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The baseball men

The Arkansas Travelers have their first home game tonight.

I won’t be at Dickey-Stephens Park. I’ll be out of town, attending the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association.

But I didn’t want to let opening day in North Little Rock pass without noting the fact that Bert Parke is stepping down after three decades as the president of the Travelers. Parke, 80, announced his intentions last week during a Travelers board meeting that I attended. The Travelers made it official yesterday with a news release.

Thank you, Mr. Parke.

I serve on the board of the Travelers, but most of us don’t do much. The club actually is run by a five-person executive committee that consists of Parke, Ben Scroggin (who has been on the board even longer than Parke), Charles Logan, Frank Thomas and Russ Meeks.

Working hand in hand for many years with former Travelers general manager Bill Valentine, these men are largely responsible for keeping professional baseball in Central Arkansas.

Valentine, Parke, Scroggin, Logan, Thomas and Meeks — if you like Texas League baseball, you have these six men to thank (along with Warren Stephens and the less than 51 percent of North Little Rock voters who approved the tax needed to build Dickey-Stephens Park).

Meeks, a Little Rock attorney, has replaced Parke as only the fifth team president since the Travelers became a fan-owned entity 50 years ago. Parke will remain on the executive committee with the title of president emeritus.

“I love the Travelers and the game of baseball more than I can express,” Parke said. “I’m proud to have helped accomplish the goal of keeping professional baseball here in Central Arkansas during my tenure.”

It hasn’t been easy. As Ray Winder Field aged, professional baseball officials outside the state placed more and more pressure on the Travelers to build a new facility. At one time, I was one of the biggest advocates for simply fixing up Ray Winder, our Arkansas version of Fenway Park. Meeks, however, convinced me that there simply wasn’t enough room at Ray Winder to do all of the things the professional baseball powers that be were demanding.

Without a new ballpark, we eventually would have lost our professional affiliation. At best, the Travelers would have played in an independent league. It was that simple.

I’m still sick that the city of Little Rock made no effort whatsoever to save historic Ray Winder for amateur baseball. That says a lot about the priorities (or lack thereof) of those at City Hall. Those priorities never seem to include the youth of this community. But that’s another post for another day.

Our Travs remain in the Texas League, where they’ve been since 1966. It’s a league with a raft of new ballparks — including the beautiful Arvest Park in Springdale — that’s as strong as any league in professional baseball. The Travelers have now been an Angels affiliate since 2001, so that relationship seems solid.

Here’s what we have in Central Arkansas:

1. One of the finest minor league ballparks in the country in Dickey-Stephens Park and a quality, full-service restaurant, Ump’s, that’s actually located in the stadium.

2. A talented new team president in Meeks, who served 16 years as vice president and has donated literally thousands of hours of legal work to the club through the decades just because he loves baseball.

3. The great mind of Frank Thomas, who not only works for Warren Stephens at Stephens Inc. but also serves as the chairman of the River Cities Sports Commission.

4. Oldtimers such as Parke, Scroggin and Logan still around to offer sage advice.

5. One of the best young general managers in baseball in Pete Laven.

6. One of the best baseball play-by-play men in Phil Elson and a strong radio home at KARN-AM, 920.

7. Perhaps most important, the fact that the Travelers are the Green Bay Packers of minor league baseball. In other words, the club is owned by the fans. That prevents some millionaire owner from courting other cities and moving the club. Had the club been owned by an individual, I frankly think we would have lost it long ago.

Games tonight and Friday begin at 7:10 p.m. Saturday’s game begins at 6 p.m. Sunday’s game begins at 4 p.m. I plan to be there Sunday.

If you run into one of “the baseball men,” tell them thanks for keeping professional baseball alive in Central Arkansas.

Meanwhile, please let me know:

1. Your favorite minor league ballparks and why.

2. Your favorite major league ballparks and why.

Thanks goodness it’s April. Thank goodness it’s baseball season.

Play ball.

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