Baseball returned to Ozark June 1 with a collegiate league doubleheader.

The athletes of the Show-Me Collegiate League took to the field at U.S. Baseball Park to hit, run and throw smoke to home plate as fans watched with hot dogs, soft drinks and cold brews in hand. As America’s pastime resumed after months of COVID-19-related inactivity at the Ozark stadium just off of U.S. Highway 65, the Ozark Board of Aldermen briefly discussed a bill that will impact the stadium’s future for the next decade.

In 2015, the city of Ozark entered into a lease agreement with the operators of U.S. Baseball Park, allowing for more than $3 million in renovations that led to the park seeing significant activity for the first time since the Ozark Mountain Ducks of the Frontier League folded in 2004.

Two businessmen, Jeff Williams and Joel Benenson, bought stadium owner and Chicago businessman Horn Chen’s company — OMS, LLC. And just about four hours later, the Ozark Board of Aldermen entered into a long term lease agreement with the company.

The city of Ozark has and continues to own the land that the stadium sits on. In 2015, Ozark assumed ownership of the stadium infrastructure, and agreed to lease it to U.S. Baseball League, LLC, with Springfield attorney Brett Roubal acting as the registered agent with the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office.

The stadium owners agreed to pay a lease of $1 per year for the first five years of a 15-year lease agreement, with their rent climbing to $60,000 per year for 10 years, starting in 2020.

“Time has flown by, and now August will be when the first payment would have been due, but in full,” Ozark City Administrator Steve Childers said.

The problem is that U.S. Baseball Park lost out on at least three months worth of games due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancelations of NCAA and high school baseball for the entire spring season.

Childers said that the city and the owners of U.S. Baseball started discussions as soon as COVID-19 closures started happening.

“A few months ago, we reached out to the owners, and of course, during this time they have had no business. Everything has been pushed back, so we knew that we were concerned about that,” Childers said.

The ballpark operators still plan to pay their rent, but they don’t want to do it in a lump sum. At its next meeting June 15, the Ozark Board of Aldermen will consider the final reading of a bill to allow the lease payments to come in monthly installments.

“They have proposed to still make that payment, which is good news, because I was concerned that no payment was going to be able to be made—and do that in 12 monthly installments,” Childers said. “I think that it’s a noble request to try to get things going again.”

The fact that balls and strikes were being called under the stadium lights as the meeting took place over the Zoom teleconferencing platform was not lost on Ward 2 Alderman Ted Smith.

“The Show-Me Collegiate League opener is being played right now, as we’re here in this meeting,” Smith said. “I believe it is one of the first live baseball games in the nation since the stay-at-home orders.”

Smith was the only aldermen to speak up about the city’s agreement with U.S. Baseball Park’s operators as the first reading of the lease modification moved along with no other debate.

“I think they’ve been great to work with,” Smith said.

The agreement also allows for the tenants to deduct real estate tax payments due now from the last payment made in 2030.

Since 2016, U.S. Baseball Park’s event calendar has grown full with the Show-Me Collegiate League, Drury University baseball, the Great Lakes Valley Conference Championships, the NAIA Heart of America Conference Championships, a host of youth tournaments and showcases, high school games, the Grip ’N Rip Baseball League and Monday Night Minis tee ball.

Fall league to resurrect familiar name

Mayor Rick Gardner told the board about a press conference he attended earlier in the day on June 1, at U.S. Baseball Park.

Gardner explained an invitation he accepted from Tony Lewis, the commissioner of the Grip ’N Rip Baseball League. The GRBL is an amateur baseball league for players ages 21 and older who have exhausted their college eligibility. The league announced plans to hold 10 weeks of games on Fridays and Sundays beginning Aug. 7.

For its fifth season, the league will name its teams after cities surrounding Ozark, including Nixa, Springfield, Republic and Branson.

The Ozark team will have a nostalgic nickname: the Ozark Mountain Ducks.

The new incarnation of Mountain Ducks will be amateurs, not professionals, but Lewis hopes to offer some of the same excitement and fun that the original Ozark Mountain Ducks brought to town when they opened in 1999.

“I think if you were a Mountain Ducks fan, you remember coming out here and seeing a beautiful field, and it was sad to see how deteriorated the field became. When U.S. Ballpark came into town and invested the money that they did into this field, all you’ve got to do is walk into the ballpark and feel the nostalgia,” Lewis said. “I just love bringing back that old name.”

Gardner lent his endorsement to the new Ducks revival. He even wore a T-shirt and cap from the original team.

“I was around in 2000 and 1999 when the Ozark Mountain Ducks first game. In fact, you can tell by my shirt, which I had to dig out of the drawer, that I have been a fan for over 20 years,” Gardner said. “I think this is a great idea, I think this is a great idea for Ozark.”

Gardner’s mention of the Ozark Mountain Ducks name revival drew smiles, laughs and even some mild applause from the aldermen at the meeting.

The Grip ’N Rip league will hold tryouts on Sunday, Aug. 2. Anyone interested in playing can learn more at http://thegrbl.com.

Statement of Disclosure: Rance Burger, the editor of the Christian County Headliner News, has done work for pay for the Grip ’N Rip Baseball League as an independent contractor outside the scope of his employment duties at the Christian County Headliner News. No compensation, financial or otherwise, was exchanged in the reporting of this story.

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