When the Tulsa Drillers open their second season at ONEOK Field with an exhibition game against the Colorado Rockies at 6:05pm on Wednesday, March 30, visitors to the downtown ballpark won't have as many new things to look at as they did last year, when everything about the experience was novel.
But the area around the stadium continues to sprout new attractions, meaning baseball fans who haven't visited northeast downtown since the end of last season are likely to find plenty to pique their interest.
Drillers general manager Mike Melega said the new ballpark was in such great shape when the team moved in a year ago, the list of changes that had to be implemented for season two was remarkably short. Other than minor alterations to the locker rooms, the only changes to the facilities at ONEOK Field for 2011 will be the move of a scoreboard from the third-base side to the first-base side to improve visibility and some technical alterations to the outfield scoreboard that will reduce glare during the early innings of evening games when the sun is setting, he said.
The scoreboard off the suite level on the third-base side was not accessible to those sitting with their backs to it last year, and many fans in that area had also an obstructed view of the outfield scoreboard, Melega said. So that scoreboard has been moved to the first-base side to ensure that all fans have a view of a scoreboard.
As for the large outfield scoreboard, he said, when the sun was setting during games a year ago, some fans complained they couldn't make out the display. The lighting has been replaced with brighter bulbs, he said, and covered with non-reflective clear shielding. Visibility of the scoreboard's video screen was not affected by the sunlight, he said, and required no changes.
"Those are a couple of things that fans will recognize," he said.
The team will provide a handful of new services for tech-savvy fans this season, including iPhone and Droid apps that feature the team schedule and game broadcasts. Another app will allow fans to submit an order for concessions, then go pick up their food when it's ready at a window that bypasses the main counter.
"That's a cool service for fans who don't want to wait in line," Melega said.
A group sales area along ONEOK Field's first-base line that can accommodate two groups of 20 people also will be covered with a large awning this season, he said.
Melega said the Drillers have several new features in mind for the ballpark in 2012, but he wasn't ready to discuss them yet.
The team's first season in its new home was very successful, allowing the Drillers to set a single-season attendance record of more than 408,000 fans -- fourth among the 30 teams that compete at minor-league baseball's double A level. The expected popularity of the new ballpark led many observers to fret last year that parking would be a headache -- both for baseball fans and for patrons of existing businesses -- but that turned out not to be the case, according to Melega.
"That (concern) was alleviated for us on opening day last year," he said, explaining that even on a night when the ballpark was full and a sold-out Tim McGraw concert was being performed at the BOK Center, fans had plenty of parking options.
That didn't come as a surprise to anyone who had bothered to study the situation, Melega said.
"We knew you get about 30,000 people a day working downtown, so even if we had 6,000 people at the ballpark and a show at the arena, we knew parking shouldn't have been an issue," he said.
Additional parking close to the ballpark was offered on the campus of Oklahoma State University -- Tulsa last year for Friday, Saturday and Sunday games, a policy that will be back in effect this year, he said.
One of the selling points for the new ballpark -- partially financed by the creation of a downtown property assessment district -- was the impact it was expected to have on surrounding development. Citing the number of new residential and mixed-use projects that are in the works for the area around the stadium, Melega believes ONEOK Field has been as good as advertised.
"I think everybody's been pleased," he said. "There's no question it's had an impact. I keep hearing things about different ground breakings or new projects that are planned. I wouldn't say ONEOK Field has been the sole impetus for everything, but it's been a big part of it."
Melega said hundreds of new residential units are being planned for the Brady Arts District and Greenwood, meaning as many as 600 to 800 new residents could be living within shouting distance of the ballpark soon. That will help foster a sense of community, he said.
Batter Up. “There’s no question it’s had an impact. I keep hearing things about different ground breakings or
new projects that are planned,” said Tulsa Drillers general manager Mike Melega. “I wouldn’t say ONEOK Field
has been the sole impetus for everything, but it’s been a big part of it.”
FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL COOPER
"That's great for us, it's great for the businesses and it will help create more and more of a neighborhood feel on this end of downtown," he said.
It also will help create a market for new businesses. The burgeoning Blue Dome district, just south of the ballpark, already has become home to a number of restaurants and nightclubs, with other ventures on the way this spring.
Blake Ewing, owner of Joe Momma's Pizza, Boomtown Tees and The Max Retropub -- all located between 112 and 114 S. Elgin Ave. -- said the ballpark had a major impact on his businesses last year, and he expects that to continue in 2011.
"Oh, yeah, Drillers games are great," he said. "We love that. And there's so many of them, that makes it even better."
Ewing's latest enterprise, a restaurant called Back Alley Blues and BBQ located in the Blue Dome, is expected to open in the middle of next month "or late April if all goes badly," he said, laughing.
The entrepreneur also indicated he's got more plans for the future, though he declined to discuss the specifics of the project.
"I've got something planned only a block away from the ballpark," he said.
The Blue Dome will welcome a different kind of attraction in May when Elliot Nelson -- owner of several establishments in the district, including McNellie's Pub, El Guapo, Yokozuna, the Dilly Deli and Fassler Hall -- opens the Dust Bowl, an eight-lane bowling alley at 211 S. Elgin.
"I think we're ready to put a hard (opening) date on it of May 1," Nelson said, explaining that the lanes have been constructed and construction crews should be ready to start painting the interior and moving in furnishings by this week. Nelson is expecting a warm reception for his latest venture.
"It might get a little crazy," he said. "People seem to have kind of a pent-up desire to go there."
Nelson believes the Dust Bowl will add a new flavor to the Blue Dome district.
"For us, the impact is just that the offerings in our neighborhood are strictly bars and restaurants now," he said, explaining that the addition of a new activity should help round out the Blue Dome.
Nelson said the ballpark has not exactly been a boon for his restaurant and nightclub empire, though he welcomes its existence.
"Our experience has been that El Guapo was really the only one that benefited from it," he said, explaining the restaurant's family-friendly nature made it a good choice for ballpark clientele.
But ONEOK Field hasn't had a negative impact on his other holdings, he said, dismissing concerns that ballpark patrons were going to take up all the parking in the Blue Dome, frustrating his regulars at McNellie's or Yokozuna. Nelson believes the ballpark's opening last year may even have contributed to unusually strong sales in recent months for his restaurants.
"For us, we actually experienced some residual benefit because of the number of people with kids who saw this neighborhood for the first time and realized you weren't going to get shot if you come downtown at night," he said. "This has been the best winter we've ever had, and we're seeing a lot of new faces."
Baseball fans also are sure to notice the completion of John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park at 415 N. Detroit Ave. just northwest of ONEOK Field this season. Memorializing the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, the park features a slew of artwork and was dedicated in late October 2010.
Acknowledging that some of the novelty of the new ballpark may begin to wear off this season, Melega said he didn't know what to expect in terms of attendance for 2011.
"We'd be thrilled if we draw 400,000 again this year," he said. "The newness was, of course, a factor last year in allowing us to set the attendance record, and it's way too early to tell, but we may see a little bit of a slip this year. But we're extending our offerings on non-game days to help make up for that."
The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure will be held at ONEOK Field on Sept. 17, he said, and is expected to attract thousands of people to the ballpark. Additionally, he said, a Bedlam Series baseball game between the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University will be played at the ballpark on April 15 -- a game that attracted a ONEOK Field record crowd of 9,417 last year -- while other events, such as concerts, are in the works.
"We're totally confident that's going to result in more bodies downtown by using ONEOK Field for different purposes," he said.
Melega said he expects a big turnout for this week's exhibition game against the Drillers' parent club, the Rockies, and the club has scheduled an appearance by the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders this season, as well.
Tulsa opens the regular season on April 7 against Corpus Christi.
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