Rick Fires is a reporter and columnist for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Chillin’ and grillin’ with Arkansas baseball fans
University of Arkansas baseball fans visit Friday, June 4, 2021, while lining up along Razorback Road hours before the gates open to see the Razorbacks’ game with New Jersey Institute of Technology in the first round of the Fayetteville Regional at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.
His cap tells his story and he was eager to share it hours before the start of the Fayetteville Regional of the NCAA Tournament.
“I’ve been to five College World Series with the Razorbacks,” Harold Byrd said while pointing to tiny souvenirs pinned to a worn and faded red Arkansas baseball cap. “I’ve been going to games for years, back when George Cole, Bill Ferrell and those guys were Arkansas coaches.”
If there’s anyone who can claim the Razorbacks as his hometown team it is Byrd, 87, who grew up just south of the railroad tracks near Baum-Walker Stadium.
“There were only four farmhouses here at the time,” Byrd said. “The railroad tracks are the only thing left from those days.”
Byrd, who travels with his mixed-breed dog “Lucky,” was among the Arkansas fans who waited eagerly Friday morning for the start of the NCAA Tournament, where the Razorbacks are the No. 1 seed. Just yards from where Byrd visited with a parking lot attendant, Phillip Lawrence of Plainview and Kevin Milligan of Rover relaxed in folding chairs before firing up the grill, where hamburgers, brats and deer meat topped the menu.
“It’s never too early to tailgate,” Lawrence said at 9 a.m. Friday, five hours before the start of Arkansas’ game with New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Full Stop: Is there anything that reflects sports in Arkansas better than two guys eating deer meat off the grill hours before a game?
The answer is no and it’s not up for debate.
Lawrence and Milligan likely experienced some indigestion when Arkansas fell behind and struggled to beat NJIT on Friday. But Arkansas rallied for a 13-8 victory before facing Nebraska in a late game Saturday night.
Hunter Sweat of Prairie Grove hadn’t been to a baseball game at Baum-Walker Stadium all season, mostly because of a heavy workload during the spring. But Sweat and his son camped overnight in a tent to get into the Hog Pen, where a long line snaked around the stadium hours before the first pitch of the tournament.
“As long as I can remember I’ve been a fan. It’s kind of a family tradition with us,” Sweat said as he stood near the tent where his 9-year-old son, Cash, was still slumbering early Friday morning. “I mentioned as a joke to my boy about coming out here and he ran with the idea, and talked me into it. I wanted him to experience this so he can kind of get into it as a fan.”
Arkansas slammed five home runs in the win over NJIT Friday, which undoubtedly pleased Cash and the 11,000 Hog fans who watched the high-scoring game.
Razorbacks baseball attracts fans from all over the state, including U of A student Michael McAfee, 24, who is originally from Wilson, a Delta town near the Mississippi River. No one had to convince McAfee to push aside his school work and spend long hours waiting to get into the Hog Pen, where it’s first come, first serve.
“This is baseball, Arkansas baseball,” McAfee said. “I mean, where else in the country would you want to be right now?”
For hundreds of thousands of Arkansas baseball fans, Baum-Walker Stadium is always the answer and the Razorbacks will host a best-of-three Super Regional if they win the Fayetteville Regional. But the ultimate destination is TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., site of the College World Series. Coach Dave Van Horn has led six Arkansas teams to Omaha beginning in 2004 and continuing in 2018 when the Razorbacks came within one out of winning it all.
So, is this the year one of the nation’s top programs finally breaks through to capture its first national championship in college baseball? Byrd and his traveling companion “Lucky” are eager to find out.
“If they make it to Omaha again, I’ll be there,” said Byrd, who has BIRDMAN printed on the back of his baseball cap. “I’m getting my motor home fixed right now.”
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