‘Shrine on Airline’ has become a second-class venue
After a drive to Birmingham for LSU’s portion of SEC media days, I was ready to take it easy. But, thanks to my colleague at WGNO Sports, Robert O’Shields, I learned a lot.
“Let’s go to the ballgame,” said Robert.
After our trip to the Birmingham Barons’ new downtown ballpark, I learned this: Zephyr Field is lacking in a very big way.
It wasn’t that way the night of April 8, 1997. “The Shrine on Airline” opened to an overflow crowd. The ballpark was part of a major sports upgrade in New Orleans, one that included New Orleans Arena. It seemed like every politician in Orleans and Jefferson Parish was on the field, ready to throw out the first pitch.
Nineteen years later, they need to throw some major cash at Zephyr Field. Since then, millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on the arena, now the Smoothie King Center. Same thing for the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. And, understandably so. These two arenas house major league sports.
In the meantime, Zephyr Field has fallen so far behind the times. In Birmingham, I saw modern suites with all the amenities. I saw fewer regular seats and more room down the left field line for children to play while their parents watched the game. Beyond the outfield fence, there were picnic areas and rocking chairs to relax and watch the game.
As Robert and I walked completely around the concourse, something you can’t do at Zephyr, I was amazed at the atmosphere in the yard. The crowd was substantial for Wednesday night baseball in the middle of a steamy July night. The fans were having fun.
As part of the bid to entice the SEC baseball tournament, the Zephyrs and the state proposed millions of dollars in renovations to Zephyr Field. Too bad the tournament didn’t come to New Orleans. It would have been a coup.
But I can understand why the SEC couldn’t be impressed with the yard on Airline Highway. It needs help.
Zephyrs general manager Cookie Rojas was asked for a comment. He chose his words carefully.
“We are closely working with the state for more opportunities for the community to enjoy,” said Rojas.
That was as guarded and as measured as he could be. So, let me be the one who says it. It is pretty embarrassing when AA ballparks around us, and in much smaller communities, have much better facilities than Zephyr Field.
It was a gem in 1997. No one, if he or she is lucid, would call it that in 2016.