Bigger Field, Fewer Fans

06/13/2009 – Daily News Record

Written By Dustin Dopirak Daily News Record online HARRISONBURG – As a pitcher, Garrett Parker is a fan of the deeper fences he gets to work with at Long Field. He also thinks the turf infield plays truer and makes it easier for his infielders, so that’s another plus. But he does miss the Memorial Stadium crowds. "I don’t like it with less people," said Parker, a right-hander from Oklahoma City University who is now in his third summer with the Valley Baseball League’s Harrisonburg Turks. "But I figured that was going to happen." Turks owner/manager Bob Wease figured it, too. His team had to find a temporary home this season because James Madison is building a new baseball/softball complex at the old Memorial Stadium site. The $9.7 million ballpark, scheduled to be finished in time for the 2010 college season, will house both the Dukes and Turks. Because Long Field – JMU’s now-former ballpark – has no lights, the Turks play games at 5 p.m. instead of at the VBL’s traditional 7:30 p.m. On the lone weekday game so far this summer, that apparently depressed attendance. "Saturdays and Sundays, I think one night we had around 700 people here," Wease said. "That was opening night. We played New Market and had a nice crowd. The next night, which was a Sunday, we had like 250, 300 people. But of course when we played on [Wednesday] here, it was like 100 people. It’s just hard for people to get off from work." Wease figured that would be the case, so he didn’t expect to turn a huge profit from this season. However, he said he’s kept most of his sponsors despite the shaken economy – he said he lost only four or five of the sponsors who put banners on the outfield wall last season – and he hopes the weekend crowds keep him from taking a major financial blow. The VBL schedule makers helped him in that regard. Eleven of the 13 weekend games the Turks play this season will be at home. "We’re not going to have the fans that we’ve had in previous years unless they start coming out on Saturdays and Sundays," Wease said, "which I think they will once school is out. If you’re playing at 5 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, I think people will bring their kids out, and they’ll be home by 9 o’clock." As for rain, the move to Long Field has its pluses and minuses. The artificial turf at Long drains extremely well, meaning it can take a torrential downpour and still be playable. However, without lights, the games need to be finished around 8:30 or 9 p.m. With nine-inning games typically lasting between 2? and 3 hours, the Turks can’t start one much later than 6 p.m., and if there’s lightning or heavy rain, they have to make quick decisions about canceling a game. There’s also the potential problem of slow moving or extra inning games. If a game were called on account of darkness, it would have to be suspended and finished at a later date. Before the start of the game, it’s up to the home team manager to decide whether or not a game should be called. Once it starts, the umpires have jurisdiction. Wease thought he pulled the trigger too early Tuesday, when he called a game against Fauquier during a heavy rain and lightning storm, only to see the skies clear up shortly thereafter. That’s caused Wease to consider an alternative plan. "What could happen is if we get a rain delay, I’m going to go up to the other coach," he said, "and say, ‘Listen, I don’t want you riding back here because I know it takes a lot of money for the bus, so why not let’s just agree on a seven-inning game and that will be it.’" Other than those issues, the Turks seem to be fans of their temporary home, especially the pitchers. Long Field isn’t known as a pitchers’ park in college ball, where they use metal bats- in fact, the 320-foot porch in right field had major league scouts questioning whether former JMU All-American Kellen Kulbacki’s stats were bloated – but in a wooden-bat league like the VBL, it’s expansive. Most of the league’s parks are either high school fields or used for high school games, just like Memorial Stadium was before the new Harrisonburg High School was built. Memorial was bigger in the gaps than Long Field, but it was just 365 feet to center field, 320 down the left-field line and 290 down the right-field line. Long Field is 340 to left and 400 to center. "It’s a lot bigger than the parks in this league," Parker said. "…For pitching, it’s a lot more convenient. It’s a graveyard out there off a wood bat. People can’t hit it as far. Balls will get hit well, but it’s a lot easier to pitch at." The fielders are also fans of the move to turf. "I think pitchers can trust the fielders more with the games on the turf," said infielder Daniel Heatwole, a Turner Ashby High School graduate who played at Hagerstown (Md.) Community College last season and is in his second summer with the Turks. "There are better hops, and less errors definitely." Next season, the Turks will have everything they like about Long Field and nothing they don’t. The infield, as well as the outfield, at the new Memorial Stadium will be turf, the dimensions will be similar to Long Field’s and there will be lights, which should mean a return to 7:30 p.m. games and fans in the stands. "You expect that if you’re playing at 5 o’clock, you’re not going to have big crowds," Wease said. "I just want to get through the season, have a good season, win some ball games, and hopefully not lose a bunch of money."


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