global's proposed ballpark location north of 6th between Frankfort and the IDL would have worked well as part of their planned mixed-use development, and would not have been too disruptive to the street grid, but that site now appears destined for a Wal-Mart Supercenter.
The site of the rusty Evans Electric plant, isolated on Archer north of the IDL between the Santa Fe tracks and the Cherokee Expressway, would be the worst of the center city choices. There wouldn't be any synergy with existing entertainment venues. As in Jenks, an urban context would have to be created for the stadium.
Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any downtown location that would allow for the traditional eastward orientation and a view of the skyline.
The Drillers could move to Jenks to be part of a Disneyfied pseudo-downtown. Or they could bring Tulsa baseball back to a real downtown after 75 years, bringing fans and foot traffic for downtown businesses along with them.
At one time, the city's professional ball team played at a stadium covered now by the footprint of Home Depot and Mazzio's, at the site of the old Warehouse Market. If it can be done without raising taxes, a Drillers move downtown would be good for both the team and the locale.
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