Three months before I moved to Columbia, I was finishing up my senior year of college and had a full-time job offer at the company I had been interning at for the past couple years in downtown Cleveland. At the time I was ready to be done with college, to be sure, but I was also perfectly happy to stay in Cleveland. Most of my college friends were staying around the area after graduation, and I was looking forward to moving to one of the up-and-coming neighborhoods near downtown. One of the apartments I toured would have been a five minute walk to work, and by extension, a six minute walk to Progressive Field, because my building was right next door to the ballpark. I figured during the summer I'd be going to at least a couple games a week after work after finding a quick dinner from one of the nearby restaurants, all without ever having to start my car.
It was a pretty good plan. But as it often does, reality intervened, this time in the form of a global economic crisis and my job in Cleveland was no longer available. Fortunately I didn't have to look around long before I found LoudDoor, in Columbia, SC, and in June 2009 – how in the world has it been that long? – I moved down here. It's been apparent to me in all but my very lowest times in Columbia that this is where I'm supposed to be, and for the most part it's been enjoyable as well. But it's hard being an Indians fan down here. It goes without saying that the Indians aren't on local TV here, nor have the Indians got much national attention in the last seven years. To make matters worse: not only are most people in the area Braves fans, there's not a major league team within 200 miles of Columbia, so it's not like I can just catch the Tribe on a road trip. Even more unfortunately, Columbia's only baseball team (albeit a very successful one) is the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, and their season, in a best-case scenario, is over by July.
But last Thursday night, the Columbia Fireflies, a single-A affiliate of the Mets, made their debut in Columbia at a brand new and beautiful stadium. It was a great night for the Fireflies (they won), a great night for the fans, and a great night for the city. For the first time since I moved here, I felt like I was at a real baseball game, and had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't traveling, that I was just 15 minutes from my home. And the best part is, it was just one of 70 similar nights coming up this season, and for the next 29 seasons after this.
This is the first time I've ever been to any stadium for the inaugural game, and I arrived plenty early to make sure I didn't miss anything. Getting to the stadium from my office in Five Points was easy, and while there was a bit of a delay in parking, I was early enough that I missed the brunt of the crowds. Like many of the annoyances on Opening Night, I'm sure this situation will improve once both the personnel and the city settle into a routine. Parking, by the way, is $3, and includes a free trolley ride right up to the front gate of the park, but I imagine most people won't even need it as it's not a long walk.
I had the opportunity to visit the park a couple weeks before to check things out, and while the field was close to done, the rest of the park was an active construction zone. There was still evidence of that construction sixteen days later on Opening Night, but overall I was impressed with how much it had been cleaned up. Getting into the stadium was also a little slow, but this was a direct result of it being both the first night as well as the biggest attendance night the stadium will see all year.
I got into the park about an hour and twenty minutes before first pitch, so I had plenty of time to walk around and explore before the game started. Like most modern stadiums, there are no bad seats in the house. But Spirit Communications Park takes that one step further: there's really nowhere you can stand in the stadium that doesn't have a clean sightline to the field. This meant that while the concourses were a little crowded with people waiting on concessions, it didn't feel nearly as crowded as it should have because having the field in view at all times really helped to make the concourses feel more open.
Seats around the infield and down the baselines are mostly conventional fold down seats, with the exception of some table seating along the tops of the sections as well as clustered together near the outfield corners. The outfield features a few conventional seats but is made up mostly of two large sections of general admission lawn seating, a staple of minor league parks. The lawn seating is well thought out: one section is a simple grassy hill while the other is a series of steps with lawn on the surfaces, allowing fans who don't wish to sit on an incline a way to still enjoy the lawn seating. The outfield also features a kids area as well as a big bar and standing rail that reminds me a lot of The Corner Bar at Progressive Field. The bar was really crowded on Opening Night but lesser crowds will make that area more enjoyable.
After doing a complete lap of the park (which is apparently about one third of a mile; Spirit Communications Park is a public park and the concourse will be open 365 days per year for walking and running), I found a concession stand without a line and ordered two normal hot dogs. The concession workers definitely had some first night jitters, but I'm sure this will improve over time as well. The hot dogs were nothing special but reasonably priced, which sort of sums up the rest of the concessions as well. I'd like to see the Fireflies replace some of the cookie-cutter concession stands with more of a local flavor, sort of like the Indians are doing, but I can see why they're starting simple for now.
You can't ask for a much better view for $10 than the one I got from my seats:
The seats were so close I was able to easily see the laces spin on the pitchers’ breaking balls, hear the difference in the crack of the bat between a softly hit and a well-struck ball. Additionally, it wasn't a factor on Thursday but the sun sets directly behind the first base line, meaning my seats would have been among the first to get shade and relief from a sweltering Columbia day.
The night was a success all around, with the Fireflies jumping out to an early lead and never relinquishing it, winning 4-1. Even the fireworks after the game got good reviews. As I walked out of the stadium that night I again had to remind myself that this stadium is in Columbia, that I finally live near professional baseball again. While the first night of minor league baseball being back in Columbia wasn't perfect, it was a darn good start, and my only complaints were issues that I'm sure will get better. I'm looking forward to my next visit to Spirit Communications Park, and hope it'll just be the second of many.