This past weekend I took the family on a little jaunt down to Fayetteville, Arkansas  to see some friends and catch a Naturals game at Arvest Ballpark.  It wasn’t my first trip down to see the Royals AA affiliate, I made the same trek last year but this time there was a little bit more to see.  What follows is my trip report, hopefully it provides some information about the team and some hints on making the trip yourself.

The Trip

From Kansas City, its roughly a 3 hour drive south on HWY 71 nearly the whole way.  I don’t consider 3 hours to be too bad of a length, so I always say it is an easy trip to make for Royals fans.  If you haven’t driven the route in quite a while, it is multi-lane the whole way, so it is both easier and shorter than in years past.  I wish I knew of some good stops on the way, but I don’t.  Mostly gas stations, fast food restaurants and farmland.  I’d welcome some suggestions of places to stop on the way.  Once you get into Arkansas and particularly once you hit 540, the traffic picks up considerably.  And, no, people in Arkansas don’t understand what the left lane is used for any better than Kansas Citians do.

The Area

I really like Fayetteville and the surrounding area.  The University of Arkansas is there, and they have an absolutely gorgeous baseball stadium that the Razorbacks play in.  The area is growing fast and there are tons of great places to eat, have a beer, play golf or whatever you want to do.  Dixon Street is where the local college bars are, and is a nice place to grab a bite to eat before the game or a drink after the game.

The Ballpark

The ballpark is new and its great.  Parking is $3 which is reasonable, and I don’t think there are any other options.  The ballpark is kind of by itself on a road by some houses, so there isn’t any parking or places to go within walking distance.  I would bet that in a few years that will change.  Everything is clean and nice, which it should be considering it is a new ball park.  There are some inflatable things out in left field for the kiddies and they have the Johnny Damon-like mascot Strike the Sasquatch running around.

The Team

On the night I was in attendance, the Naturals clinched the Texas League first half championship.*  The week prior, 9 players were named to the All-Star team and 5 will be starters.  So the team is very good, and not just because it is a collection of good players, but they are good in nearly all facets of the game.  They have speedsters, power hitters, dominant starters, great bullpen arms and solid defense.  Its a spectacularly fun team to watch, and they always have a very good chance of winning.

*Minor Leagues have first have champs and then reset the records for the second half to keep the standings competitive and to compensate for the often changing rosters.

I absolutely had my eye on Moustakas whenever he was on the field.  The physical descriptions that I have heard were all accurate.  He doesn’t have an athletic build, and from what I saw he isn’t as trim as Billy Butler is these days.  Pitchers seemed to try and pitch him away and particularly with off-speed stuff which was working pretty well. The guy can absolutely rake though.  His first hit was a double by the 2nd baseman, which was hit extremely hard.  Later in the game, the Springfield Cardinals had a right handed submariner who was throwing in the low 70’s.  I thought there was no way the manager would let him stay in to face the left handed Moustakas, but alas I was wrong.  However, I was happy to be wrong and anticipated something big.  I told my wife and friends “watch, watch, watch this, Moustakas is going to hit a homerun”.  First Moustakas was way, way too far out front and provided the crowd down the first base line with some high velocity souvenirs.  Then he got his timing right and blasted a ball  to left that hit the wall about 4 feet shy of going over the quite tall fence.  It was one of those balls that was almost hit too hard to be a homerun, it needed more loft to clear the fence.  Either way, it was impressive and I nearly called the shot.

In the field it is hard to judge a guy on one game.   Heck it’s hard to judge a guy after a dozen games.  He fielded three balls that I recall.  One was to his left which he showed good range and then had a weak throw to first which was in time for the out.  The second was right at him and he rifled a throw to 2nd to start a double play.  The third was to his right which he dove and was unable to get and it went into left field.  So, I don’t know what that means.  I hear people say they don’t think he can stick at third, but he seemed fine on this one night to me.

I’d had a chance in spring training to see Johnny Giavotella, but he continues to impress.  He just gets hits, and plays hard.  He is an easy guy to root for and probably has the upside of a major league average player.  That is a good thing though, no teams are made up of 25 stud players.  You need a stud or two, some above average guys, some average guys and you likely have some below average guys.  If Giavotella can be one of the average guys, he is an important cog.

I have to admit, I really like fast guys.  Even though I know the stolen base is over-rated as a statistic, I love stolen bases.  I really like to see guys swipe a bag or cover tons of ground in the outfield and Derrick Robinson is just that kind of guy.  He got under two balls in left center that I was sure were going to fall for hits and he nearly got to another but pulled back to take the safer play.  He only went 1 for 6, but on the season he is hitting .294.

Brandon Sisk came on in relief for the stuggling Blake Johnson and was electric.  He is a tall left hander who hit mid 90’s with his fastball and low 80’s with his off-speed stuff.  He struck out his first 6 batters in a row before walking a couple of guys and surrendering a couple of runs in the 9th.   I am really high on this guy as a solid bullpen arm with the potential to be a setup man or closer.

There were lots of other solid performances and guys I am hopeful about in the future like Clint Robinson, Tim Smith and Nick Van Stratten.  However, I still think these are fringe guys with holes in their games.  But don’t take my word for it, last year I said that Anthony Lerew was a non-prospect and he was the starter for the Royals this weekend.  What do I know?

Extras

The Naturals had The Famous Chicken do his thing the night we were there, which I was pretty excited about.  I remember when the Chicken was making his rounds of MajorLeague stadiums, I was a young lad then and my parents would always get us Royals tickets when The Famous Chicken was in town.  So there is a more than a little nostalgia for me when I see that orange and yellow bird clad in his powder blue top.  From about 2000-2008, I was an avid hater of mascots at baseball games.  I felt they were distracting, silly and unnecessary.  Since then, I’ve come to accept them and even enjoy them from time to time.  They don’t really bother me, and I don’t really bother them.  The kids really do like them and there are other aspects of the baseball game atmosphere which annoy me much more.  However, the Chickens routine is awesome.  It hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years, but it is still hilarious.  I went in wondering if I would still like his act, but there were moments I was laughing hysterically which rarely happens at a baseball game.  Of course since he is THE Famous Chicken, he gets to do things other mascots could only dream of, like coach 1st base during the actual game, throw water balloons at the opposing team and pretend to urinate on the umpire.  Before the game I told my wife and friends that he would be at the game and none of them knew who he was, I was more than a little shocked.  I guess the Chicken will likely slide into a mere nostalgic memory like the light bulbs on the old crown scoreboard someday.  But for one night, it was fun to be a kid again.