Flying over Lawrence-Dumont Stadium at dusk
Dan Rogers brought a camera to the ballpark Friday night.
He and his wife walked around Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Around the main concourse, through the outfield courtyard and up through the press box, he took photos of everything he could. He is counting down the final days of the NBC World Series at the 85-year-old stadium.
And that has the NBC chairman a bit more sentimental than usual.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 5 — 60 years,” he said. “My mom was pregnant with me when the tournament was going on. She left to deliver me.
“This has been part of who I am forever. I’m not sure anyone loves this stadium more than me.”
The City of Wichita hasn’t formally announced plans for the stadium’s destruction, but it has told the Wichita Wingnuts that Lawrence-Dumont won’t be available for another season. That pushed the NBC staff to make a plan for the future, moving out of the stadium it has called home for 84 years.
Talking with any long-time NBC or L-D fan, it’s clear no one is hiding from the stadium’s reality. It’s outdated. There are too many cracked seats and loose pipes. The stadium is just old, and renovating it would cost more than building a new one.
Tearing Lawrence-Dumont down and building a new stadium in an attempt to lure MLB-affiliated baseball seems to be the most likely solution.
With that, the NBC World Series is set to move to Wichita State’s Eck Stadium in 2019. It won’t leave Wichita, but it can’t stay at Lawrence-Dumont. For Rogers, that’s a reality that has been reluctantly accepted.
“I’ve got a lot of mixed emotions about tearing this place down and starting from scratch,” Rogers said. “The only way I can reconcile this is when I start to think about the decision people have to make when they put the family pet to sleep. It’s part of your family.”
For others, leaving Lawrence-Dumont is a chance for change. Moving to Eck Stadium will provide better amenities and potentially more attendance with a new feel and college students coming back to campus.
Kevin Jenks, NBC general manager and World Series director, said it’s time.
“I hate to say this, but I look forward to the new stadium,” he said. “I’m so aware of the memories that are here for hundreds if not thousands of people, and I have them myself. But to work here day in and day out for two straight weeks and to see the challenges the stadium has, it’s been frustrating from an operations point of view.
“There are a lot of little things that add up to the frustration of it needs to go away because the improvements aren’t being made.”
There will be parts Jenks misses, he said. The atmosphere and sight lines are tough to beat. Rogers resounded that.
“What happens when it’s late night and you’re up in the stands is you get drawn into the game,” he said. “Before the pitch is thrown, you will notice the place gets as quiet as a church.”
In talking with fans, many clamor for one thing to stay after the demolition: the history.
Historical notes are scattered throughout Lawrence-Dumont, sharing the legends who have come through. There are none more profound than the wall beyond the right-field fence.
The wall commemorates legendary pitcher Satchel Paige. The tournament’s founder, Raymond “Hap” Dumont, offered Paige $1,000 he didn’t have to bring his team from Bismarck, N.D., to the first NBC World Series. Dumont banked on making the money at the gate.
Paige accepted and launched the tournament into the national eye.
Lawrence-Dumont is filled with stories. It’s what has made the NBC World Series special through the decades. In May, Jenks said he knows he can’t sell 16 days of baseball; he has to leverage the experience.
Friday night during the second semifinal game between the Wellington Heat and NJCAA National Team, a group of kids gathered down the first-base line. They rallied on a patch of concrete and made a baseball diamond out of it. They used their gloves as bats.
Before a pitch, one boy’s teammate stopped him and asked, “OK, man on first and third with nobody out. Where do we go?”
The kids weren’t watching the baseball game, but they didn’t need to. That wasn’t the point.
Michael Dean, the tournament’s chief scorer and statistician, has come to the NBC World Series for 35 years. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and travels on his own money to get to Wichita every year. He got hooked on the tournament after he worked with the Grand Rapids Sullivans, who won the 1983 and ’84 titles.
Dean is an older, heavier African-American man, who on Friday night wore a duckbill black cap, blue striped oxford shirt with the NBC patch on the front pocket. He wore a tie with baseball icons making a collage and donned tortoise-colored circular glasses.
Dean said he keeps coming back to the NBC World Series because of the people. He said he plans to keep coming to the tournament, even after it leaves Lawrence-Dumont.
“Other tournaments don’t know me from the man on the moon: ‘Sorry, Buzz Aldrin,’ ” he said. “I’ll keep coming as long as the NBC will have me.”
Although Dean agreed the stadium has seen its final few days, he said it is home — almost literally.
From Dean’s first year at the NBC World Series in 1984 until 2006, the first year he brought his wife, he slept in the stadium.
“I slept in the visitors’ clubhouse for a number of years, then the umpires’ room,” he said. “I figured that would save on housing costs.”
Dean has been a staple at the NBC World Series with his stat-keeping “and occasional harmonica playing,” which earned him an entry into the NBC Hall of Fame.
There are key moments in the NBC World Series’ history that won’t be forgotten. Like how a lit cigarette burned down the first stadium in 1931. Or how Chipper Jones led the Kansas Stars to an NBC World Series championship in 2017.
But stories like how Rogers’ mother rushed to the hospital from Lawrence-Dumont, or how Dean used it as his apartment for 24 hours, 16 days of the year for more than two decades ... those stories probably won’t make the museum.
For now, there was one more night of baseball to be played, as the Santa Barbara Foresters faced the NJCAA National Team for the 2018 NBC World Series championship at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“It’s the end of the ballpark as we’ve known it,” Dean said.