Since Coral Seymour Memorial Park opened as Oilers Park in 1976, the Peninsula Oilers have enjoyed a home-field advantage in Alaska Baseball League play.
The playing field is going to be leveled, though, for the 2002 season -- literally. Foster Construction began work Saturday to tear up the 26-year-old diamond. The project will smooth out the humps and swales that have formed over the years and build a level field.
The current project also entails moving the outfield fence about 12 feet closer to home plate. The park will still be the deepest in Alaska, but wood-bat wielding hitters will have a little better chance at putting one over or off the wall.
"Our immediate concern is to get the field seeded," said Mike Baxter, baseball operations manager for the Oilers. "It's been here a lot of years, and it needs a lot of work."
After recent rainfall, the grass on the field had finally greened up, but the dips and rises around the diamond were still there. Runners rounding third found themselves going downhill as they crossed the foul line, while the centerfielder was playing at an elevation about 2 feet lower than everyone else on the field.
Baxter said the outfield fence was in similar shape -- it looked good, as long as you didn't lean against it. Stories about a long fly ball that hit off the fence and dislodged a couple of boards along the way still draw chuckles around the park.
"The park was built with a lot of donated stuff, and a lot of that was used stuff," Baxter said. "The ballpark, in some sense, was old even when it was new."
The Oilers organization, which leases the park from the City of Kenai but takes care of all the maintenance on the facility -- a situation Baxter said was unique in Alaska, if not in all of baseball -- has kept everything patched together over the years.
The organization has taken on one project a season, with the new restroom facility the most recent improvement. The batting cage is another recent project.
Redoing the field has been high on the organization's to-do list, and the way the schedule worked out this season provided a window of opportunity to get some fresh seed down before winter hits. Baxter is hoping that part of the job will be done in the next two weeks with hydroseeding done by Moore's Landscaping.
Karl Ferlen, who has done much of the initial work to determine just what the park needs, will oversee construction of the new diamond and the new outfield fence.
Moving in the fences will serve two purposes. Equipment and heavy machinery can be moved around on the old warning track without trampling newly-seeded outfield grass, and a closer fence should make for a little bit more offensive excitement.
"With the switch to wood bats -- and it's always been a hard ballpark even with aluminum bats, we're going to bring them in," Baxter said. "That should help create a little more offense."
Even with the closer fences, Coral Seymour Memorial Park will retain its trademark expanse of outfield. Distances down the foul lines will be about 320 feet, straightaway center field will be 400 feet and the power alleys will measure some 363 feet.
"It's not going to all of the sudden be a bandbox where everything's going out," Baxter said. "There'll be a few more home runs, but not a lot."
Plans also include plumbing for the pitcher's mound. By putting a spigot just behind the mound, watering the field will become a much less awkward chore.
Baxter also would like to see the bullpens moved outside the short fences surrounding the field of play.
Other plans for the ballpark include replacing or rebuilding the bleachers as much of the wood has deteriorated over the years.
After that, if there's room in the budget -- the organization has committed $60,000 to the field and the fence and has a total of $100,000 to spend on renovations -- the Oilers are looking at possibly building a clubhouse or renovating the concession and souvenir stand.
"The ballpark belongs to the community," Baxter said. "It's under our care, and our desire is to provide a nice place for players to play. ... It's the people of the community and the businesses of the community that allows us to do this. It's our turn to thank the fans by making the ballpark a little better. We want them to have something they can be proud of."
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