Head down Razorback Road on a late spring weekend in Fayetteville and you’ll see Canopy city — red and white fabric roofs, boxes of beer, a throw rug or two and maybe an old La-Z-Boy recliner. Under the canopies we find unlikely bedfellows, canopy fellows if you will. The pre-family reunion known as the hog pen.
Canopy city is where we grab a donut from someone you know well even if you don’t know their name. Or a slice of Domino’s Pizza, a random chicken wing. Under the canopies we take shelter from the rain, from the scorching June sun or the unseasonably cold April wind — whatever the weather sees fit to be that day cause it’s always fickle like that.
We’re here because we’re queued up to get into the hog pen, the Razorback baseball section that’s essentially a big lawn out behind left field. Sometimes folks line their chairs and pop up canopies days, maybe weeks, in advance of a series. We chat and crack jokes and get rowdy. Swap stories, talk sports. Shoot the shit like good Arkansans do.
About 90 minutes before first pitch, the pen gates open like the parting of the Red Sea. Only in this moment the tribe of pen family, brothers from another mother, transform into enemies as soon as the gates open. When the Red Sea parts, it’s every man, woman, and child for themselves. All friendship and kinship is suspended for a few minutes of total chaos: Grown men of a well-seasoned age haul ass down the lawn, beer bellies bouncing while wagons of Yeti coolers and Fireball whiskey trail behind. Women sprint like division 1 athletes, steamrolling over anyone or thing in their pathway. Children zoom past the old folk straight to the fence and slide face first into their family’s preferred spot, sacrificing their tiny bodies for a shot at premier baseball viewing. It’s a few glorious, unforgettable minutes of sports fandom. It’s utter insanity.
Just as quickly as the first 50 people pour into the pen, we’re set up and back to being one another’s chosen family. The Fireball comes right out, the unofficial libation of the hog pen. It’s the most widely used and respected of liquors out here. No, not for its taste, but because it travels well, warms you up when it’s cold, gives gumption, and consoles broken baseball hearts.
Assigned seating isn’t a thing, as you’ve already gathered. It’s first come, first served but we do have an acknowledgement of everyone’s preferences. There are the berm folks, the ones who set up on the little ledge of a hill ten or so yards back from the fence. Team Berm likes the unobstructed view of the game no matter how dense the front of the pen gets. Our crew sets up at the fence, known as the rail. The rail is coveted; truly the only right and holy view if you care about seeing balls and strikes. It’s the best place to sit if you’re gonna ask me, but nobody did ask me and that’s fine.
The allure of the hog pen is different for each person; it offers an experience that those who sit in chair backs or fancy boxes wouldn’t understand. Bring your kids and shoo them off to play catch. Grill out and have picnics. Make friends with frat bros and county sheriffs and people who drive 7 hours one way in their campers to watch some baseball. Heckle the hell out of the visiting team. Drink your own beer. Pass out homemade cookies. Act a fool. The pen is where life moves a little slower and a little easier.
We met a guy named Sherman under contentious terms during one of the rail seating conquest moments. On this particular day, we didn’t make the rail and sat behind Sherman on the second row. Feathers got ruffled over chair placement and some biting words were exchanged.
But eventually things settled and Sherman became a beloved baseball brother. He and his wife live out in the boonies, somewhere past Lamar, about a hundred or so miles from Fayetteville. He’s retired and has a tattoo of a body-building Razorback on his right calf. Often he has twin granddaughters in tow who sit in swinging camp chairs made for 8 year-old bodies.
Sherman is of a certain generation and demographic you see a lot of in the pen — country boys in their sunset years watching ball, harkening back to a time when they too could run and throw and hit like those young men out there, in the prime of their youth, playing America’s game.
There’s Jimmy, pen patriarch, who is always on the rail no matter what. It’s a respect-your-elders type of thing with Jimmy; we all just know he deserves to be in the front. He’s kind and generous, always ready in his straw hat to toss tootsie pops to kids. Jimmy is the easy-going, Tommy-Bahama-wearing, “no bad days” grandpa of the pen who makes everyone feel at home.
Ten yards behind Jimmy and Co. are the berm regulars —Lancey. Forest. Cam. Brenden, et al. Cam’s been sick but is fighting hard. He shows up to Canopy city with his buttons that say “Cam Kicks Cancer!” and homemade I♡Hogs keychains and bracelets he sells to help pay down medical bills.
