Todd Graffagnini, a digital contributor for the New Orleans Saints, is a walker. You can find Graff pounding the pavement somewhere around this great city almost every day. During this pause in games we've asked the New Orleans native to let fans tag along and learn about the routes he takes and some of the city's sports history.
Hello again, fellow walkers. Time for another edition of Walks With Graff. Hope you are all continuing to stay safe as we inch closer to being able to get out of the house more and more. As we head into mid-May, it really has been a stretch of some of the best weather we've had around here in a while, and judging from the feedback from this column and the people I see out and about walking and jogging a lot of you are certainly taking advantage of it. This walk was certainly no exception as I headed out to Metairie and the BIG loop at LaSalle Park. It's a walk/jog that draws people from the area, and I know for a fact that many a Saints/Pelican employee has gotten their exercise in over lunch breaks around that loop. Located just off Airline Drive and Dickory, it's easy to get to as well.
This walk is pretty straightforward, unlike the other ones that have been featured here over the last six weeks. It's three laps (or however many you choose) around the park. One lap around the BIG loop (more on that later) is 1.75 miles, but if you want to keep it just to the park itself it's about a mile. Parking is very ample wherever you want to begin your lap. I like to park in the spaces nearest the train tracks in the southeast corner of the park itself. True to my usual form, I head counter-clockwise around, but again, that is up to you.
Heading west toward Dickory, the first part of the excursion takes you through the Oswald Dubea Arboreum and Nature Center. There are actually two trails that cut through the middle of the park if you want to veer off the main track. In this instance, we'll stay on the wide path.
The many trees provide ample shade even though the day is pretty mild, but that shade will come in handy when the weather really heats up. As the curve approaches toward Dickory Avenue, the gorgeous baseball quadriplex will be on your right. The outfields were being watered this particular day but obviously nobody was or has been playing baseball out here for two months.
After that initial right turn around the baseball complex the direction will be east (today it was into a stiff breeze) and Airline Drive will be on the left and parallel to the loop. As the cars race by in both directions, the mind wanders as to how much this area has changed over the years. As you approach the big crossover with the Jefferson Performing Arts Center on your immediate right and The Shrine on Airline now in full view up ahead to the right.
The Shrine on Airline (formerly Zephyr Field) was completed in 1997 at a cost of $26 million. It has hosted numerous sporting events and was even a FEMA rescue facility post-Katrina, but baseball was why it was originally built and where the greatest moments in that building have originated from. The permanent home of the New Orleans Zephyrs (after moving from UNO's Maestri Field), then most recently the New Orleans Baby Cakes, it now is the home field of the New Orleans Gold major league rugby team. The loop will take you beyond the left field wall and "levee" and you can look into the stadium.
I'll get to my own personal Shrine on Airline story later on in the column but I wanted to get the thoughts of Tim Grubbs, who has been the radio play-by-play voice of the Zephyrs/Baby Cakes since 2002. Tim made the move to Wichita, Kan., when the team left after last season, but he's witnessed as many games in that ballpark as anyone. Some big names have also either called that ballpark home, or have made a visit with their particular teams. He recalls some of those players.
"It's crazy, but the list of opponents that have come through far outweighs the Zephyrs over the years as far as the best players I have seen. Guys like Yadier Molina, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Ryan Braun, Mark Prior, Alex Gordon, George Springer, Prince Fielder, Johan Santana, and Buster Posey just to name a few. In fact, Buster Posey and Kris Bryant both played their last minor league games at Zephyr Field. They both got called up after a game there, I always thought that was kind of neat, especially how in both of their careers they have gone on to do very well."
I also asked Tim what his most fond memory was of the ballpark. The answer is something locals might not have remembered.
"The best memory for me, the top of the list, is April 2006. It was the first game after Katrina. The Saints obviously had not played there (New Orleans) yet. The Hornets were still in Oklahoma City. That was the first professional sporting event played in the city. Back in September 2005 I was thinking we'd be a nomad team playing 144 games in 2006. It was pretty cool that Ron Maestri and those guys got the ballpark ready...and when we threw that first pitch out, there were 9,000 or so people there. We couldn't have completely sold it out because there was still scaffolding in the upper deck. That without a doubt is my favorite memory, because it was such a great day after such an odd offseason."
Coming up on another right turn now through another shady grove of trees, another familiar sight comes into the picture. Tom Benson Way, and the Oschner Sports Performance Center, the home of your New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans. Many thousands have come into the practice fields the last couple of summers to watch Saints training camp, a very popular location for the loyal and passionate fans of the team. We only hope that day comes again as soon as it is safe enough to do so.
One more turn to the right and we are headed back west to our starting point. Now the ballpark is on the right and the vastness of the parking spaces in full view. It was in these spaces where the greatest three days of college baseball in Louisiana took place from June 1-3, 2001. The Super Regional between Tulane and LSU was an event that transcended college baseball. It was a statewide showcase that, at the time, was the most watched sporting event in the state's history, and that parking lot was ground zero for three and a half days. Over 11,000 were inside the ballpark for each of the three games, but thousands more were outside in the parking lots watching on television or listening on the radio. That event was the crowning moment for the ballpark, never to be equaled, and it still makes me proud to this day to know I was part of it all.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this stroll down memory lane while getting in some good exercise. As always, stay safe, take care of each other, and we'll see you soon on the pavement.