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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
To those unfamiliar with the area, Florence is a nice place to stop for a stretch of the legs on South Carolina's stretch of I-95, or the eastern terminus of I-20. Situated in the Pee Dee region of the state, Florence is flanked at reasonable distances by Savannah to the south, Columbia to the west and Fayetteville to the north. The city is also just over an hour from Myrtle Beach, which also draws a lot of traffic to the Magic City.
Florence is a lot more than just a rest stop, though, as this former rail town has a pretty impressive story of its own. Sports in Florence hold a pretty impressive chapter in the city's book, with Darlington Raceway just off US 52 a few miles west of the city. The yearly NASCAR race (now dubbed the Southern 500) has been responsible for some of the most exciting finishes in NASCAR's storied history. The race dates back to 1957, seven years after the track opened.
Darlington is also home to MLB second baseman Orlando Hudson, with former outfielder Reggie Sanders calling Florence his birthplace. Baseball in Florence dates back almost a century, with the Florence Blue Jays of the South Atlantic League calling American Legion Stadium in east Florence home from 1981-1986. Those Blue Jays teams featured talent such as Jimmy Key, Cecil Fielder and Fred McGriff. Those Blue Jays relocated to Coastal Carolina University near Myrtle Beach, with the Coastal Plain League's Florence RedWolves coming to town in 1998. The RedWolves also left American Legion Stadium in 2012, but their trip was not as far, heading four miles away on US 76 to the virtually-new Cormell Field at Sparrow Stadium on the campus of Francis Marion University.
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For a park this size (Francis Marion baseball competes at the Division II level, and the RedWolves are in the summer collegiate wood-bat Coastal Plain League), there is a lot of choice. The team offers hot dogs ($2, $3 for a foot-long), hamburgers ($3), "walking tacos" ($2), Philly cheese steaks ($6), the "Wolfburger" ($6), a "Diablo dog" ($3.50, $4.50 for a foot-long), the "howler" rib sandwich ($5) and brats or smoked sausages ($3). Corn dogs ($2), French fries ($2, $3 with chili and cheese), pretzels ($2, $2.25 with cheese), nachos ($3), fajita nachos ($6), pizza slices ($2), pizza slabs ($3) and Chick-fil-A sandwiches and nuggets ($4) round out the hot selections.
The club also offers more of the "classic" ballpark snacks, such as chips ($1), Cracker Jacks ($1), sunflower seeds ($1), peanuts ($2 for roasted, with the South Carolina delicacy of boiled peanuts also available) and popcorn ($1.50). "Add-ons" are available for purchase on hot items for a quarter each, including chili, cheese, salsa, pickles, peppers and onions, chopped onions and jalapenos. Dipping sauces (barbecue, ranch and honey mustard) can also be purchased for a quarter.
Sparrow Stadium serves Coke products, with nine different bottled soda and water options for $2 each. Four flavors of Powerade are also available for $2, which is a tremendous help on the extremely hot summer nights in the Pee Dee. Sno-cones are also $2. If beer is more your speed, there is a separate side window in the main concession area from which beer and other drinks can be purchased, along with a stand on the concourse and the beer garden above the first-base bleachers. 12-ounce cans are $2.75, and 12-ounce bottles are $3.
Creating a unique atmosphere is quite difficult in a "shared" ballpark. Florence's staff is very effective at "RedWolvesizing" the stadium, as they call it, however. The seats are all very close to the field, creating a rather intimate environment. The beer garden is the furthest actual seating from the action, and even that is in a position to see everything taking place on the field. There is also very limited netting to provide obstruction, as the netting only stretches between the dugouts. The close proximity to the players on the field extends into the stands, as I saw a lot of conversations and shaking of hands in the seats.
Most of the between-inning events are similar to what you will see in other parks, with the dizzy bat race, the frozen t-shirt contest and several others being featured. The Chicken Dance was also done, but with a bit of a twist. Homer, the RedWolves' mascot, invited a group of kids, some parents and even some players onto the field to participate in the dance. If someone dropped you in a seat without telling you otherwise, you would swear you were watching affiliated baseball, and not a summer collegiate league.
The only downfall with the atmosphere I noticed was that the game I attended went extra innings, and once the game advanced past the 10th, the line score stopped accumulating on the scoreboard. This seemed to confuse the fans around me, and no one knew what inning the game had reached when it finally ended.
Sparrow Stadium is located on the beautiful campus of Francis Marion University in Florence, and this helps add to the atmosphere of the facility. The university is about all that is going on in the area, however. FMU is located just off US-76 in Florence, and aside from a Dunkin' Donuts, a Wendy's and a Pizza Hut, there is very little in close proximity to the university.
Florence is a reasonably small town, so if the game ends late, as this one did, there are few choices available to satisfy whatever hunger pangs did not get addressed with the ballpark concessions. Southern chain Fatz Cafe is two exits down I-95 on US 52, and is a recommended stop. There are a number of local establishments and chain restaurants within the city limits, but all are at least a few miles from the stadium.
