The first thing fans will notice when they settle in for the June 8 opener at Coral Seymour Memorial Park will likely be the seating -- safe, sturdy and wider aluminum benches have replaced the wood planks on the bleachers along the baselines.
And once settled in, fans will have an opportunity to take in a laundry list of other changes -- some subtle, some much more obvious -- to the 26-year-old ballpark.
"It isn't the same place anymore," said Karl Ferlen, who has been supervising the renovation project which started after the final home game of the 2001 season.
Foster Construction began regrading the playing field the day after the Oilers packed up for the season last summer, and the result has been a beautifully level diamond. Center field was raised as mush as two feet in spots while the infield, which had been built up over the years, was lowered about a foot, and the foul territory behind home plate no longer has a dramatic slope to it.
The hydroseeded grass took hold before winter hit last year, and is coming in nicely around the field. There are a few brown patches, but Ferlen said they were probably seeded with a different blend of grass that just takes a little longer to germinate. Ferlen said the field was reseeded this spring, just in case.
Watering all that new grass should be a much easier task for the park's caretakers this summer. In addition to some plumbing and a spigot installed just behind the pitcher's mound, piping has been run along the foul line fence with spigots installed at intervals. There had been just one spigot located next to the third-base dugout, and any watering chore meant stretching out a couple hundred feet of hose.
"That's pretty cool," Ferlen said of the new plumbing. "Before, we had hoses all over the place."
Spectators may not notice the grade changes on the field, but they may just notice a few less groundskeeper's singles -- balls hit in the infield that take a funny hop and become impossible to field cleanly -- this summer.
Fans also will have an opportunity to take a closer look at the outfield fence. The structure was moved about 12 feet closer to home plate, and Ferlen and his crew have been putting the finishing touches on it since they picked up with the project this spring.
"That old fence is about to fall over," Ferlen said. "I'm hoping I designed this one well enough that it will take all the wind loads."
Coral Seymour Memorial Park still has the deepest fence in the Alaska Baseball League at 320 feet down the lines and 400 feet to center field, but fans this summer just might get to see a few more blasts clear the wall, and a few more balls played off the wall, making for some exciting baseball.
"That should help get a couple more home runs," Ferlen said. "That 412 feet (to center) was a hell of a shot."
Luke Mese and Jeff Kennedy work on a new fence, one of many improvements fans will see this season.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Other changes have been made around the perimeter of the field. The warning track, which used to exist only in the outfield, has been extended all the way around the perimeter of the playing field. The result is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also practical when it comes to mowing the field.
Likewise for the bullpens, which have been relocated outside the short fence surrounding the playing field, which has been rebuilt as well. The move makes foul territory a little safer for a player chasing a pop-up, much safer for pitchers warming up, and much easier to keep neatly trimmed.
Rebuilding the bullpen mounds also gives the organization the chance to make the warm-up mounds the same height as the mound in the middle of the diamond.
Ferlen said that many of the changes, once they are complete, will cut down on the amount of time spent on just taking care of the facility.
"Hopefully, (the new bleachers) are maintenance-free, so we don't have to keep painting them. Yearly maintenance is getting to be a big drag," Ferlen said. "The whole idea of doing this is getting the place as maintenance-free as possible so we can spend all our time on the field."
Ferlen has quite a list of projects for his crew, but he is working under a deadline made tighter by the late arrival of spring. Everything needs to be ready for the Oilers Hardball Tournament, which kicks off June 8.
"God, I hope we get it all done," Ferlen said. "We don't have any option, really."
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