As someone old enough to remember life in Springfield prior to the Springfield Cardinals, I can testify that sports pickings on summer nights were slim to none.
That changed when Hammons Field opened in the spring of 2004 as the cornerstone of Jordan Valley Park and the St. Louis Cardinals moved their Double-A team here the next year.
More than the physical landscape changed. So did the sports psyche of Springfield.
What exactly did sports fans do on summer nights before the Springfield Cardinals? Honestly, not much to get excited about.
John Short has attended Springfield Cardinals games since the beginning. He’s painted signs at the stadium since 2008. Short said there were sporting hobbies, but they were in the woods or the streams.
“Fishing and hunting,” Short said of his summer sports entertainment pre-2005.
There was golf, tennis and softball. Also participant sports. If you wanted to watch professional sports, it took drives to St. Louis or Kansas City to see the Cardinals or Royals.
Thankfully, we are not climbing into a sports-drought time machine. This after Wednesday’s announcement that the city of Springfield has reached an agreement — pending City Council approval — to buy Hammons Field and keep the Double-A Cardinals here through at least 2038.
Since John Q. Hammons died in May of 2013, there had been some doubt as the fate of the ballpark slogged through bankruptcy courts. Could we really lose our summertime crown jewel sports attraction?
Getting the Double-A Cardinals here in the first place was one of the greatest events in the sports history of the city. Losing the team would have been the worst.
Thankfully, those worries are erased. Bring on another season of Springfield Cardinals this April, then many more.
“It’s a valid link,” Short said of the lure of watching young Cardinals develop their craft on the road to the big leagues. “We’ve seen a lot of guys jump from here to St. Louis.”
Some six million fans have attended Springfield Cardinals games over the last 18 years, not including tens of thousands Missouri State fans during the collegiate season. Missouri State’s lease at the ballpark, previously negotiated through 2030, remains unchanged.
Dan Reiter, general manager of the Springfield Cardinals, grew up in Springfield. He graduated from Catholic High School, prior to the Cardinals arriving in 2005.
“I wish the Springfield Cardinals had been around when I was in high school,” Reiter said during Wednesday’s announcement. He became emotional when describing the team’s fit into the fabric of the community.
Reiter talked about his sons Andy, 7, and Tyson, 4. He said the duo has grown up at Hammons Field. They’ve never known life without a hometown team.
“Tyson’s in preschool. He’s going to be in the Class of 2037,” Reiter said. “This lease extension is going to mean that both Tyson and Andy and other kids their age will grow up with Hammons Field being the stadium of their childhood.
“That makes me emotional. I think that’s what baseball is supposed to do. It connects us and is supposed to make us feel.”
Fans of all ages have made memories at the ballpark over the last 18 years, watching future St. Louis Cardinals stars like Matt Carpenter, Tommy Edman and Brendan Donovan bash the baseball or Michael Wacha, Jason Motte or Lance Lynn make batters miss it.
We’ve seen future Hall of Famers like Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright here on injury rehab. All-stars from opposing teams such as Mike Trout have impressed here. Current Cardinals’ star Nolan Arenado was an opposing Double-A standout in the Colorado Rockies organization.
We saw Jordan Walker, perhaps the best Cardinals’ prospect in a decade, mash at Hammons Field last summer. Walker could be a big-time star in the big leagues. Time will tell.
Fittingly, the first Springfield Cardinal to graduate to the St. Louis Cardinals was on hand Wednesday. Josh Kinney was a relief pitcher for the inaugural Springfield Cardinals and later played a key role as a relief pitcher for the 2006 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Upon retirement from baseball in 2012, Kinney’s life was so impacted from his time in Springfield that he made his home near here, as he and wife Jorni are raising a family on a farm in Ash Grove. Kinney called himself a proud Springfield Cardinals alum.
He’s equally proud that the Springfield Cardinals also are settled here.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be on the players’ side of things and without the fans, none of this takes place,” Kinney said. “I have young kids myself and baseball is special. Being part of the Springfield Cardinals in 2005, there was so much anticipation about things starting up here, I had no idea what I was getting myself into coming to Hammons Field.
“From the time we got off the plane as players and showed up at the clubhouse and saw this facility and … it was way more than we expected. The very first game, seeing all the fans and how this community rallied together to support the Springfield Cardinals, in the first two games against the St. Louis Cardinals, it was beautiful.
“It’s forever going to be a memory that I’ll always have.”
Many more memories await on summer nights in downtown Springfield.