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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
At first glance, Forest City is just like many other small North Carolina towns. Many drivers may pass right by on US Highway 74 without even giving a second thought to a stop. Much like many of those same Tar Heel State towns, though, the residents of Forest City share a bond through their town and the college athletes who come play baseball there each summer.
Forest City's team once belonged to another town, as did some others in the wood-bat Coastal Plain League. The former Spartanburg (SC) Stingers made the 30-mile trip north to begin the 2008 season, becoming the first regular tenant of then-new McNair Field. The team, now called the Forest City Owls, won back-to-back Petitt Cup league titles in 2009 and 2010, helping to quickly establish a tradition of baseball excellence in this western North Carolina town. The home of the Owls may not wow you as you walk through the gates, but it offers a sense of community and comfort many in the area have come to know and love.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
There is a solid variety of food at McNair Field, particularly for a ballpark of this classification. All of the ballpark standards have a home, including hot dogs ($2.50), pizza slices ($2.50), pretzels ($3) and french fries ($3).
If you are left searching for some special offerings, fear not. The club offers such interesting delicacies as barbecue burgers ($6), Philly cheese steaks ($4.50), local favorite Bojangles' chicken sandwiches ($4), barbecue sandwiches ($4) and turkey subs ($4). Snacks are also available, including chips ($1 for plain or barbecue), popcorn ($2.50 for a sizeable bag), pickles ($1) and sunflower seeds ($1.50).
Coca-Cola is the bottler serving the park, with 20-ounce bottled sodas for $2.50. Water, Full Throttle drinks and lemonade are all $2.50, with tea ($2) and frozen lemonade ($3.50) to wash down your food. Sherbet, cotton candy ($2), candy ($1.50), funnel cake fries ($4) and deep-fried Oreos ($4) will help satisfy your sweet tooth.
McNair Field's small-town feel is immediately evident from the first step through the gates. The seats are close to the field, providing a decent feeling of being in the action. This feel is impeded somewhat by the concourse between the premium and box seats and the netting surrounding the playing field, but the action is still relatively close.
The homestanding Owls reside in the first base dugout, with general admission space down both base lines. A large majority of fans with general admission tickets sit on the third base side, with limited fixed seating in the bleachers and a row of lawn chairs occupying the third base berm. Be advised that you may have the sun in your eyes during the first few innings on the third base side, should you choose to sit near the visiting dugout.
Two owl mascots, Hoot (male) and Annie (female), wander through the stands to greet the young fans. The two owls also take part in several between-innings promotions, helping out the participants on the field. These owls also take part in a couple of "dance-offs". It seems as though almost all of the promotions involve dancing, whether by fans, mascots or both.
It also bears mention that the public address system is really tough to hear. Though there was occasional rain on the night I attended, the public address system sounded really muddled (almost drive thru speaker-like), making it difficult to hear batter names and announcements. Many of the between-innings promotions involved announcements telling the crowd what to do, but the lack of ability to hear and perceived lack of interest in the promotions by the home fans put a damper on those promotions. The scoreboard has a small video board to go along with the standard line score/ball/strike/out arrangement, but it is almost as hard to read the names of the home batters as it is to hear the announcer.
There is also a bit of a "copycat" feel at times at Owls games. The whistling sound effect played after strikeouts in Yankee Stadium is played here, as is the Seminole War Chant. Forest City is somewhat in Braves country, but it seemed more as though there was a "borrowing" of the feel of others' parks instead of one native to Forest City.
Forest City is a town of just over 7,500 residents, meaning that the list of available choices for before or after the game is quite small. If traveling to the ballpark via US 74, exiting onto US Highway 221A will take you through the classic-style downtown area of Forest City. Forest City Diner is located just off the downtown square, serving a wide variety of fare with large portions and small prices. The friendly atmosphere also doesn't hurt. Be sure to check the posted hours, though, as the diner closes at 9:00pm five nights a week, and is completely closed on Sundays. Reduced hours are offered on Wednesdays.
The only other similar choice near the park is The Brew House & Bistro. Sandwiches, salads, vegetarian options and breakfast items are among the offerings you will find on the menu; however, get there early. The restaurant only maintains hours until 3pm every day of the week, except for Thursdays and Fridays. If you are craving a "late-night" (relatively speaking) bite, you can stop by until 10:00 either of those nights.
