The sun set for good at Drillers Stadium in 2009, making it the 56th major or minor league ballpark to be abandoned during the decade.
The aging blue structure at the corner of 15th and Yale concluded its run as the home of the Tulsa Drillers on September 7, 2009.
Drillers Stadium, opened on April 16, 1981 and host to 2,002 Texas League games from that point going forward, appropriately enough labored for the final time on Labor Day.
The reason was simple. It was time for the stadium to retire.
“Drillers Stadium just got to the point where many of the modern day fan amenities and player facilities were simply absent,” said Drillers General Manager Mike Melega.
And, of course, he’s right.
The buzz word in ballpark design these days is amenities, which Merriam-Webster defines as "something that conduces to comfort, convenience, or enjoyment."
That word wasn't part of the popular lexicon when the Drillers' stadium came into being. The unofficial mantra back then was utilitarian, defined as "having regard to utility or usefulness rather than beauty." That is an apt description of Drillers Stadium.
Fans nowadays prefer their ballpark to be filled with plastic molded chairs and lawn seating, not the metal seat backs and bleachers that were a Drillers Stadium staple. Furthermore, an open concourse and diversions aplenty are now considered necessities. The former was lacking in Tulsa, where a small amount of diversions were on the concourse behind the third base grandstand.
As for the players, well let’s just say their wants and needs have changed substantially in three decades and they could be better met in a place that’s not 28-years old.
The stadium’s location five miles from downtown Tulsa in the County Fairgrounds wasn’t exactly appealing either and rather than restaurants, bars and hotels, the surrounding area had sprouted a Walgreens and Lowe’s, which made up the backdrop in left and right field respectively.
So, like so many ballparks in so many cities over the past two decades, Drillers Stadium will be replaced with something newer, better and more attractively located, when ONEOK Field opens in downtown Tulsa on April 8, 2010.
Yes, the Drillers followed that trend too, cashing in on the naming rights bonanza by accepting $5 million from ONEOK, a Tulsa-based natural gas distributor that helped to defray the $39.2 million cost of their hometown ballpark by attaching their name to it in a 20-year deal.
|2009 Texas League Ballparks
Dr Pepper Ballpark
Nelson Wolff Stadium
N. Little Rock, AR
Corpus Christi, TX
San Antonio, TX
In another sign of the times, Drillers Stadium was the oldest in the Texas League – by 13 years – when it closed and ONEOK (pronounced one oak) Field will be the seventh ballpark in the eight team league to open in an eight-year span. The exception is in San Antonio, where Wolff Stadium was built “all the way back” in 1994, making it the granddaddy of ballparks in the San Antonio-based Double-A league.
While fans in the Texas League have it good at their new homes, those in the South Atlantic League have it one new ballpark better, as the opening of Bowling Green Ballpark in 2009 gave the Sally League eight ballparks built in the first decade of the 21st century, tops among all affiliated minor leagues, which combined to open 49 new ballparks between 2000 and 2009.
Add in the dozen ballparks opened in the Majors during that span and 61 of the 189 ballparks used during the 2009 season were less than a decade old. That translates into a staggering 32.3% rate.
Given that math, it’s no surprise then that Drillers Stadium would be considered antiquated following 29 seasons. After all, only 43 ballparks (22.8%) were older in 2009 and one of those, Ernie Shore Field in Winston-Salem, NC, is scheduled to be replaced in 2010 by a new park.
Because of this continuing quest to replace old with new, 56 major or affiliated minor league ballparks were abandoned during the 2000s.
On the major league level, such classics as Tiger Stadium and Yankee Stadium were replaced during the decade, but so too were the unloved concrete doughnuts in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and St. Louis, not to mention the eighth wonder of the world in Houston, where the Astrodome still stands mostly unused a decade after the Astros departed.
But the Astrodome is an exception to the norm at that level, as most big league ballparks are leveled shortly after they become former big league ballparks. Such was the fate of Three Rivers, Riverfront, Veterans and Busch Stadiums.
Even Tiger Stadium eventually succumbed to demolition. After attempts by the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy to save or preserve it failed, the last pieces of the famed stadium were hacked down on September 21, 2009. After 97 years, The Corner in Detroit is now barren of its ball field.
