SLIDESHOW: Farewell, Ray Winder

Sunday, September 3, 2006: Mom and I saw people lined up for the last game at Ray Winder Field before we could see the historic ballpark. I’d bought box seat tickets for my mother Betty Elder and myself months before—the first time I had ever paid for tickets to an Arkansas Travelers game.

My dad Jim Elder did play-by-play for the Travelers from 1960-1993, so I knew every inch of Ray Winder. I had watched games from every vantage point possible. Even before my dad was involved with the broadcasts, he and my mom were fans. She swears that one of my first verbalizations was “cold drinks” in that peculiar cadence of ballpark vendors.

When Daddy first began calling the games, my personal version of paradise was eating a fudgesicle in the third base bleachers with my cousins. I remember getting a wasp bite and going to the press box for sympathy and a tobacco poultice from Jim Bailey. Later, I’d helped my dad in the press box by getting the scores of Major League games off the ticker tape or by updating batting averages between games of a double header. As a teenager, I sold everything from ice cream to hot dogs to cigarettes.

For this last game, faces I’d known as kids were showing their grandchildren the old park. It was a reunion of generations of baseball fans—all soaking up memories and pointing out stories hidden in every corner of the place.

Before my mother and I made our way to our reserved seats, we visited the press box one more time. As I helped my mom up the steps in the grandstand, we passed our usual seats in the top row to catch the breeze. As another nod to the past, Alfreda Wilson had reclaimed her rightful seat on the bench, providing the nostalgic organ soundtrack for the afternoon.

We finally made it up to the catwalk, a narrow walkway suspended from the rafters, which led to the press box, named the “Jim Box” after my dad and his friend and great writer Jim Bailey. As we traveled the catwalk and ducked our heads to miss the low-hanging beams, I remembered the thrill of looking down at the stands as a kid. I recalled that my dad had often welcomed the children of family and friends to visit him there, knowing the excitement it would bring them.

The Jim Box was buzzing, full of press people and former players. I can’t imagine a better place in the world to be at that moment. We stood with Phil Elson in my dad’s old spot and surveyed the huge crowd and historic field. My mom lightly touched her hand to the sign honoring the two Jims and was asked to pose for photos and share her memories. Just before we exited, I took a photo of the entire press crew as they made a farewell toast to the Jim Box.

We finally made our way to our seats near the Travs dugout. Every face in the full house told a story though smiles, tears or a combination of the two. Cameras clicked in a futile attempt to capture the emotions of the day. As part of the pregame ceremony, Phil Elson read a moving tribute to the old ballpark. One of the beer vendors from the 1970s, now a lawyer, had come back to do his old job for a day. The sense that we had all shared something very special was palpable. We were a congregation engaged in a call and response hymn to each play, trying to squeeze the final memories out of the afternoon.

The fans hung on every pitch and rose in unison for the final out. The fact that the Travs won the game was the cherry on top of a perfect Sunday. The eventual fan exodus from the stands moved in slow motion. General Manager Bill Valentine sat in his usual seat, receiving a mixture of condolences, thanks-for-the-memories, and congratulations on the new ballpark. Travs staff and press box guys posed for impromptu group photos on the mound. A couple of guys sat motionless in their seats, seemingly unwilling to acknowledge the fact that it was really over.

I took photos of everything, including the cat that lived under the grandstand. Mom and I lingered for over an hour until the park was almost empty. It was tough to leave, but our hearts were full of gratitude for the sweet memories we shared there with my dad and every other fan there on that beautiful afternoon.

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