BRANSON, Mo. — Bob Dernier first heard about the concept of Ballparks of America over a year ago. That’s when he met Hamilton Chang, a friend of Dernier’s old teammate, Gary Matthews, and CEO of the organization.
A Kansas City native, Dernier is biased towards the Midwest. Despite his playing career being split between the Cubs and Phillies, the former Gold Glove center fielder admitted to being a Royals fan. So, when he had the chance to throw out the first pitch at the grand opening of the facility, he made it happen.
“It reminds me of spring training,” he said. “You have that certain environment, that baseball environment, and Branson is that times ten.”
Hundreds gathered for the ribbon cutting and first scrimmage at Ballparks of America in Branson on Thursday. The twenty million dollar project is the first stay-and-play tournament facility in the Ozarks.
Youth teams from Springfield and Hollister played three innings on a surface inspired by Wrigley Field, complete with ivy on the outfield wall.
The complex, formerly and outlet mall, will eventually house five fields, each inspired by a Major League park: Wrigley Field, Busch Stadium, Tiger Stadium, Fenway Park, and Ebbetts Field.
Tiger Stadium will also be open on Saturday for the start of a tournament that is expected to include 200 athletes. Players will stay in suites on the property, a feature that aims to draw teams from across the country and internationally.
“Most kids that come and play in our facility will understand that this is a special place,” Chang said. “They will not have been able to play on a field like this."
Dernier, who was a member of the Cubs’ 1984 National League East Championship team, was impressed by the quality of the playing surface and surrounding area.
“A place like this would have immediately lit my love affair up,” he said. “Even at my age, we could probably have a pretty good old timers game here. It’s about the right length.”
Chang admitted his four sons, all of whom play baseball, were jealous that he could not have gotten this project completed earlier in their baseball careers.
“We took a heck of a leap to come to this community and invest this much, time, effort, and money,” he said. “To be able to see the kids play today is an unbelievable feeling."
Chang could not give a timetable on when the other fields or suites would be completed.