Does Drillers Stadium have a future in the post-Drillers era or will it also be destroyed?
Designed like the ballparks of yesteryear, Drillers Stadium now has a status to match after hosting its final Drillers game on September 7, 2009. It's now on the Abandoned Ballparks List.
“That is probably the most popular question that our front office has been asked over the last few months,” Mike Melega, the Tulsa GM, said a week after it closed and the week before the team held a garage sale to rid themselves of such items as stadium picnic tables, folding chairs, televisions and signage.
Melege couldn’t give an exact answer because nobody knows for sure. Minor league ballparks are less likely to be bulldozed if for no other reason than cost and lack of redevelopment prospects.
That explains why Rickwood Field in Birmingham still stands. If the city had the funds they would’ve tore it down shortly after the Barons moved to the suburbs in 1988. Lovingly restored and retrofitted by the Friends of Rickwood, it’s now rightfully recognized as one of the sport’s treasures and will celebrate its 100th birthday the same year that ONEOK Field celebrates its first.
But few of the ballparks replaced on the minor league level had the historical significance of a Rickwood Field and none of them had anything approaching Rickwood’s lifespan.
A typical example is Ned Skeldon Stadium, which for 37 seasons served as the home of the Toledo Mud Hens. The Mud Hens left “The Ned” in 2002 and moved to….Toledo, where one of the best ballparks in the minors, Fifth Third Field, was built in downtown.
Ned Skeldon Stadium still stands eight miles away in the Lucas County Fairgrounds in suburban Maumee, but eight years after the Mud Hens left portions of the stadium’s interior, much of it made of wood, are showing serious signs of decay, not from neglect but a lack of money for upkeep.
Since 2006, Ned Skeldon Stadium has been host to games in the Mid-American Masters Baseball League, a 48 & up men's adult league affiliated with Roy Hobbs Baseball. But those games don’t generate revenue like that which fans of all ages spend to watch the paid-to-play perform. The stadium, while not an afterthought, certainly isn’t the focal point of the fairgrounds in Maumee like it once was.
In Oklahoma City, All Sports Stadium was still standing in the Oklahoma State Fair Park at the turn of the century even though the 89ers did what the Drillers are doing and moved into a new downtown ballpark in 1997. The 89ers’ old home finally, and quietly, met its demise circa 2005 and nary a trace of it remains today
A hundred miles to the east it was hoped that the University of Tulsa would revive its defunct baseball program given the availability of Drillers Stadium, but the school decided against the opportunity citing the cost required to restart the program.
That may mean Drillers Stadium will go the way of All Sports Stadium sooner rather than later. One idea that has gained popularity is to replace it with a hotel complex to serve the 3.5 million people who annually visit Tulsa’s Fairgrounds, a million of whom make the 11-day Tulsa State Fair one of the world’s largest. Looking for suggestions, the County asked Tulsans their opinion via a ten question online survey with “the development of a hotel complex” listed as Choice A in their question about future use.
Unlike some former recent Texas League ballparks, Drillers Stadium won’t land another pro team since it is being replaced, not abandoned. If that were the case, an independent team would move in, which is what happened in El Paso, Shreveport and Wichita.
Instead, the first stadium in Texas League history to draw over 300,000 fans in ten straight seasons will never add to the total of 7,666,990 fans, which was the final count after 6,153 people watched the Drillers put up some big numbers in their finale, when they whipped the Northwest Arkansas Naturals 18-4.
Fifteen minutes after the last pitch the lights to Drillers Stadium were ceremonially turned off for the final time and at 9:17 p.m. on September 7th the stadium went dark, most likely for good.
"I know it's like saying goodbye to a comfortable old friend but believe me we're going to have a great new place downtown," Drillers principal owner Chuck Lamson said just before the lights went out.
The same words could’ve been spoken in a number of cities over the past decade. In 2009, it just happened to be Tulsa’s turn and as a result Drillers Stadium can be added to the list of comfortable old friends left behind.
Of the 45 ballparks abandoned by affiliated minor league teams in the 2000s, only 7 were demolished during the decade. Drillers Stadium, shown here at dusk during its next-to-last game, faces an uncertain future, although demolition is a definite possibility.