A lot of old stadiums were replaced by glistening ballparks in the first decade of the 21st century and the townsfolk of Sevierville and the team formerly based in Knoxville were the beneficiary of one such ballpark, the estimable Smokies Park.
Built about 20 miles southeast of Tennessee's third-largest city, the ballpark is named for the team that plays in it, which in turn is named for the Great Smoky Mountains that reach for the sky nearby.
The mountain range is near enough that the ballpark serves a double life, as it's also home to the Smoky Mountain Visitor Center. Visitors to Smokies Park can't help but notice the welcome center for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which fronts the ballpark and is open daily from 9 to 5.
Two entrances, each denoted by two-story high marquee signs, lead to the ballpark that is a distance from the Interstate befitting of a welcome center.
Fans that arrive at Smokies Park via the main, blossom tree-lined entrance are greeted at the road's apex by a man-made mountain scene that rises in front of the visitor's center, which contributes to the lodge-like look of the stadium's exterior.
Three flag poles are erected behind the waterfall portion of the nature scene. Depending on the day, a white flag with a blue W may fly alongside the prerequisite state and American flags. Since 2007 the Smokies have been a Cubs affiliate and the "win" flag is one of many traditions that make Chicago's "Friendly Confines" the baseball shrine that it is. Just like at Wrigley Field the Smokies copycat version flaps following victories by the home team.
As for the Smokies' home, there's a lot to like about the quaint place that can hold more than its official capacity of 6,000 thanks to a copious amount of standing room.
For starters, the exterior of Smokies Park features a beautiful mix of brick and hand-laid stone. Collectively, 115,000 bricks and stones were used. Pine tree green-colored pitched roofs top the stadium. At street level stands a mini general store-style shed that serves as will call. The regular box office is just to the left of the shed and contains five windows from which game day tickets are sold.
Two tall brick walled entrances are on either side of home plate. Most enter through the third base side gates, where the ballpark's dedication plaques are affixed upon brick and a few windows offer a sneak peak into the Smokies' expansive and well-stocked "Clubhouse Shop."
Fans can roam the ballpark with ease, thanks to a wide and uninterrupted concourse that completely encircles the playing field. The concourse is covered between the dugouts.
Just like the playing field, the grandstand is symmetrical and it extends well down the outfield lines, where stadium-style seats give way to bleachers with backs. All chair back seats contain cup holders and are painted dark green.
Diamond shaped markers on the concourse denote section numbers. No section contains more than 19 rows, so all fans are close to the field. Sizable platforms atop a handful of sections allow handicapped fans and their companions a covered perch from which to enjoy the game. A single seat atop section 110 is set aside as a memorial to all unaccounted for American soldiers. The permanently unoccupied seat was dedicated on Memorial Day in 2008.
No matter where fans sit within the grandstand, a hillside serves as the backdrop. Small shrubs and trees cover the green hill that is an appropriate background given the ballpark's geographic location.
A steeply sloped berm extends the full length of the outfield and a Hampton Inn sits upon the bluff above the left field corner. Freeloaders can see the field quite well from the hotel's elevated property.
For those within the confines of Smokies Park, 18 suites satisfy the desires of all who wish to watch the game from "up above." Each 300-square-foot suite holds 20 people and has a balcony with a dozen stadium-style seats. Suite dimensions are 20' deep by 13' wide.
Party porches bookend the suites. Named Magnolia (first base) and Pine Tree (third base), each porch measures 33' deep by 28' wide (about 900 square feet) and has stadium seating for 26 people with 11 elevated patio chairs placed directly behind the two rows of regular seats. The porches are open-air but covered by the stadium's roof.
The suite level is nice but not extravagant. The carpeted hallway that services it is adorned with framed jerseys of the Smokies' major league affiliates, beginning with their 1957-58 Orioles association. Back then, the Smokies franchise played in Knoxville's Bill Meyer Stadium, which was built in 1953 and torn down fifty years later.
Meyer Stadium's grandstand was filled with blue wooden seats. A set of four were spared and moved to Smokies Park, where they are bolted into the concourse behind the right field foul pole. No marker explains why the seats are there or where they are from, but the tribute is a novel one that more new parks should employ to remember the stadiums that served previous generations of fans.
