The story of South Atlantic League baseball in North Carolina cannot be told without discussing relocation. The Kannapolis Intimidators moved across the line from Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1995, becoming the Piedmont Phillies and Piedmont Boll Weevils before adopting their current moniker in 2000. Though the team left Spartanburg's historic Duncan Park, then-new Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium (now known as CMC-NorthEast Stadium) became the team's Tar Heel State home.
Two years before Kannapolis welcomed their new club, another freshly-minted team debuted an hour and a half northwest in Hickory. The team made the move 40 miles north along US Highway 321 from Gastonia, leaving a (now-revived) affiliation with the Rangers behind, and ending the run of affiliated baseball in that city. While the summer wood-bat Gastonia Grizzlies now call Sims Legion Park home, the Crawdads play in L.P. Frans Stadium, which was constructed for the team's move in 1993. The experience in Hickory is certainly different than the other South Atlantic League markets in North Carolina, a trip to a Crawdads game is certainly worth making for baseball purists.
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The food selections in Hickory are very similar to what one might expect in most ballparks. Chick-fil-A sandwiches are a popular choice in the Carolinas, and they can be purchased at Crawdads games for $6. Hamburgers or cheeseburgers ($5), hot dogs ($3) and french fries ($2) help to compose the "hot" menu items. If you're more in the mood for a ballpark snack, peanuts ($3), popcorn ($2), "fix-it-yourself" nachos ($4) and Cracker Jacks ($2) serve as your choices.
Pepsi serves as the bottler for the ballpark. This stands to reason, as a gigantic Pepsi building rests just beyond the outfield wall. 20-ounce bottled sodas and water are available for $3, with 22-ounce cups at the same price. A "large" 32-ounce soda costs $4.
If a restaurant is more your speed, the Crawdad Cafe can be found down the first base line. This is a great place to grab a beer and pub-type fare while watching the game from the patio. The night of my visit saw friends enjoying conversation and baseball over a beverage, and there's no better way to take in a game in the Carolinas - unless you're at the beach, of course.
One word of caution, though - the first base concession stand is closed for weekday games. This leaves the third base stand as the only available option. Lines can get a bit long at times with only one stand open, so be sure to accordingly plan your trip to get something to eat or drink.
The entry through the gates into L.P. Frans Stadium provides a view of a lot of brick. This is a great thing, because all of the brick around you really lends a "homey" southern feel to the park. It is also a bit of a bad thing, because the "money shot" of the expanse of the park opening before you is not available as you enter the park. The day's lineups are straight ahead of you on one of the aforementioned brick walls, which is one of the traditional touches found in many minor league parks in the Carolinas.
There are two concourses in the ballpark. The upper concourse is the one on which all fans enter, and concessions, restrooms and other services can be found on this concourse. The view of the field is reasonably limited on this concourse until you move down each baseline. The lower concourse separates the bleacher seating from the fixed seats, and this walkway traverses the length of the seating bowl. While this allows fans the opportunity to walk around and still see the action on the field, it also creates a separation between the two levels of seating. If your seat is in the bleachers, it will feel a bit further from the field than expected.
The Crawdads occupy the third base dugout in L.P. Frans Stadium, so if your visit is to cheer for the home nine, be sure to select a seat in sections K through P or grandstand sections 5 through 9. Sitting on the third base side may also assist with keeping the sun out of your eyes for the first few innings of each game. The bleacher seats behind the plate are marked as reserved seating, with the added premium of seeing all of the action in front of you. Because the ballpark is mostly open, there are no real bad seats in the house. Be aware, however, that the bleachers may have the occasional obstruction as fans navigate the lower concourse.
Two mascots can also be found wandering the stands throughout each game. Conrad and Candy are the friendly crawdads who interact with fans, participate in promotions and make the experience fun for kids of all ages.
A scoreboard rests behind the right-center field wall that displays the game's line score, ball/strike/out count and other expected game information. There is also a graphic display board that shows statistical information about the current batter, as well as silly pictures of opposing batters (on the night I visited, a player named Mark was represented by photos of Mark Wahlberg and Mark Zuckerberg, among others). Advertising information is also occasionally displayed on the board.
Hickory is a town of just over 40,000 residents. As such, the usual large-city trappings are tough to come by, but this does not mean that there is absolutely nothing to offer in town. Olde Hickory Tap Room is located just minutes from the park in downtown Hickory's Union Square. This is a great spot for a bite after the game (the restaurant is open until 2am every night), and a full menu of salads, appetizers, sandwiches and desserts is available to satisfy your late-night cravings. A vast selection of local beers is also offered (check the link under the Food & Drink tab for current choices).
Chain restaurants are also prevalent around Hickory, with Mellow Mushroom and Hooters (among many) just one exit east on Interstate 40. Local micro-chain Ham's is just a few minutes south on US Highway 321, near the intersection with 2nd Avenue NW. Ham's features typical American fare, along with steaks, chicken dishes, gigantic desserts and famous homemade potato chips.
Lenoir-Rhyne University is approximately four miles from the stadium. This is a great place to take a walk and observe some history. Lenoir-Rhyne was founded in 1891, and the campus offers a scenic and relaxing environment.
