ND oil patch city prepares for brief baseball boom
FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Teams in the 13-year-old Babe Ruth World Series will find the dimensions of the baseball stadium in the northwestern North Dakota city of Williston to be similar to other fields nationwide.
Except there's billions of dollars underneath.
Pool play for the 10-team tournament is scheduled to open Saturday in the oil patch city that recently adopted the title of "Boomtown USA," after watching its population soar from 15,000 to 35,000 people in less than five years. That happened after experts figured out how to extract oil from the rich Bakken shale and Three Forks formations.
The rush has helped bump up the average annual salary in Williams County, home to Williston, to $78,364 in 2012, tops in the state and more than triple the average wage in the county a decade ago. The Williston area has increased its hotel space from 600 rooms four years ago to 1,700. The population explosion also has brought less desirable increases in traffic and crime.
For some teams, just getting to Williston will be half the battle and guarantees to offer a lesson on current events, geography and travel planning.
America's pastime, meet America's prosperity.
Joe Smiegocki, vice president of marketing and operations for Babe Ruth League, Inc., said that while each team wants to win, there's more to this tournament than baseball.
"At the end of the day, the most important thing we looked at was the educational experience," Smiegocki said. "There are so many unique things going on in North Dakota with the economy and other things. I think these players and parents are going to be surprised at the culture they learn more than what they learn on the baseball field."
Tournament officials are trying to embrace that culture, focusing on the benefits of the energy boom, like oil companies helping to raise more than $600,000 for the event and some of them sponsoring chow wagons for charity at the stadium. And when players aren't rounding the bases, they can tour an oil rig.
"This will be a great experience for our visitors," said Larry Grondahl, a lifelong Williston resident and tournament manager. "It will be one they never forget."
Out-of-state teams are coming from Niskayuna, N.Y., Lawrenceburg, Tenn., Weimar, Texas, Cambridge, Ohio, Coventry, R.I., El Segundo, Calif., and Beaverton, Ore. There are three teams from North Dakota. Williston qualified as the host team, Fargo qualified by winning its state tournament, and Grand Forks qualified by winning the regional.
The travel experience alone is certain to be memorable for some teams, four of which will be flying into Fargo, in the far eastern half of the state, and busing to Williston. Primarily because of Babe Ruth's affiliation with American Airlines, only three of the teams are able to fly directly into Williston on 30-passenger jets.
The Niskayuna team from upstate New York will be taking a bus to Boston, then flying to Chicago and Fargo. They'll tag along on another bus with the Fargo and Lawrenceburg teams for the final 400-mile trip from the flat farm land of the Red River Valley to the buttes of the North Dakota Badlands. The last 100 miles or so could be slow going with oil traffic.
"It's kind of a round-about way," said Chris Bianchi, the team's coach. "But these kids are going to love it. It's like a field trip in school. I was telling my assistant coach that it could be painful for the adults."
Bob Motta, the El Segundo coach, said his players are a little apprehensive about going to a new place and staying with host families they don't know, but he believes they will appreciate the journey in the long run.
"It will be an experience," Motta said. "I keep telling the boys to enjoy the moment."
Lawrenceburg coach David Weathers, who spent two decades pitching in professional baseball, said the players will get an idea of what it's like to traverse the minor leagues. His team's travel day will start with a four-hour bus ride to Memphis, followed by a flight to Dallas, four-hour layover, flight to Fargo and the final bus leg to Williston.
"It's been a while since I had a road trip like that," said Weathers, who had minor league stops in places like St. Catharines, Ontario, Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Dunedin, Fla. "But it will be fun once we get there."
Williston has the facilities, financial backing and volunteers to host a national tournament every year, Smiegocki said.
"Unfortunately it would be difficult to go to Williston or anyplace else in North Dakota on a yearly basis because of transportation," he said.