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Clash over handling of Knute Nelson ballpark

This was the scene from the first-base dugout at Knute Nelson Ballpark in Alexandria on Monday afternoon as plenty of snow was still holding on all over the playing surface. (Eric Morken, Echo Press)

Those close to the Alexandria baseball scene have watched as other communities have done what they can to prepare their fields during this terrible spring weather and asked why similar steps haven't been taken at Knute Nelson ballpark.

The Alexandria baseball team is more than four weeks into its season and still hasn't stepped foot on its home field. That's why head coach Russ Hinrichs and his players wanted to help move things along last Friday by going down to the park with shovels to move around the snow that still covers the infield turf as well as the outfield grass.

Others involved with the Alexandria Youth Baseball Association (AYBA) were willing to help out. There was talk of bringing in small snow blowers to help clear things off the playing surface. But it's a plan that was strongly discouraged by Alexandria City Park Director Bill Thoennes, who said an attempt to move snow right now would do more harm than good because of how soft the ground is.

"I don't know what his expectations are," Hinrichs said. "I tell our kids, we have just as much right to play there as everyone else. I've been to those Northwoods League games. I've seen them shoot guys out of a cannon, and they're not worried about that hurting the field...we just want to get down there and try to shovel, and they have a problem with that."

Hinrichs decided against it after he was told that any damage done to the field would be the high school's responsibility. That caused others who were willing to help out to stay away as well.

"Under those conditions, we weren't going to do anything, and that was basically it," AYBA President Bob Booth said. "It's just disappointing to know that the city doesn't really care about taking the initiative. I think they just could have done a lot more, knowing what other communities have done. It's frustrating but we have no control over it."

Thoennes understands the frustration, but feels that doing anything now just isn't a good idea. He said the city was never going to run the risk of damaging the infield turf by running equipment over it at any time this winter.

They cleared snow from behind home plate and from the stadium to the first and third-base lines in mid-March. Those are the areas that don't receive as much sunlight. The thought was that Mother Nature would take care of the rest.

"We did try to be proactive by blowing the snow away to where the sun would shine and take care of it," Thoennes said. "With hindsight being 20-20, maybe we could have done more, but at the time, moving three feet of snow, we would have had to keep blowing it and blowing it and blowing it. Going across the turf, that would have had to be done by shoveling it off by hand, which would have been almost impossible."

Many area fields that are further along right now got that way by moving snow before the thaw started. The field in Evansville was cleared off weeks ago by a parent bringing in a truck with a plow and pushing the snow to the fence. A blower was then used to throw it off the playing surface. Much of that was done at night to make sure the ground was frozen solid.

Chargers' head coach Brian Perleberg said his team has practiced on the field six or seven times this spring. They could have held games in Evansville early last week if not for the rain that hit the area last Sunday. Other schools and communities have taken similar steps to prepare their baseball and softball fields as much as possible.

Booth said he understands the concern over wanting to protect the field turf at Knute. Many close to the Cardinal baseball program felt more still could have been done while being mindful of that, even if it meant allowing them to get in there with shovels and clear snow themselves.

"It's frustrating because looking at other communities and other fields, they're in far better shape than what this one is," Booth said. "We need to respect what Bill and the city believe and what they're going to do. I just really think they could have worked with us a lot more."

Thoennes said this has been a learning experience for the city, too. Winter has never held on this long since they installed the infield turf in 2008. He never imagined they would still be talking about Knute Nelson having more than a foot of snow on it in mid-April.

"Most of [the snow] is always gone by now," Thoennes said. "By far, this is new territory for the infield part...we know that Knute Nelson ballpark is the home of the Cardinal baseball team. It's a unique ballpark. It would be very disappointing if they had to move [home games] to a different location, but we have to do what's best for the ballpark."

The Cardinals are at the mercy of the weather at this point. That's not a good place to be with Tuesday's forecast calling for 3-6 inches of snow through Wednesday and Thursday.

Being forced to move home games to surrounding towns seems like a real possibility at this point. It's a frustrating situation for the Cardinals in what has become a frustrating spring for everybody.

"It's a city ballpark," Hinrichs said. "We understand that, and I think as a city ballpark, you also have a responsibility to maintain it. To make sure that it's our place to play. I hate to think the Alexandria baseball team would have to go and move their home games out of town."

Eric Morken
Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.
(320) 763-1229
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