They’re most noticeable Monday morning stumbling into work.
Their bleary-eyes hidden under the reverse raccoon-like visage of someone who wore their sunglasses too long under the blazing summer sun.
They stagger like zombies unwilling or unable to bend their joints which were burned to a crisp because they were so focused on keeping the kids lathered in sunscreen they forgot to protect themselves.
They’ll be muttering as they move. It will be something unintelligible about umpires and coaches and called third strikes.
“Swing the bat,” they’ll say in brief moments of lucidity. “Can’t hit if you don’t swing.”
Their digestive systems will be racked by ball park hot dogs and nachos and grape Powerade. Everyone always drinks the red and blue first.
Who are these poor souls?
Welcome to the world of travel softball and baseball.
Baseball and softball tournament destinations
A place where the bats cost $450 and will invariably break when a light-hitting shortstop borrows your daughter’s and snaps it in two on a Texas-League blooper that barely makes it out of the infield.
Communities across the country are lining up to bring in the travel baseball and softball dollars. A multi-day tournament can mean beaucoups of hotel revenue plus restaurant money as well.
Pigeon Forge and Sevier County are no different.
Most summer weeks, there will be tournaments at the city-owned Wear Farm City Park as well as the privately-owned baseball mecca the Cal Ripken Baseball Experience.
Baseball families or teammates coming to town to experience the joys and pains of travel ball, there are some things you need to know. This includes how to navigate a city known for traffic congestion while making sure you don’t miss a start time.
About the Cal Ripken Experience
The Cal Ripken Experience is one of five such facilities in the country. It’s the brainchild of legendary Baltimore Oriole shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr.
Developed with Pigeon Forge’s partnership, The Cal Ripken Experience is a first-class, baseball only facility. And it is expertly located on Jake Thomas Boulevard with access to Teaster Lane.
According to an economic impact study, there has been an ongoing annual increase in demand for this sort of facility and also adds to increased visitor spending. Therefore, the facilities have a direct impact and the city’s tourism industry.
With six turf fields based on stadiums at various levels of Minor and Major League baseball, The Cal Ripken Experience offers week-long tournaments for 12U, 11U and 10U baseball teams.
And in May of 2022, Ripken Baseball announced that they will gain access to some new fields. There will be four additional fields at Pigeon Forge’s Wear Farm City Park that will undergo renovations before the start of the 2023 season. Therefore at the time of this writing, there will be 10 total fields.
What fields do they have at the Cal Ripken Experience in Pigeon Forge?
The fields, which come with batting cages and bullpens, include:
- Rookie ball: Calfee Park – Home of the Pulaski Yankees
- A: Winston Salem Ballpark – Home of the Winston Salem Dash; Fluor Field, Home of the Greenville Drive
- AA: Engel Stadium – former Home of the Chattanooga Lookouts
- AAA: Isotopes Stadium – Home of the Albuquerque Isotopes
- MLB: Camden Yards – Home of Baltimore Orioles
How many games are guaranteed at the Cal Ripken Experience?
Teams are guaranteed six games over the course of the week with a nine game max, giving families plenty of time to enjoy a vacation in the Smokies.
There are skills competitions, an entertainment package, rings and more that come with the week-long package.
The turf fields are first class and, unlike most travel ball tournaments, there will be a PA announcer and personalized walk-up music not handled by a distracted team mom with an Alexa speaker.
If you’re planning to play at the Cal Ripken Experience, there are some things you need to know.
Cabins and hotels near the Cal Ripken Experience in Pigeon Forge
Because of the location of the facility, a weekend baseball tournament can also be extended to a family vacation. However, lodging is on you. The Cal Ripken Experience does not cover the cost of hotels.
The best recommendation I can give you, and I can’t stress this enough, is to stay somewhere that has direct access to Teaster Lane or Ridge Road.
Whoever located The Ripken Experience is a freaking genius. There aren’t many places left in the area where you can navigate Pigeon Forge’s entertainment options and dining and the best local restaurants without the risk of significant traffic jams. Certainly, Teaster Lane is no secret anymore, but it is almost always easier to navigate than the Parkway.
Nearby hotels include Tru by Hilton, Margaritaville Hotel and the Margaritaville Resort (The Island).
And if you are bringing the entire team and need a team cabin, there are a plethora of choices located throughout Sevier County. However, they tend to book months in advance, so you’ll want to plan ahead.
The facility is also close to the Nascar SpeedPark and so many other area attractions.
Can you leave between games at the Cal Ripken Experience?
A major question for many travel ball tournaments is: Can you leave to grab a bite and refuel between games?
Most tournaments are not spread out over a week. In a normal tournament, you may have a break of an hour or a break of three hours. The baseball family who is tired of hot dogs and nachos will play the game of chicken that comes with trying to get some real food.
Due to the nature of The Cal Ripken Experience, your time is more clearly defined.
As long as you don’t do something foolish like try to get up on the Parkway and run to Gatlinburg, you should be fine.
Is the Cal Ripken Experience worth it?
Even among the high dollar world of travel ball, the Cal Ripken Experience Pigeon Forge can be a little pricey.
Most weekend tournaments with their varying degrees of ball fields and no-frills amenities are a few hundred per team. At the time of this writing, the Cal Ripken Experience costs $575 per player or coach.
And if that’s within your budget, I would say the experience is absolutely worth it.
But if it’s not, there’s always Wear Farm City Park.
Wear Farm City Park: A more affordable alternative
While almost any public facility would pale in comparison to the Cal Ripken Experience, Pigeon Forge’s Wear Farm City Park is one of the better facilities for “regular” level travel ball in East Tennessee.
When it has been dry out, the infields can be a little hard, but the outfields are almost perfectly level and immaculately groomed.
In addition, vast improvements have been made to the park, with more on the horizon. The renovation project makes the park not only better for visitors, but also Pigeon Forge residents as well.
Unlike The Ripken Experience, a tournament at the Wear Farm City Park had been mostly about softball.
If you are staying overnight, any hotel along Highway 321 or close the Parkway should be relatively safe. You’re probably not going to be running back and forth to the hotel much.
I wouldn’t recommend leaving for a dine-in meal between games unless you had more than a two hour break.
But as long as you don’t get up onto the Parkway, a run for some real food wouldn’t be unreasonable as long as you give yourself plenty of time and account for the possibility of waiting to be seated.
And the price tag is much more doable for the average, everyday budget.
Typical of most East Tennessee travel tournaments, you’re looking at about $200 per team with a $10 per day entry fee for nonplayers and coaches.
To learn more about the Cal Ripken Experience and available events, visit their website.
Have you tried the Cal Ripken Experience in Pigeon Forge? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below!