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Friday, April 4, 2008

Field Day at the Shrine at Airline

Posted By on Fri, Apr 4, 2008 at 7:38 PM

By Alejandro de los Rios

click to enlarge Marks working on dirt

All right, so most people would call it Opening Day, but with all the action on the field, not many may have noticed the field itself. I said it before, but I'll say it again: It's brand new, all $1.2 million of it. And the man you see in the picture in the green shirt hosing the dirt before the first pitch is Thomas Marks, the head groundskeeper at Zephyrs field going on seven years. So what was wrong with the old field?

"You get what you pay for," Marks said.

Apparently, the team hadn't paid for much. As Marks described it, the old field had no drainage system to speak of. A problem when you're in a place like New Orleans where sudden, intense showers happen regularly during the summer. On the old field, sudden showers meant Marks and his crew would spend a good 40 minutes squeegeeing the water off the playing surface.

"You got a half acre of water that you gotta move and it wasn't easy," Marks said.

Compare that to Wednesday, when a sudden storm came by and threatened to sour the Zephyrs' first practice. Marks and his crew saw the rain and planned like usual, putting tarp on the infield and then getting their squeegees ready. Once the rain let up, the crew went out to work to displace the water. Except now, there wasn't much water to move.

"We were done after just a couple of seconds," Marks said.

Oh what a difference $1.2 million makes. But ironically enough, the outfield — which isn't covered during a rain delay and thus takes most of the water — isn't the biggest of Marks' concerns. To him, and baseball groundskeepers everywhere, the main concern is the infield.

"You spend a lot of time dealing with dirt," he said.

Clay, to be precise. And really, it all makes sense. After all, every player except the outfielders spend most of their time on dirt, not grass. Every day is a constant exercise to make sure the dirt is the right consistency. "Cleat in, cleat out" is the ideal, Marks said. That means a player can walk across the dirt and leave only his cleat marks without taking up any chunks.

In the spirit of the day, I asked pitched Nate Field what his relationship to the field is.

"For [pitchers] it's just pretty much the mound," he said. "What you're looking for in a mound is that it holds together, it's not too sticky. Some places where the dirt's kinda loose and you come in at the end of the game and it's trashed."

Of course, being a pitcher, Field would like the mound to be surround by a big, spacious ballpark. One that turns home runs and foul balls into long outs. But there's not such luck in the Pacific Coast League.

"This league is a hitter's league," he said. "There's only a handful of pitchers parks. We're one of them so we have to take advantage of that."

Zephyr's field compares favorably to big-league ballparks — it runs 330 feet to left field, 405 feet to center and 332 to right — and is almost identical to Jacob's field in Cleveland, which runs 325 to right and left field and 410 to straightaway center. I mention this because Field made his Major League debut with the Kansas City Royals at Cleveland on April 14, 2002. When Field and his wife had a son two years ago, the pair appropriately named him Jacob.

"It all worked out," he said. "But if I had made my debut in Colorado, I wouldn't have named my kid Coors."

By the way, the Zephyrs did win last night, beating the Nashville Sound 5-2. The two teams will play the second game of four tonight and once that that series is over, the Zephyrs will face Memphis for another four-game home stand.

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