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.
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There are two main concession stands in Hickory, and they offer identical fare. The menus are pretty limited. If you're unfamiliar with Chick-fil-A, try the chicken sandwich they bring in. The burgers are excellent, and the hot dogs are big and well spiced. The main complaint is that the burgers and dogs are pre-made and roughly wrapped, making them a little less pleasing as they're kind of crushed in their foil wrappers and look a little haphazard.
Big negative points for the nachos, which were the worst I've ever experienced at a ballpark. The fact is, it's not nachos... it's chips and imitation cheese spread. Chips in their own sealed bag... cheese in a room temperature sealed cup. It's not nachos until they are put together, just like vegetables aren't a salad until you mix them up. No option for peppers or salsa either.
If you're looking for something a little more upscale, they have a Crawdad Club bar/restaurant down the first base line, with patio seating to watch the ballgame. There's a broader alcohol selection, but the menu is pretty much the same.
L.P. Frans Stadium reminds me very much of both Savannah's Grayson Stadium and Asheville's McCormick Field in terms of construction. From the prevalent use of brick to the large archway that defines the main entrances, to the intimate seating bowls that don't include outfield seats. The plus side is that this park is nearly 50 years newer than both of those. Still, you get the small town feel with a few more accessibility features and creature comforts.
There's no roofline here, so all seats are in the sun until it sets behind the 3rd base line. We were at a night game in May, so temperature was not an issue. Third base will stay out of the glare for evening games. On a still night, it can be pretty buggy, so insect repellant would be a plus to have in your bag.
All seating areas are covered by netting or fencing in your line of view. Usually, I will prefer a seat down one of the baselines in order to get out from behind the backstop screen, but that's not an option here. This is a growing trend in the low minors that's really a detriment to enjoying the game - most likely in a nod to the insurance industry. On a return visit, I might just sit out at the Crawdad Café to get an unobstructed view.
The crowd has "Family Friendly" and "Southern" all over it. We saw many multi-generational groups, and kids of all ages. There's a "Fun Zone" down the left field line with the carousel and other rides for when the little ones get antsy.
L.P. Frans Stadium is set on parkland, but it's not really a developed neighborhood park. There's no real neighborhood to speak of. The park entrance is a half a mile off a major road. Behind it is mostly trees, and just off the 3rd base side is Hickory Regional Airport.
It's a small crowd, but they're definitely into the game. People were friendly, and there was interaction with the players. Generally I saw the perfect blend of families who were just there for a good night out, but never lost sight of the fact that a baseball game was going on.
Getting to the game really couldn't be easier. From I-40 you take another major highway a few miles and then one well marked turn into the park. Parking is inexpensive and plentiful, and close to the stadium. They've got very accessible overflow lots as well for fireworks or Holiday nights when the crowd can be much bigger.
Tickets are typical for the South Atlantic League, ranging between $7-$9. The Box seats are extremely close to the field, but due to the tight wrap around home plate, you may get more personal space down either baseline. They discount concessions heavily after the 6th inning, in an effort to clear the decks of the pre-prepared foods.
The Crawdads offer some fantastic bargains for groups and events. It's a very affordable place to rent out a skybox or bring your Little League team for an on-field experience with the players. Groups of as little as 15 should definitely take a look at those packages. Comparable experiences in AAA Charlotte (1.5 hours away) are two to three times as expensive.
There aren't a lot of extras. The Crawdads make their gate by being an affordable family destination for a relaxing night out. As is usually my biggest gripe, I wish they'd make more of an effort to be unique to their region. Chick-fil-A is a nice touch, but where's barbecue? Or a hot dog with cole slaw? Something that tells me I'm in Hickory.
In light of their 20th Anniversary, I'd also like to see more decoration at the park calling back to those earlier years. Don't just celebrate the fact in the program... Let people live it in the ballpark. Carve out a place for a timeline, or a Crawdads History Museum.
All in all, L.P. Frans Stadium is a pleasurable place to watch a ballgame, it's just not particularly distinctive. If you're a ballpark traveler in NC, and you're going to Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Charlotte and/or Kannapolis, Hickory will grade out towards the bottom of those experiences. (Top to Bottom, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Kannapolis, Hickory, Charlotte).
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