The first time I saw Cam was three years ago at a super regional at Baum Stadium. The team was soaring that year and greedy ticket holders were scalping hog pen spots for hundreds of dollars. The hog pen, you should know, is the great equalizer. The Shakespearan theater pit of baseball, where anyone can and should be able to afford a ticket to watch a game. Cam had an empty, torn up Eureka Pizza box he had scribbled “QUIT OVERCHARGING FOR HOG PEN TICKETS” on that he proudly held up all weekend from the berm.
West of Cam and down at the rail sits Amanda, our official yell leader. Nearby are the trio of nurses, Belinda, Ashley and Z. Kendall with the unmistakable cyclops-looking sunglasses is also at hand. And so is Lance, who always makes his way down the rail during every 7th inning stretch, just so he can shout “allrightyousonsofbitches!” while snapping group selfies with front-rowers every few feet. It’s a beloved tradition and an honor to be in a Lance selfie that is posted the subsequent day on his Facebook page for all the world to see. There’s also Greg, gentle-giant Army vet, and his badass but easygoing wife Jill. Greg’s part of the yellow-hat crew, the ones who sport canary Arkansas ball caps with red As, easily identifiable in a sea of red and white headware faithfuls.
I’d be remiss, of course, if I didn’t mention Rick. The Rick of Razorback fandom royalty. If you know the hogs, you know Rick, who is the ultimate hog lover and a favorite fan often seen on televised Razorback games. Rick dons a visor with fake furry red hair attached, which he calls the Razorback wig, and he’s on a quest to attend 100 Razorback games this year. I think maybe he already did it. He doesn’t just love baseball, he loves supporting every kind of hog team and often bounces from one game to the next if different sports overlap in a season. He wears fake tusks in his mouth, Razorback sneakers and socks that have his wife’s face on them. He rides a beefy motorcycle. Knows everyone’s name. He brings perspective, a good time for all, and a doormat he throws on the hog pen ground to keep his shoes clean when it rains.
Our home base is in left-center, over by the university’s camera guy who films the outfield action. It’s excellent home run territory and prime real estate to snag a ball or three during batting practice. One season, my partner Ben took a go-ahead home run to the jaw standing in the pen out in left-center. It left a bruise but it was a game-winning hit, so worth it.
We sit by Marc and Cali of Siloam Springs, both of whom work for a Christian card company. Marc runs ultramarathons for fun, and Cali (wo)mans his aid stations. Sometimes their blended family of grown kids cycle through the games with them. Marc wears a tired red bucket hat adorned with Razorback enamel pins and buttons. He’s a Midwestern guy who’s made his home with the hogs. Marc and Cali are happy, down to earth people we love. If things are going well, they both start to dance. Dancing Marc is a special treat; the world wishes it could be so lucky to see him break out his ole’ midwestern white dude moves, overflowing with joy as his body glides along to the stadium sounds of Rhianna or Red Dirt country.
This season didn’t end how we wanted it to. The hogs were absolutely slaughtered by TCU during our home-hosted regional. The weather was crappy and games were delayed. We didn’t make it to supers or to Omaha.
But it’s okay. We won our conference and we spent hours with our hog family enduring some exceptionally frigid and windy games in one of America’s best collegiate ballparks.
Baum Walker Stadium really is special, and the hog pen is a big part of that. It’s flanked by people who exemplify decades of statewide Razorback fandom — folks who have longed for a national championship and have woo’d pig sooie for longer than I’ve been on this earth. They know the stories and the voices and the ghosts of this game.
I remember a time before the hog pen existed when baseball wasn’t such a thing in the Natural State. I never thought there’d be enough room for Arkansas to love baseball the way I do, that it would never be able to quit its first love of football. That we’d never find a devotion beyond it.
But by some mysterious, even magical force, baseball has blossomed here. I’ve seen it catch like a fever, spreading its allure with elementary aged kids and pave the way for the explosion of travel ball clubs and city rec leagues. I can see the reverence for what Dave Van Horn has built here these last twenty years or so in Fayetteville through commitment, passion, and perseverance.
We celebrate our pro hogs. We pack out Baum Stadium. We clear a lawn in left field so people can cram in with their coolers and families and friends. A championship looms large, yes it is so close that we can taste it. But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here for the hogs and our chosen family. It’s the trash talk, the delivery pizza, the peanut shells and dusty tracks along the rail that draw us in and keep us coming back. We tolerate the downpours and the spider bites, the tipsy frat guys and the left-sided sunburns because of the joy we feel when we’re together in this place.
We are the hog pen, and we’re here because we’re home.