In the spirit of celebrating our 20th anniversary all year, we're resurrecting an old series, Day in Little Rock, where various central Arkansans reflect on their memories, pastimes and adventures in the capital city. Up this month is Mitch Bettis. Take it away, Mitch.
Each morning I drive east on Interstate 630 toward our office downtown and pass the old scoreboard where Ray Winder Field once roared with excitement. It makes 9-year-old Mitch smile every time.
For those who may be new to the area, next to UAMS there is a scoreboard standing in a parking lot that, for many people who weren’t raised in Arkansas, must seem like an odd sight.
Those perfectly lined parking spaces mark the ground where the dreams of aspiring 20-something ball players came to play with hopes of making it to The Big Show, and it’s also the place where thousands of wide-eyed kids came to cheer them on.
The field dates back to 1931 and officially closed in 2006 after the construction of the new Dickey-Stephens field in North Little Rock.
The Arkansas Travelers once called that ground home before leaving for the new stadium. That was an era when the Travelers were part of the St. Louis Cardinals’ system, which to me always made far more sense than being a part of the Seattle Mariners like we are today.
I was born and raised in Arkadelphia, and as a child I lived for baseball in the summer. One of the highlights of our Deputy League and Junior Deputy League days was getting to travel to Little Rock to catch a Travelers game.
It was circa 1976, and it was a different era. Travel wasn’t commonplace in our family, so a trip to Little Rock was a big deal. It was pre-internet, so if I wanted to keep up with baseball scores, I had to turn to the box scores of our hometown newspaper, locate one of the state papers (don’t forget we had two back then) or try to catch an update on the 6 p.m. news.
Once a year brave adults would volunteer to wrangle a group of rowdy pre-teen ball players and take us to a Travelers game. For the one-hour drive, a lot of boys were crammed inside a few cars and made their way up Interstate 30 to the big city. The excitement was intense, and we chattered incessantly until we pulled up to the ballpark.
Each of us would bring our gloves because we were certain we’d catch a foul ball. That never happened, but it didn’t make much of a dent in our enthusiasm.
When the game started, it was as if we were watching gods. They could hit, field and run like we could only dream of, and getting to sit in the old stands, eat a Ray Winder hot dog and watch the players was an experience that was second to none.
We couldn’t leave without souvenirs. Two of my prized items included a small, wooden baseball bat and a plastic batter’s helmet that I kept for years. I’m pretty sure I still have the bat in a box in the attic of my parents’ house in Arkadelphia.
A trip to the big city wasn’t complete unless we stopped at Casa Bonita for a meal. Located at the corner of University and Asher avenues, in its heyday the restaurant reportedly had some of the highest sales of any Mexican restaurant in the U.S.
We didn’t know any of that as kids. We just knew it was a lot of fun to raise the tabletop flag to summon more sopapillas to our table, and then drop a pocket of quarters in the video games they had on site.
The trip home was much quieter than the trip to Little Rock. The cars were full of exhausted boys who were sacked out, laying all over the back seat and each other.
Those precious memories steamroll me every time I get close to Exit 4 on Interstate 630. Fathers and sons. Baseball dreams. Hot dogs. Friendship. My big blue baseball glove that was handed down from my cousin Randy.
And it always makes me smile