Palmer's perfect ball yard

Posted: Sunday, July 07, 2002

PALMER (AP) -- Walking along the gravel road leading to Hermon Brothers Field, the aura of baseball is impossible to avoid. It hits you in the face like a bad hop.

Fans enter the park from behind center field, and at first all they can see is the back of a tall, green wall. But the inviting smell of freshly cut grass and the distant sound of ball slamming into glove catches the imagination.

It's a long walk to the home-plate seating area. But the reward is the perfect setting for baseball. The field of the Mat-Su Miners welcomes fans with its classic lines and wows them with its trademark view.

Built in 1976, Hermon Brothers Field is a throwback to the old-school yards that were both basic and big.

There is enough foul territory to graze cattle. The right-field and left-field corners are 325 feet from home plate. Center field extends 405 feet from the batter. The infield grass is long, serving as tiny fingers to slow down ground balls.

Majestic Pioneer Peak stands over left field. The rest of the Chugach Mountains peek over the fence in center. Towering birch trees hug most of the outfield. The adjacent fairgrounds provide a distant view of a Ferris wheel, a rodeo stadium and a patch of farm land.

''It's got that ''Field of Dreams'' feel to it,'' said Miners fan Dave Zwink of Palmer. ''It's a special place to watch a game.''

The mosquitoes are notoriously vicious, however.

The home team has an enthusiastic crowd that remains vocal until the final out.

''It's our team,'' said longtime Miners supporter Nell Zaborac, the widow of former general manager Stan Zaborac, who died during the 2000 season. ''The team is a part of the community.''

Even if you're a visitor, the small-town feel of the park is a part of its charm. The burgers taste homemade. The coffee is cheap. The beer is cold.

And there isn't a bad seat in the house.

''Here, you're so close to the field you know the umps can hear you,'' Zwink said from his $4 box seat. ''I like the intimacy and the fact that its very fan friendly. Frankly, you can let your kids run around.''

Kids play a major part in the Hermon Brothers Field experience, mostly because of the unmistakable rattlesnake sound they make while scattering for foul balls in the loose gravel that surrounds the ballpark. Each foul ball returned is worth $1. The competition is fierce.

''Having the kids run around chasing foul balls inside the ballpark is something you can't do at most other places,'' Zwink said.

The Miners games are the only show in town during the summer, recalling a day when baseball was king in America. Fans still call players by their first names and live and die with the outcome of each pitch.

Before the Miners were the Miners, they were the Valley Green Giants, a team created in 1976 from dreams of hardworking folks like Don Dennis, Ken Soule, Zaborac and the brothers Hermon -- for whom the field is named. They got a lifetime contract with the state fairgrounds to rent the land for $1 per season.

As general manager of the Valley Green Giants, Dennis controlled the team's finances and operated on a tight budget. Much of the construction of the field was done by volunteers.

The brothers Hermon donated heavy equipment and man hours.

''If Ben Hermon's drivers wouldn't volunteer their time, he would pay them to come help out after work,'' said Nell Zaborac.

Stan Zaborac, known as the heart and soul of the Miners down to his faded Miners jacket, installed the dugouts.

The finished product nestled in stunning Matanuska Valley was designed to give people the idea they were getting away -- whether they were coming from Palmer, Wasilla or Anchorage.

''It was a whole different feeling,'' said former ABL radio voice John Sweeney of Anchorage. ''It's like going to a different time, a different era.''

Sweeney says he still makes detours to visit the ballpark on his way to Palmer Golf Course down the road. A former assistant general manager for the Valley Green Giants, Sweeney remembers standing on a clearing of dirt long before it became a field of dreams.

''It was a miracle how it got done,'' Sweeney said. ''Every part of that ballpark was done differently.''

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