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Official Review by Scott Montesano, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Minnesota may be the State of Hockey, but the sport of baseball is arguably better funded and supported in general across the state. That argument gains no better validation than traveling through the state’s smaller communities as towns and villages in Minnesota house countless hidden gems of ballparks that are excellently maintained. Willmar’s Bill Taunton Stadium, home of the Northwoods League’s Willmar Stingers is just one example.
Amateur town ball teams have played in Willmar for years and a decade ago the relatively small city (population 20,000) decided to invest in building a grandstand structure and erecting a miniature stadium. The effort attracted the interest of the Northwoods League and after hosting exhibitions for a few seasons, the town entered the league full-time in 2010 with the Stingers.
The community has rallied behind the Stingers, filling the ballpark’s 1,500-seat capacity routinely while showing genuine pride for the ballpark and stadium around town. Aesthetically, Bill Taunton Stadium is nothing more than one of those metal “ballparks in a box” that one can find dotted across the country. The ballpark is a non-descript metal grandstand that hugs home plate, in which fans enter from either side and either walk down a few rows to individual plastic seats, or up a few rows to bleacher seats with backs. A grandstand covers all but the first couple rows and a functional press box is located along the last row.
It’s a set-up nearly identical to places such as La Crosse, WI’s Copeland Park or even Robert Morris University in Bensenville, IL (though Stingers management has dressed up its home office). Along the third base side, stretching from above the dugout down about 200 feet, is a bar rail area where fans can mingle and lean up and watch the game while placing their food and beverage on a ledge. Atop the first base dugout is another elevated area for private parties.
A simple concession stand is down the third base line, while a converted wood shed serves as a team apparel store under the metal grandstand. There is also a grassy area behind home that is popular for kids to run off energy during the game.
The entire stadium is nestled into a small footprint and though the Stingers’ crowds hover around the 900-1,200 range the place feels packed and energized. It’s the perfect size for the community.
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Standard ballpark fare rules at Bill Taunton Stadium with small town prices to boost. Hot dogs, burgers, brats, nachos will all run under $5 while beverages are just as inexpensive. The whole place has a small town feel to it, which just makes the food taste better, even though it is no better quality than anywhere else.
As the years have gone on, the populace of Willmar has connected with the Stingers more and more, and subsequently they have more passion for the team. The small crowds don't feel that small when jammed into the park's tiny configuration and the metal stands and roof add to the noise level. This is a town that appreciates what it has and is into the games.
The Stingers organization does a good job of between inning promotions, music and the occasional giveaway night such as Replica Jersey Night which occurred during my most recent visit.
This is small town baseball with an infusion of big city minor league baseball marketing, and the combination is excellent.
Willmar is a town that is an hour off the beaten path (south of I-94 and not near any other major highway) and the park itself is outside the city's business district. There is nothing but green space that, while attractive to look at, doesn't add much to the surroundings.
On paper, a town of 20,000 not located on a major highway nor near any other towns has no business hosting a team, even in the Northwoods League, but Willmar has succeeded. The team routinely fills its ballpark and takes the support into the community with team sponsors having their staff wear Stingers shirts and display Stingers posters in their stores. There is a hint of a "high school" style of support for the Stingers and that is a compliment in a town such as this. People in Willmar know they are lucky to have this level of organization in their town and have supported it.
Willmar simply isn't located near anything. It's an hour off I-94 and 90 minutes away from I-35 or I-90 with winding county roads providing the access. Once in the town, the ballpark is situated about a mile away from the center of the town's business district. Willmar isn't a place a person wanders through by accident; it's a place someone plans to visit.
Once you arrive though, parking is free and nearby. Inside the ballpark it's easy to get around.
For a baseball ballpark lover, the state of Minnesota has enough ballparks to map a vacation around and if one includes Willmar they won't be disappointed. Unlike most of the small Minnesota parks, this one houses a high-level of baseball with a professional operation, while not losing its small town charm. Willmar isn't easy to get to, but the headache (and possible car sickness with the winding drive) will be well worth a visit.
Check the team's website for possible appearances by former Minnesota Twins players. Like many of the other NWL teams in Minnesota, the Stingers have a Twins' celebrity appearance once or twice during the season.
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2100 U.S. 12
Willmar, MN 56201