During countless summer hours spent on the fields of Little League baseball, Kokomo resident Steve Popejoy fell in love with the sport through both his playing and experiencing of the game’s sights and sounds.
It was this love, developed decades ago, that brought Popejoy to Kokomo Municipal Stadium Sunday to enjoy the rain-postponed home opener of the Kokomo Jackrabbits.
“I have been a fan since I was a kid, and there is just something special about the crack of the bat and the smack of the glove,” said Popejoy, covered by the stadium’s awning from the afternoon’s spitting rain. “I think the stadium is beautiful and I am excited to be here. It’s a gorgeous thing.”
Popejoy’s words seemed to echo sentiments being expressed throughout the stadium. Despite Saturday night’s postponement – and Sunday’s less than optimal conditions – a large portion of the sellout crowd traveled back to the stadium, expressing their excitement with loud cheers for each Jackrabbits’ hit and successful play in the field.
While many braved the sub-60 degrees temperature and incessant drizzle with blankets, towels and rain ponchos, a significant number of fans chose to watch the game from under the awning, in close proximity to drinks and food.
The wet surroundings never seemed to dampen the crowd’s enthusiasm, however, which could be partly attributable to concerns previously surrounding the stadium. With unfinished construction providing a reminder of the city’s battle with state and federal agencies, some chose to express their relief and admit their former skepticism.
“I didn’t think they would get it worked out, but I am very glad they did,” said Harold Collins, who joined Popejoy at the game. “I don’t think there is a bad seat in this entire place. You are going to see well no matter where you sit. It is a place Kokomo can be proud of.”
“They got this place put together really well,” Popejoy added. “I can’t believe they got all of this into such a small place.”
Standing amongst fans enjoying the pregame festivities - which included speeches by Mayor Greg Goodnight and MKE Sports & Entertainment CEO Mike Zimmerman – Jackrabbits Senior Vice President of Operations Dan Kuenzi eschewed the idea of relief, instead relying on what he said was an expectation for success.
“I wouldn’t say it is about relief because this is what we expected,” said Kuenzi. “There has always been a lot of excitement, and with the hard work put into this team we knew all along that we would be playing in the stadium.”
Kuenzi went on to discuss the disappointment of Saturday night’s rainout, but also what he sees as a community prepared to embrace the Jackrabbits’ franchise.
“[Saturday] night was a major disappointment, but we had a sellout of about 3,500 and we are seeing a very big crowd again today,” he said. “We have a lot of exciting things, and people really seem excited about what we have to offer.
“We are an affordable experience, so hopefully everyone will have a chance to come see us play. The players are ready to go and I know [Jackrabbits manager Greg Van Horn] is chomping at the bit to show people what we have.”
More than willing to display his excitement was Goodnight, who welcomed the fans and honored a group of city officials prior to the game’s first pitch. Joining Goodnight on the field were members of the Common Council and a variety of city hall employees, including City Engineer Carey Stranahan.
As part of the festivities, Goodnight was also presented with a Jackrabbits jersey, adorned with the number one. With such community-wide excitement, he said, only a little bit of sunshine could have made for a better day.
“We are extremely excited about everything surrounding the Jackrabbits,” Goodnight said. “I am excited for the community, and I am very happy to see these families filing into the stadium. You can tell by the size of the crowd that people are excited to be here and to watch the Jackrabbits play.”
Joining in the exuberance felt by many was Nick Chochos, a self-described businessman and real estate developer visiting the city for what he described as a “magnificent” occasion. While not involved with the stadium’s development, Chochos said he sees it as an important accomplishment for the city.
“It’s important to think in terms of what was here before and what is here now,” said Chochos. “By building this stadium, Kokomo is going to bring in other people ready to invest in the city. Long-term, this will be a great asset. I see the citizens supporting the team, because it is a good value for the dollar.”
Chochos – similar to many at the stadium – remarked on the stadium’s appearance, which, although unfinished, was better than he had previously imagined.
“I had seen a rendering of the stadium, but it is much more impressive in person,” he said. “When you think about what was here before, this has been done in a spectacular fashion.”
The Jackrabbits will play their next home game at 6:35 p.m. Thursday against the Terre Haute Rex.