Friday, March 25, 2011

SPORTS>>Hogs call, fans haul to fill seats

Leader sports editor

I have never been a fan of the random Hog call.

Arkansas natives appear to have taken calling the Hogs, once a nice, little pregame football tradition, to a whole new level. No longer is “Woo pig sooie” reserved for sporting events; it now appears to be a sort of state rallying cry, a way for Arkansans to identify themselves to each other and to bond.

It sure beats Kansas’ “rock, chalk, Jayhawk” — whatever that means — but I can’t say I approve when the random Hog call erupts without any Hogs in the vicinity, like at restaurants or, as I once heard, during an Arkansas Travelers game at Dickey-Stephens Park.

But where Dickey-Stephens is concerned, I am going to have to back off my stance a little bit. After Tuesday night’s latest, rousing success, it looks like the Hog call is going to be a fixture there for years to come.

In their second appearance at the Class AA Travelers’ home park, the Razorbacks beat Memphis 7-2 thanks to a five-run eighth inning before a turnout of 10,062. In their appearance last year, the Razorbacks beat Louisiana Tech 5-4 before a similar-sized crowd.

The 10,000-plus easily tops the best night at the gate the Travelers turned in at their modern home.

A crowd of 7,943 came to see Dickey-Stephens Park open in 2007, and the Travelers haven’t come close to that turnout since, not even on Clunker Car Night or when disgraced major leaguer Jose Canseco boxed 60-year-old UALR associate athletic director Gary Hogan last season.

It’s amazing what a little fan loyalty can do for you.

This isn’t a knock on the Travelers as a baseball club. Arkansas has drawn a solid average of better than 5,000 since its ballpark opened, but I guarantee you only a third come for the baseball.

The Travelers are affiliated with the distant Los Angeles Angels and their best players are usually around for no more than a half season before being promoted to Class AAA.

Occasionally a former Razorback or player with state ties will pass through as a member of the Travs or one of their opponents, but the overall situation is not conducive to the kind of loyalty commanded by the state’s premier athletic program in Fayetteville.

Like most minor-league operations, the Travelers entertain a more casual fan base and must compete with the multiple distractions of summer. While Travs fans turn out for pregame midget wrestling, in-game libations at the beer garden or postgame diamond digs and fireworks, Razorbacks fans, bless their hearts, come for the baseball.

And I never thought I’d say that in a football-mad state like Arkansas.

It wasn’t always this way. Baseball has been kind of a second-class sport in Arkansas and there was a time not that long ago when the high schools didn’t even field teams and the best players could be found in American Legion programs.

Give credit to the Hogs’ own plush headquarters — Baum Stadium, opened in 1996 — and Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn, who has crafted his team into a perennial College World Series contender since he took over in 2003.

In 2007, Arkansas set a then-NCAA ticket sales record with 8,069 a game. Compare that to the then-Arkansas record 3,328 that came to Baum’s 1996 opener and you can see how the Razorbacks program has grown its fan base.

Not to say the Travelers and the Texas League haven’t helped a little with baseball’s resurgence in the state.

Whatever it takes to get them there, more fans are coming to Dickey-Stephens Park than to Arkansas’ previous home at Ray Winder Field, and since the arrival of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals in Springdale in 2008, the state has a professional, wood-bat rivalry to savor.

The Travelers beat the Naturals in the playoffs on their way to the 2008 Texas League championship, while Northwest Arkansas, affiliated with the Kansas City Royals, won its first league championship last year.

But there is no substitute for home-grown fans supporting a home-grown program, so just like the football team’s annual appearances in Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium, get used to the baseball Hogs having a presence in Dickey-Stephens Park for years to come.

And the Hog calls won’t be random.