NORTH LITTLE ROCK — A beautiful weekend greeted the Arkansas Travelers on opening weekend.
Wafting through Dickey Stephens were that wonderful merger of aromas that characterize baseball — hot dogs, popcorn, corn dogs, nachos, barbecue, funnel cakes.
Blending with the magic from a new kiosk are those roasting, cinnamon-coated, almonds and nuts that have that automatic smell magneticism.
The Arkansas Travelers, one of the least-expensive forms of entertainment in the area, are back with new uniforms, new games between innings — and a new mascots (two of them). Also new to the ballpark this season is an enlarged souvenir area, situated where the old restaurant used to be along the third-base line.
It’s too early to get a gauge of the Angels’ AA minor league team (it is daring on the basepaths and seems to have good pitching), but fans regularly flock to Dickey-Stephens for fellowship, entertainment and ballpark fare, unconcerned about stats and standings.
It’s interesting that a regular ad on the video board is for St. Louis Cardinal baseball. The Texas League Cardinal affiliate is Springdale, Mo., a division rival.
It’s still Cardinal country, but the Travelers are an entity all their own.
The most controversial issue so far has been the two new mascots, who have replaced “Shelly,” a horse that many thought was a dog.
The Travelers still have a horse, Ace. He’s bulked-up and arrives at the ballpark in a motorized chariot and appears in a few videos as sort of a super horse. But his presence, at least from this one-game experience — was a cameo.
The real target has been Otey, who is a cartoonist, hillbilly, Arkansas swamp possum. But a gentleman hillbilly swamp possum, I reckon, from his dress, complete with derby.
Some initial observations have that Otey, named for R.C. Otey, the longtime Travelers groundskeeper, is just weird, ugly and makes fun of an Arkansas stereotype.
He has been characterized as the “Chucky Cheese guy who has hit hard times,” or a new definition of “road kill” if the Travelers have a losing streak in away games.
In the first place, most mascots, particularly in the logo-rich Minor League, are cartoonish caricatures and characters that play off the native culture.
Plus, one of the main, longstanding, must-attend events for Arkansas politicians is a coon supper.
Some have questioned why the Travelers need two mascots. One friend suggested in Otey, the Travs found something lower than a donkey (see, no one knew exactly what Shelly was).
Actually, I’ve seen someone who resembled Otey on Bourbon Street in New Orleans — except he didn’t have a tail, his eyes were more glassy and he played a saxophone.
But here’s the amazing thing I witnessed Friday:
When Otey, accompanied by a worker with a camera, appeared on the concourse, folks, young and old, flocked down the aisles like Elvis just showed up. All demographics. They were surging down the aisles like converts at a Billy Graham crusade.
There were babies, giggling teen-age girls, young parents. Among the group who waited in line at several junctures for photos with the mascot, was a 50-something couple, distinguished-look fella seemingly straight from the office, two well-built 20-something boys and one large guy in jeans wearing a Tennessee ballcap and holding a large can of Bud Light.
You can say all you want to about Otey, but I never saw a grizzled, bearded, Uncle Si lookalike in overalls hug Shelly for a photo, then leave with a smile and fist bump.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or email@example.com or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)