The youngest generation of fans attending a game at Smokies Park have a dedicated place to distract them, courtesy of a playground that's filled with inflatables and games in the right field corner. The pay-to-play area was designed for children aged 5 to 12-years old.
Both outfield corners contain covered picnic tables. Each picnic area is on the concourse behind the portion of the berm that wraps around the foul poles. They can be reserved by groups of 20+ for a pre-game picnic catered by the Smokies.
In home run territory near the left field pole is a wooden party deck. The deck can hold groups of 60 and the cost of rental includes all-you-can-eat ballpark fare.
Smokies Park has a large, enclosed restaurant on its premises. Called the Double Play Cafe, it's open only on game days and offers its patrons a decent selection of hot sandwiches and appetizers. Located down the left field line, the Cafe's dining area is filled with tables and booths, a half-dozen of which overlook the playing field from behind glass windows.
At the back of the restaurant is a wood-paneled bar. TVs there, and throughout the concourse, show a live stadium-provided feed of the game, so fans need not miss a pitch unless using the bathrooms, within which the Smokies' radio broadcast makes up for the lack of visual display.
A large high-definition video board excels at keeping fans informed and entertained from behind the berm in left field, where the main scoreboard is stationed. The 36' wide by 17' high HD-X LED video display was installed in 2008 and displays crisp player pictures and real-time stats. Beneath it is a 36' x 9' line score. Smaller electronic scoreboards are attached to the facades of both suite-level porches. Their placement ensures that fans in the berm are able to keep track of the action on the field, an extra mile effort not replicated in most ballparks the size of Tennessee's.
Continuing in their quest to keeps fans informed, Smokies Park management has installed a display that gives mile-per-hour readings of each pitch. The display is only big enough to show the two-digit mph readout and is elevated ever so slightly above the left-center field wall that it's attached to.
Additionally, an alternating time/temperature display is embedded upon a platform in left field that juts outward from the berm's concourse. A similar platform can be found in right field. The railings of both are covered with ads, as is the entire outfield wall, which is uniformly 8' tall all the way around.
Bullpens for each team are found in foul territory where the grandstand comes to an end. They are accessible to fans sitting in the front row of the furthermost sections (101 and 118) of bleachers, where conversations can be struck with the players stationed there. The Smokies' bullpen and dugout is on the first base side of their ballpark.
The dugout area is a little unusual in that the tunnels that connect them to the clubhouses have exposed concrete roofs that reach back a few rows into the grandstand, where seats were never installed due to the elevated height of the tunnels' roofs.
An aisle that leads to the Smokies' dugout was designated as "Sandberg Alley" on August 15, 2009. Cubs legend Ryne Sandberg managed the Smokies in 2009 and fans would stand in line between sections 106 and 107 to get the Hall of Famer's autograph. Sandberg's pre-game signing became such a popular tradition that the team dedicated the aisle where fans patiently waited in his honor. A street sign bearing the name Sandberg Alley remains in place at the top of the aisle even though Sandberg no longer skippers the Smokies.
The region that Sandberg briefly managed in is often cited for the friendliness of its folks and the Smokies' Southern League ballpark is equally notable for its fan friendly features. But Smokies Park essentially follows a recipe that design-build teams and towns have been collaborating on for some time, so the end result in Sevier County can't be considered groundbreaking. Regardless, it embodies all that is right with the modern crop of ballparks and cities breaking ground on new parks in the future would do well to follow the Smokies Park blueprint.
Location and Parking
Smokies Park is easy to find. The Smokies' tout the ballpark's location as I-40 at Exit 407 and that's about all you need to know. To be a little more specific though, you do want to head north upon exiting onto Hwy. 66. Then the ballpark is just a half-mile away and is most easily accessible from East Dumplin Valley Road, which is the first right turn you'll come upon. A couple hundred yards later a road on the left called Line Drive appears between a McDonald's and Cracker Barrel. Following that left turn the ballpark is not much more than a line drive away.
Parking is plentiful as a paved lot surrounds much of the ballpark's perimeter. As such, the walk from vehicle to ballpark is measured in seconds, not minutes. The cost to park a car is a reasonable $3 but buses and passenger vans get a better deal. They park for free. If needed, an unpaved overflow lot is one tier down from the main parking lot. It's found on the first base side of the park and is filled with gravel.