Though deafening crowds may not be the norm at a Crawdads game, there is a devoted group of fans in Hickory. Weeknight fans draw considerably smaller crowds, as might be expected. The weekday game I attended drew just 1,111 announced fans.
Those who do pass through the turnstiles seem to have quite a bit of fun rooting on their home team. They do not sit on their hands and wait for scoreboard cues to cheer. If you visit a Crawdads game, expect to be among friendly people who know the game and love their team.
L.P. Frans Stadium is located just off US Highway 321 and Clement Boulevard Northwest. Though Hickory Regional Airport is just across the street from the park, the most viable commercial flight options are Asheville (AVL, 80 miles west), Charlotte (CLT, 60 miles southeast) or Greensboro (GSO, 90 miles east). US 321 is the major north-south route through Hickory, with US Highway 70 and North Carolina Interstate 40 within a few minutes of the ballpark.
Parking is plentiful and is located within a very short distance of the ballpark. The only downfall with said parking is the $3 charge when entering the lot. There are two exits from the lot, and US 321 has a traffic light. This makes ingress and egress relatively easy, with only slight delays as traffic empties from the lot onto Clement Boulevard.
Once inside the park, both concourses are big and easy to navigate. Restrooms are located along the upper concourse, and are clean and well-kept.
The Crawdads are an affiliate of the Texas Rangers, and the good young group of talent flowing through the Ranger organization makes for a solid experience on the field. Box seat (lower level) tickets are $9, with reserved (bleachers behind home plate) for $8 and grandstand (bleachers down each line) priced at $7. These prices are close to just about every other team in the circuit.
Concessions are quite expensive, however, taking a bit of a bite out of the wallet. A hot dog and a small soda will only cost $6, but if you decide to upgrade to a Chick-fil-A sandwich and french fries instead, your meal price soars over $10 for one person. Combine this with the $3 parking fee, and your total bill runs to $21 per person for the cheapest seats. The hot dog and soda may be the better option, unless you choose to take advantage of one of the many deals the team offers. Among those deals, the club offers Belly Buster Mondays for $10 (though several items are excluded from the deal).
If you are traveling to a game with a group of friends, renting a suite may be the way to go. Suite rentals are $200 ($250 on weekends), and they come with 15 tickets and food service. Television and air conditioning are also available in the suites, which can be a tremendous perk on hot North Carolina summer nights.
Having an area for the little ones is extremely important at a baseball game, and Hickory has you covered. There is a spacious setup for kids down the third base line, with climbing areas, a slide and much more. There is also a carousel just past the play pit, with rides available for just $1. The carousel also has a view of the field, allowing you to watch the game while the kids enjoy themselves.
Though the stadium is easy to navigate and the team employs a friendly staff, a customer care booth is available just inside the gates to the stadium. Team information is available at the booth, and a staff member is available to answer any concerns you may have while at the game. This is a simple touch that can be quite helpful to first-time visitors.
The Crawdads do a great job of honoring their history through a series of signs on the brick wall just past the entry gates. A sign honoring former Crawdads who have advanced to Major League Baseball is prominently displayed, linking fans to the 20-plus year history of the club. A listing of South Atlantic League Hall of Fame inductees and a plaque honoring former league president John Henry Moss can also be found nearby.
A team store is located just to your left as you enter the gates. The space is small, but the selection is quite good and the prices are fair. Logo wear, collectibles, used game baseballs and broken bats are just a few of the things you can purchase in the Crawdad store.
There are certainly bigger parks in North Carolina and in the South Atlantic League. Some parks have more historic value. Some are in the larger metropolitan areas of the state. While all of these parks have their merit, Hickory epitomizes the small-town Minor League Baseball experience. If you want to watch baseball as it once was, having conversations with friends and hearing the crack of the bat and the action on the field, L.P. Frans Stadium should be on your must-see list of parks in the league and the state.
L.P. Frans Stadium has been the home to the Hickory Crawdads for 20 years, since the team was purchased and the former Gastonia, NC Rangers were relocated. In ’93 they were a White Sox affiliate, and a young Magglio Ordonez was the Crawdads first star player. L.P. Frans was a local Pepsi bottler who helped fund the construction of the stadium on donated land in Winkler Park.
The Crawdads are now a Rangers affiliate (again, so to speak), but they are spending a significant portion of their marketing on the 20th anniversary. I attended a game here back in 1993 as well, and I can tell you the park has really held up well.
Hickory is a small Southern town, with its roots firmly in the furniture business, as the Hickory Furniture Mart is celebrating its 50th anniversary expo and public sale in July of 2012. When you come to a game in Hickory, you’ll get a very typical South Atlantic League experience – family friendly entertainment without a ton of frills and extras.
The park has undergone renovations recently and there are definite improvements, but the entire seating bowl is still protected by netting. The big plus is the Crawdad Cafe that has TVs on the back wall, like a mini sports-bar. $5 drafts are a deal and you can grab one before the game and then take a second to your seat to enjoy during the action. Yet again though, I wonder where the fans are.
222 Union Square NW
Hickory, NC 28601
1385 Lenoir-Rhyne Blvd SE
Hickory, NC 28601