New Tulsa Park Proves Worth The Wait

TULSA—Building a new stadium in Tulsa took plenty of patience, several stops and starts and lots of work. But in the end, all the delays and the waiting may have paid off.

It's hard to find anyone complaining in Tulsa as the Drillers get ready to open 8,000-seat ONEOK Field, a state-of-the-art facility that also helps the team get back into downtown Tulsa for he first time in 80 years.

The team's old home, Drillers Stadium located on the outskirts of town, still looked fine on the outside, but the park was starting to shows its signs of age on the inside with plumbing and heating/cooling issues. So back in 1998, the team started looking to try to get back to downtown.

"We started getting approached about building a ballpark in downtown as far back as 1998," Drillers president Chuck Lamson said. "For various reasons, it didn't come to fruition, whether it was because of lack of funding or whatever. It was more of a discussion than a concrete plan."

Different ideas were floated, including the possibility of moving to the Tulsa suburb of Jenks.

"It looked like a very viable option," Lamson admitted. "It was something we considered strongly. We signed a non-binding letter of intent to explore it further. The reason I did that was to recognize that we had still talked to the city first but this was a serious option. It wasn't ever intended to be a leverage move but it did get the city's attention and got them really moving toward something."

The possibility of the Drillers moving south quickly got the attention of current mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr.'s predecessor, Kathy Taylor, who served as Tulsa's mayor between 2006 and 2009. After learning about the Jenks option, Taylor went to work on bringing the team to downtown.

"That was one of her true driving forces," Lamson said. "One of the things she wanted to accomplish during her term was to get the Drillers to downtown Tulsa, not only for the benefit of downtown but to give us a new facility. The mayor got very active and it culminated in us signing an exclusive letter to negotiate in January 2008."

Learning From The Best

The team may have hoped to have a new stadium sooner, but by waiting it has had the chance to absorb lessons from around the country. Lamson traveled around the country to different stadiums such as Memphis' and Sacramento's to try to incorporate their best ideas into ONEOK Field.

"I think we've got a great facility," he said. "The benefit of building near the end of this building boom in minor league baseball is that I've seen a lot of the good things that people have done. We were able to incorporate some of those ideas into our ballpark and hopefully keep it unique for Tulsa.

"It's a project the entire city has supported."

Among ONEOK's amenities are 23 luxury suites, a stadium club, a conference center, an underground batting cage between clubhouses and a 360-degree concourse that stretches around the stadium.

Fans can also sit in a left-field terrace section at picnic tables or general admission lawn seating areas located in left-center and right field.

Tulsa's ballpark comes at the end of the decade's building boom, which has seen 51 new ballparks open since 2000, but few on the horizon. The Texas League has unveiled seven ballparks in the past eight years—San Antonio's facility, built in 1994, is now the oldest.

"ONEOK Field will not only enhance the entertainment opportunities in downtown Tulsa, but provide development opportunities in our Greenwood, Brady and Blue Dome entertainment districts," Bartlett said.

In September 2008, the 18,000-seat BOK Center opened in downtown. For Bartlett, the opening of the new ballpark is just another step toward revitalizing the area.

"With the BOK Center, ONEOK Field and the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, we welcome everyone to downtown to share in this new entertainment experience," he said.

Texas League president Tom Kayser agrees.

"This park has a lot more meaning to the city of Tulsa or to the Texas League than just a ballpark," he said. "It is an anchor at one end of an entertainment area . . . I love the downtown setting. It has a great view not unlike Little Rock looking out at downtown."

Steve Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas, who grew up in Tulsa.