The listed physical seating capacity for the facility is 800, with additional berm seating (more on this later) for another 1500. The fans that turn out for RedWolves games, though, sound like a much bigger gathering. The fans arrive early - and keep arriving throughout the night - and clearly love their team. There are not a lot of out-of-control kids running all over the place like some other facilities, which is a nice thing to see. The RedWolves' fan base is involved and intelligent.
There was one thing that was a bit troublesome on the night I attended, though. The public address announcer had to call on the fans to make noise several times in the late (and extra) innings, despite it still being a very close game. To be fair, the game-time temperature was 100 degrees, and a lot of those in attendance - myself included - were simply drained by the weather and the tension of the game.
One would expect a lot of the minor details to be covered in a new park, and this is certainly the case here. The restrooms are mere steps from any seat in the facility, as well as the concession area. Though the concession area and restrooms are outside of the seating bowl, this is really a minor drawback. The concourse and seating rows are as wide as possible, considering the seating arrangement.
The RedWolves brought a lot of things with them from their old home to their new home, and one of those transplanted items is a truly welcome sight. The parking at Sparrow Stadium is free and plentiful. The majority of the parking is beyond the outfield wall, which allows you to easily access the ticket windows. This is key, because as of this writing, there is no online ticketing availability for RedWolves games. This will hopefully be rectified soon, so it is recommended to check the team's website or call the team if you wish to buy tickets before you go to the park.
There is also very little problem with exiting the parking areas, as officers will help guide you on really busy nights. The stadium is literally feet from US 76, so you can be on your way to I-95, I-20 or any other part of Florence in a matter of minutes after the last pitch is thrown.
One of the reasons to love the Coastal Plain League is the value you receive. Seeing the next minor and major leaguers just steps from you each summer is a really cool thing, and the RedWolves make it really easy on your wallet to do so. Box seats are just $6, and are no further than five rows from the field. The general admission seating is bleacher seats, but this should not dissuade you from this option. These seats are also quite close to the action, and are a mere $5. Seniors and kids pay just $4, and military members with ID pay $3. Combine the ticket prices with the concessions and free parking, and this is an ideal place to take your entire family for an evening - or a season.
I have already alluded to some of the extras in earlier categories, but they deserve additional mention. The aesthetics of the complex are truly breathtaking, and there are fountains and a lake surrounding the baseball facility. The waterfront also contains a few plaques honoring those who have played a key role in Francis Marion's history. This is a relaxing addition to the athletic complex.
Drive-in restaurant chain Sonic was on-hand on the night I attended, honoring their sponsorship stake in the RedWolves. Free frisbees, mints, soda coupons, t-shirts and other items were given out all night by Sonic employees, and one fan won free Sonic for a year. Sonic's tater tot mascot even made numerous appearances throughout the night. All fans in attendance were also able to take their ticket stub to Sonic to receive a free medium soda or frozen drink.
The 82nd Airborne Freefall Team performed their first-ever night team jump on this night, as well. The jump went off under somewhat unusual circumstances, however, as the game was actually delayed in the 12th inning to allow the event to take place. The jump, originally scheduled to take place after the game, was an exciting thing to see, though there was no real explanation to the fans as to why the game was stopped to let it happen.
Cormell Field also features ample berm seating, as previously mentioned. This is a nice added feature that is somewhat uncommon for Francis Marion's Division II competitors or a lot of Coastal Plain League outposts. The berm areas allow for some great sight lines and plenty of freedom to move, or play catch, as some kids did during my time in the park.
Finally, there is a beer garden, as in Florence's previous home at American Legion Stadium, along with Sims Legion Park in Gastonia. The term "garden" is loosely used here, as the beer garden is actually the deck area above the first-base bleachers. The fans in the area are not excessively rowdy, though, and they know their baseball. They make for a really fun environment, helping lead the fans in cheers and politely heckling the umpires and opposing players.
I read a lot about this park before attending a game, and everything that I was told is 100 percent true. This is a really fun place to take in a game, and just about anything that may hurt the experience is out of the team's control. As of this writing, there is not an agreement in place beyond 2012 for the RedWolves to continue using the facility, but the hope is that both parties will see the mutual benefit in having the team continue to call Cormell Field at Sparrow Stadium their home.
The one thing I can say about Cormell Field at Sparrow Stadium as compared to American Legion Field - and again, this is extremely minor - is that the music selection seems to be somewhat different. Several Darius Rucker and Hootie and the Blowfish songs were played, which helped give the park more of a sense of "geography", but this was done even more at the old facility. I even saw a fan at American Legion shag dancing to Kool and the Gang's "Celebration", which was among the oddest sights of my ballpark touring life. There were some songs played (Aerosmith's "Dude (Looks Like A Lady)" being one of them) as walkup music for the opposing team that prompted some fans to laughingly remark that the songs were "mean". I did not find this offensive or anything, but it seems to be a growing trend among parks these days.
Florence combines great people, a great product, and a jewel of a ballpark. If your summer travels lead you to Myrtle Beach or anywhere else along the Grand Strand or Pee Dee regions, you truly owe it to yourself to pay the RedWolves a visit. Their home is a true hidden gem, just like the league in which they play.
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2007 W Lucas St
Florence, SC 29501
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