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The Perfect Ballpark

Huntington Park in Columbus raises the bar

Ballpark Digest has named it “The Perfect Ballpark.” Columbus, Ohio has opened a new stadium for their Columbus Clippers. It is named Huntington Park, the naming rights being sold to an Ohio-based financial institution.

Huntington Park is located in the city’s downtown “Arena District,” an exciting and vibrant mixed-use development consisting of apartments, condos, offices, restaurants, and nightclubs, all brought together with tightly woven brick and cobblestone streets, and anchored by the beautiful Nationwide Arena and now this ballpark. It is everything that we hope Canalside in Buffalo will become over the next few years.

Earlier this month, the Buffalo Bisons played their first ever set at this new venue, and everyone with the team, including a delegation of front office staffers who made the trek down to see the digs for themselves, walked away impressed.

Like Buffalo, Columbus has a long and rich baseball history. The origins of baseball here go back to the 1870s. As in Buffalo, they have played in multiple venues over the decades, the most recent one being Cooper Stadium, their longtime home. And like in Buffalo, their team folded in 1970, and for much of the 1970s, this city was without baseball.

All this and more is told in stories, exhibits, murals, and memorabilia tastefully displayed in the concourses, and especially in the “AEP Power Pavilion” out in left field, a multifaceted entertainment, restaurant, and viewing area that is the place to be on game night.

Joe Santry is the Clippers’ longtime media relations director as well as the team’s historian, and a visitor owes much of what he sees on a visit to this ballpark to Santry’s vision and labor of love in putting all this together. “Not only the Clippers but the entire International League has such a great history, and we wanted to make sure that was properly portrayed in this stadium,” said Santry, as he led us on a thorough tour of the facility.

What makes Huntington Park so unique is not its boilerplate architectural formula. We’ve seen the kelly green seats, red brick façades, and wrought iron gates in all too many places; it’s the design standard of the last two decades. But here in the Arena Disrtrict it works, as the building melds well with its adjoining structures in the neighborhood, some of which have been around for more than a century.

The viewing experience here offers a cornucopia of choices. One can simply sidle up to the fences along Nationwide Boulevard along the right field and peek in on the game for free. Or one can snag one of the cool club seats with ample drink rails behind home plate, with access to a loft-style bar and lounge area, which was personally designed by Clippers general manager Ken Schnacke. Or there is the “Roosters on the Roof” section on third floor of the Power Pavilion, with entertainers offering karaoke and trivia contests, waitresses serving pitchers of suds and heaping plates of chicken wings, and Wrigley-style bleachers offering a splendid view of the action.

Santry pointed out that, despite all the planning that went into creating the ideal gameday experiences for all fans, some things happened on their own. Pointing to the left field corner, with a picnic bench seating area and remote vending carts, Santry said, “A lot of our collegiate crowd like to come in on weekends from the nightclub across the street to take in some of the game, and of course it helps when there are pretty co-eds for them to meet. So this area has become quite the young singles scene. It’s not something we planned; it just sort of came together that way.”

Concessions at the ballpark are laid out in a unique way. Down each line are two massive serving islands, accessible from all four sides and offering a view of the action. Amid all this are yet more historical displays, plus a series of murals titled The Speed of the Game, which showcases various plays in baseball and the length of time they take to unfold.

Bisons manager Ken Oberkfell had nothing but good things to say about the new ballpark in Columbus after the first game of a four-game set against the Clippers. “We do an awful lot of traveling, but there is always a sense of anticipation for me as a manager and for the players when we get to see a new ballpark for the very first time.”

Oberkfell said that the player facilities were top-notch. “The clubhouse is massive and roomy, and the training area and batting cages are state of the art. You don’t always see that sort of thing in a minor league stadium,” said Oberkfell.

Any crazy quirks or nuances to the ballpark dimensions? “It always takes time to get used to a new place,” he said. “That one play in the top of the eighth, where [Jose] Coronado laces a rope down the right field line. In any place you go, that’s a double for sure. But here the stands jog out in a weird way just down the baseline. Their right fielder knew exactly how to play that ball off a carom. Coronado should have been at second base, instead he scampers back to first and almost gets picked off. But we’ll figure out these things too the more times we come back and play here.”

During this past offseason, the Cleveland Indians relocated their AAA team from Buffalo to Columbus, and some old, familiar faces from last year’s Bisons squad now play here, none more recognizable than manager Torey Lovullo. Asked for his take on Huntington Park, Lovullo was quick to reply, “I want to start by emphasizing that our departure from Buffalo was very painful and very difficult. Nobody wanted to leave, especially me, and I want that to be clear.”

Got it, Torey.

As for the new ballpark? “It’s fantastic. The place is filled every night. We’ve got every amenity that a player or a coach could want. The facilities are spacious. The location is perfect, right here downtown. For the organization, this has worked out exceedingly well.”

Downtown Columbus, its Arena District, and Huntington Park are just a five-hour ride from Buffalo, and Santry said that visitors from other cities are always welcome. “We love showing off our ballpark. The food is great, it’s a great place to enjoy a game. Please tell your people to come.”

Spotted in the stands were a few Buffalo fans, none more noticeable than Bisons superfan Mark Aichinger, wearing a #11 Lovullo Cleveland Indians jersey and letting loose his piercing trademark screech throughout the evening. Hey, if Aichinger can make it all the way down to Columbus, anybody can!

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