SPRINGDALE, Ark. (KNWA) — Many Arkansans consider Northwest Arkansas’ baseball mecca to be Baum-Walker Stadium, home of the highly-successful Razorbacks. The best Hogs simply hope for a chance to play professionally, and there’s a team in Springdale made up of some of the best players in the world.
Though the Northwest Arkansas Naturals weren’t here 20 years ago, they’ve become a community staple.
Chip Souza is a sports editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper, and he started covering the market in 2004. Just four years later, the self-proclaimed “baseball junkie” learned he’d start writing stories about a professional team coming to Springdale.
“There was a little bit of excitement because first there was a new stadium, a new team coming in,” Souza said. “Then when they saw what kind of players were coming here, we got a front-row seat to the Royals’ World Series win five years before it even happened.”
The Naturals are the Kansas City Royals’ Double-A affiliate, and fans of the middle-America MLB team fondly remember the 2015 title hoisted by familiar players like Danny Duffy, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. When they were coming up through the minor leagues, they stopped in Springdale to comprise one of the best minor-league teams in history, Souza said.
“The Royals kinda set the blueprint for small-market teams,” Souza said. “They wanted to draft well, develop their players, bring them up together and they’re able to win.”
Before the Naturals claimed four division titles and a Texas League championship, they simply needed a place to play. They were formerly known as the Wichita Wranglers, but a deteriorating stadium provided a call for change, said Justin Cole, general manager.
“I know a lot of it came down to the fact that Springdale did step up and build this beautiful facility,” Cole said. “The facility we were playing in was built in 1934.”
Another contributing factor in the Naturals’ move to Northwest Arkansas came in the guiding hand of Walmart founding father David Glass, who was familiar with the area, Souza said.
“If you remember him, he passed away just real recently,” Souza said. “He was very instrumental in getting the thing going here, and and to get the Naturals here because he owned the Royals.”
Along with the aforementioned success, the Naturals also give a boost to Springdale’s economy, Cole said.
“Kinda one hand washes the other,” Cole said, referencing the city’s continued support of the Naturals. “We want to continue to be affordable, family-friendly, put on good events. We play 70 home games, but we also host a lot of non-profit events, high-school games, our own events, open houses.”
Though the Royals haven’t been a quality team these past few years, that provides an opportunity for the Naturals, Souza said. Quality pitching drafted early in past years is expected to come through the system quickly, Cole said, and these players will be Double-A stars in Springdale. Instead of watching players who’re destined to be longtime minor leaguers, many of the guys who’ll suit up this year and next are expected to be mainstay Royals in the coming seasons.
“We have a bunch of pitchers coming our way that’ll be on the 2020 roster that’s all in the top 20 of overall Royals prospects,” Cole said. “Two of them are in the top 100 of all minor-league prospects.”
Those players, Cole said, could play a vital role in another Royals’ World Series title.