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BATTER UP: Beginning in 2021, U.S. Baseball Park will host the Missouri State High School Activities Association State Baseball Championships for five years.
SBJ file photo
BATTER UP: Beginning in 2021, U.S. Baseball Park will host the Missouri State High School Activities Association State Baseball Championships for five years.

Region becoming hub for youth baseball

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Mark Stratton was in an excitable mood June 10 watching a construction crew pour the foundation of what will soon be a 23,000-square-foot indoor training facility at U.S. Baseball Park in Ozark.

The $1.5 million expansion project for U.S. Baseball League LLC started in mid-April by general contractor Rich Kramer Construction Inc. However, weather delays make Stratton, U.S. Baseball League’s general manager, skeptical it will be ready by early July as originally hoped.

“I bet we lost 30 days to weather,” he said, adding Aug. 1 is a more likely completion date.

The U.S. Baseball Indoor Training Facility at the park, 4400 N. 19th St., will feature a full-size infield for teams to practice year-round, Stratton said. Plans call for 14 retractable batting cages with portable mounds; analytics technology, such as trajectory and velocity management systems Rapsodo and HitTrax; a weight room; and retail area for baseball products.

“The expansion is going to make us a year-round venture where kids can work on their game. I think it’s going to allow for a lot more opportunity for unique things,” he said, citing indoor hitting leagues.

Championship deals
The training facility is not the only new addition coming to Ozark’s U.S. Baseball. The organization struck a five-year agreement in January to host the Missouri State High School Activities Association State Baseball Championships. Stratton declined to disclose terms of the deal, which is set to run 2021-25.

Jason West, the association’s communications director, said the U.S. Baseball proposal beat out three others: Joplin, St. Joseph and the River City Rascals, an O’Fallon-based baseball team with the Independent Frontier League. The state baseball tournament is currently held through 2020 at CarShield Field, the home of the Rascals.

“The Springfield area and having the championships we have in there certainly helped,” West said, adding Missouri high school championships regularly held in town include tennis, golf, softball and basketball.

West said the organization takes numerous items under consideration when selecting a tournament site, including the venue and its amenities to fans and teams, as well as hotel options and costs, and potential activities and attractions. He said financial incentives are not something the organization considers beyond what is contained in the proposal.

“Our expectation is when people turn in their proposals, they’re putting their best foot forward,” he said, noting sometimes applicants want to add to their proposals after hearing what competitors offered. “It’s not a negotiation.”

After proposals are received, association representatives spend months closely reviewing them, including site visits. Staff then makes a recommendation to its board for the determining vote.

The upcoming state baseball championship tournament is in addition to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Softball World Series, which last month completed its first of two scheduled appearances in Springfield.

The Springfield Sports Commission played a role in bringing both championship tourneys to the Ozarks.

Lance Kettering, executive director of the commission and sports sales manager for the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the state high school association issued a request for proposals last year. The commission worked with the U.S. Baseball League on the nearly 50-page document with association members conducting multiple site visits to Ozark and Springfield before its board ultimately voted to approve bringing the high school event to Ozark, starting in 2021.

“We’re very excited to land that event in the greater Springfield area,” Kettering said.

He said the state association likely was influenced by the quality of U.S. Baseball Park, which is an all-turf facility with a video board and more than 4,000 seats. Park owners Jeff Williams and his sister, Wendi Taylor, invested $2.5 million to renovate the long-vacant Price Cutter Park baseball stadium, which reopened as U.S. Baseball Park in mid-2016, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.

“I’m going to predict once we get it here, it’ll never leave,” Stratton said of the high school baseball championships.

Softball, too
Springfield is the newest host for the NAIA softball tournament, which was held May 24-30, at the Killian Sports Complex. The event, making its first appearance in the Queen City, will return May 22-28, 2020.

Approximately 1,000 room nights were filled in connection with the 12-team tournament, Kettering said. Noting the commission is still in post-event mode and analyzing numbers for the tournament, he said it will probably break even or be slightly profitable for the city. The event cost around $60,000 to put on this year.

“With NAIA, the host entity is responsible for all expenses and all revenues,” Kettering said of the two-year deal. “You take all the risks, essentially.”

Attendance during the six-day tournament was roughly 3,700. Kettering said NAIA officials told him to expect about 2,000-plus.

Kettering said local officials are still evaluating the event to determine if the city wants to bid for it beyond 2020. Bids are due Nov. 1 for the next cycle.

Springfield CVB President and CEO Tracy Kimberlin said the goal with any championship event is to facilitate a long-term relationship.

“It’s always important to host events like that to prove you can host events like that,” he said. “We’re here to generate economic activity for overnight travel and those tournaments do a lot of that.”

Kimberlin said the CVB calculates visiting groups spend on average $100-$150 per person per day, with sporting events typically on the low end. That equates to an economic impact of at least $600,000 based on 1,000 room nights for the NAIA softball tourney.

Building for the future
At U.S. Baseball Park, attendance figures for 2018 were at a little over 100,000. Stratton said he’s expecting close to 125,000 this year, as long as weather cooperates.

“We have a lot of things going on and the new building is just going to add to that,” he said.

Part of the growth is attributable to the addition of weekly high school baseball games during the 2019 season, Stratton said. Attendance ranged between 200 and 400 per game, he added.

Fast-pitch high school softball also will be part of the mix at the ballpark as early as next spring, Stratton said.

As bookings on the Ozark ballpark’s calendar continue to multiply each year, growing to 267 in 2019 from 180 in 2018 – a 48% increase – Stratton said he’s bullish on the future of the ballpark that sat vacant for nearly a decade.

“Things are happening out here, and I think it’s doable and sustainable,” he said. “We want to be the hub for amateur baseball.”

Web Editor Geoff Pickle contributed.

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