There are only two hotels in town. A Holiday Inn Express and Quality Inn are both within two miles of the park. Not much else is available in Forest City, though, so chances are that your overnight stay will be somewhere else along the road.
Attending an Owls game is very much a community event. This is much the same in many small towns throughout the state, but it can be an unusual experience for those unfamiliar with the area. All of the locals seem to know each other, and if you don't go to the game with a group of friends, the odds are good that you'll walk away with a new friend or two.
This does, however, have a bit of a bearing on the experience in the stands. The focus is on the conversation in many instances, sometimes making the game feel a bit more like an afterthought. The fans love their Owls, to be sure, and they love seeing the home nine scoring runs and winning games. Forest City is a very polite and tranquil night out while sitting in your seat, though.
Let's be honest. Forest City is not an easy place to get to. The only major roads leading to the city are US Highways 74 and 221A, with the exits from the highway at least 5-10 minutes from the park. If you are arriving by air, the closest airports are in Asheville (AVL, about 50 miles away), Greenville-Spartanburg (GSP, just under 50 miles away) or Charlotte (CLT, about 60 miles away). All of these drives are well over an hour, due to the lack of direct interstate access to the town.
Parking is free and plentiful at McNair Field. There is a large lot just outside the stadium's entry gates (and, in a somewhat creepy touch, right next to a cemetery that borders the park), with another adjacent lot. I visited the park for their July 4th fireworks extravaganza, and there was more than enough parking for everyone in attendance. Be sure to book extra time when leaving the park, though, as egress is limited by the surrounding two-lane roads and 20 mile per hour speed limit in downtown Forest City.
Once inside the park, movement is relatively free and easy. The only real exception is in the box seating, where the rows are long and tough to navigate. The bathrooms are easy to find along the main concourse, and are appropriately maintained.
A night out at an Owls game is not a financially crippling affair. Game tickets are $6 (general admission), $7 (premium) and $8 (box seats). Parking is, as mentioned, free. A program is also distributed free to all fans as they enter the gate.
Concession prices are also more than fair. Using our typical test, a general admission ticket ($6), hot dog ($2.50), soda ($2.50), parking and program will only set you back $11. It is recommended to stick with the more inexpensive seats, as there are few - if any - tangible benefits to purchasing a box seat. It should also be noted that the majority of the box seating is uncovered, so bring a poncho or small umbrella if rain is in the forecast.
Programs are free at Owls games. They are roughly the same as what one would find in many minor league parks. The team includes biographical information about each player, ads for local businesses, giveaways and more. This is more than enough to keep you from scrambling to your phone to find out player information -- which is a good thing, as cellular reception is a bit spotty through most of the park.
The team operates a merchandise kiosk just inside the entry gates. The selection of items is better than that offered by many minor league teams. Everything from broken bats ($15) to replicas of the stadium ($5) and in between can be purchased at the stand. The standard fitted caps ($15-$20, depending on style) and t-shirts ($16 for S-XL, $18 for XXL) are available in many styles and colors. If you want to sample how the gear will look, just stop by the stand, or look at most of the fans who walk by. Plenty of Owls gear has clearly made its way to the locals' closets.
A series of signs commemorating the team's successes hangs on the wall, as well as the numbers of some past Owl stars. This is visible just inside the gates on the outside wall of the building holding the bathrooms. Though the team has been in existence for a short period of time, it is good to see their brief history being honored.
A group of inflatable toys can also be found just behind the plate. These toys allow the younger fans to get in some valuable play time. Be advised, however, that having some cash available for these amusements will certainly help.
For those who like to enjoy a beverage at a game, a beer garden is available along the first base concourse. This open-air seating area allows fans to hang out, talk and enjoy a drink or two. The team offers occasional beer and food specials, including $2 draft beers for some Tuesday games.
Forest City is about as far from Houston as one can get, but McNair Field (named for Houston Texans owner and Forest City native Bob McNair, who made a considerable financial donation to help build the park) still offers some big league touches. The (albeit brief) history of successful baseball, good food and fellowship makes for an interesting mix, and one that is certainly worth the detour off the "main road". You won't find a lot of the modern amenities, but you will find good people and a comfortable night out.
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146 E Main St
Forest City, NC 28043
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200 Holiday Inn Dr
Forest City, NC 28043