It was great to see U.S. Baseball Park bustling with activity, its bright blue seats more than half full, its concession stand lines steady and its parking lot overflowing.

Cars were parked parallel along North 19th Street and people poured into the Ozark stadium to watch college baseball. With more than 3,000 people in attendance, the Missouri State Bears took on the Drury Panthers in a game benefiting the CoxHealth Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Clinic. At $5 a head, the game offered an affordable night of entertainment for families from Ozark, Nixa and beyond.

Economically, it gave us all a glimpse of what U.S. Baseball Park can be for Christian County. Undoubtedly, many of the fans who came to the game and bought tickets and concessions were from Springfield. Some of them likely stopped for gas, snacks and other provisions before they headed back to Greene County. That’s tax money from outside areas coming into Christian County, and that is a very good thing.

The outcome of the game, which was a one-sided affair in Missouri State’s favor, is incredibly unimportant in the overall significance of what the Battle for Bell and other events like it can do for Ozark. What was once a vacant eyesore is now a vibrant attraction that can retain and attract revenue for Christian County.

U.S. Baseball Park was born as Price Cutter Park, home of the independent professional Ozark Mountain Ducks in 1999. The original ownership group probably built the 5,000-seat venue too big, but the Ducks were a major draw in their first season.

Attendance and interest in the Mountain Ducks declined steadily until 2004, when the team announced its departure from Ozark.

The park mostly sat empty for 12 years, until Jeff Williams, owner of 15 Oklahoma grocery stores, and a business partner purchased the stadium. The Williams group also dumped more than $2 million into renovating the stadium with new turf, a new video board in right field and all kinds of improvements to the concession stands and amenities.

I remember my skepticism when the stadium was revitalized in 2016. As a sports fan, I very much wanted the stadium to work in Ozark so that I could live here and enjoy some baseball like everyone else, but I also remembered all of the years that the park sat empty.

I remember Mark Stratton, the former head coach of the Drury Panthers and now the general manager of U.S. Baseball Park, telling me that he was skeptical too. I had the chance to ask Jeff Williams some skeptical questions, but I walked away impressed with his long-range plan.

The Williams group isn’t looking to turn a quick dollar with U.S. Baseball Park. They’ve put a great deal of money into improving the stadium, but they aren’t expecting it to pay dividends for quite some time. We’re talking 15 to 20 years.

This means that the park should continue to experience steady growth as an economic driver. Each year, U.S. Baseball Park seems to bring in more events. It will host the high school state championships in the spring of 2020, a year ahead of schedule.

From the tykes of the Monday Night Minis tee-ball league to the adults of the Grip’N’Rip Baseball League, and plenty of high school and college athletes in between, U.S. Baseball Park will be open for well more than 200 days by the end of 2019. It continues to surpass its previous yearly totals for games hosted and total attendance. 

Moreover, U.S. Baseball Park’s ownership group recently hosted the soft opening of the $1.7 million, 23,000-square foot indoor training facility. Known as the Marucci Clubhouse Midwest, the building can host practices, workouts and baseball clinics any day of the year, giving Ozark another competitor in a growing national market for youth sporting events.

The September Battle for Bell has become a crown jewel for Christian County sports that still leaves room for growth, optimism and hope that one day we will see sellouts again. If you’re a skeptic like me, maybe it’s time you gave it a chance and came out to see a game.

—Rance Burger

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