By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports
If you wanted to know what is the biggest change in high school baseball in the last two generations, it’s not hard to find.
No, it’s not constant checking of the wristbands for the signals, or the parents shooting phone video footage through the net every time their son comes to the plate, or the seven sets of uniforms each team seems to have. (Those would all be good guesses, by the way).
Pitchers still throw in the 80s, no ground ball is routine and half the season is played in bitter cold and then the weather gets bad.
Those things may not have changed, but the fields they are played on sure have.
Almost every local high school baseball program has upgraded its facilities to almost unrecognizable levels in the course of the last dozen years or so. How much depends on which schools you are talking about but consider this – most Shreveport schools didn’t even play on a field with an outfield fence a couple of decades ago.
There are many examples of how far things have come, but let’s start with these:
- Byrd and Loyola (Jesuit at the time) used to share the same field at Betty Virginia Park, a city-owned facility. They got around to cutting the grass every once in a while. A shot to deep center might interrupt a picnic. If a ball down the left field line went into the concrete ditch, it was a ground rule double. From there, Byrd went on to play at games at Broadmoor Middle School, where a ball could easily get lost in the clover. Loyola played its home games at SPAR Stadium, Little League and Centenary. Now, both have facilities that rival any others.
- If you go by Captain Shreve’s baseball field, you will see a backstop off to the left of the entrance. Hard to believe when you see what the Gators have now, but that is where home plate once was. Just a backstop. No fence. With the prevailing wind, outfielders had to play so deep that a routine single often would turn into a double. Shreve still uses that old field for infield practice, but there might be merit to getting an historic marker put up there.
“And don’t forget that most of these places didn’t have lights, so you had to play games at 3 o’clock,” says Airline coach Toby Todd. “I started at Woodlawn in 1988 and we would have to go play Byrd wherever they could play. We played them at Cargill with an all-dirt infield.”
Here’s one that will stun you if you just woke up from a 30-year nap: Airline has done a number of improvements over the years, but recently did an upgrade to the entrance way, restrooms, concessions, press box and premium seating that cost almost a million dollars. You read that correctly.
Yes, part of the improvement can be filed under “keeping up with the Joneses,” but Todd has a theory on how and why this has taken place. “When Skip Bertman came to LSU, he made baseball relevant in this state,” says Todd, who has won more than 400 games in his coaching career. “It was no longer the assistant football coach who lost the flip. At Airline, coach (Clay) Bohanan was the first true baseball man and he made Airline baseball relevant.”
Years ago, Haughton had a cesspool in deep center field, which didn’t remind anybody of Monument Park at Yankee Stadium.
“Before we built the new outfield wall, there used to be a tree out in left field,” says Haughton’s Glenn Maynor, who has been the coach for the Bucs since 1995. “Then we cut it down but there was still a stump. We used to have to go over it in the ground rules (before the game). And that wasn’t unusual. You had stuff like that at all kinds of fields.”
“When I first got here, we put up a half-cinder block backstop and poles and a net instead of a chain-link fence,” Shreve’s Todd Sharp says. “Now everybody has that. And I’ve replaced the net three times since then. But there’s always improvements being made. We used to mow the field with a John Deere tractor. Now we use a reel mower and can stripe the field.”
Part of the progress has taken away a little of the quirkiness that some fields had. Both Parkway and Benton have built new schools and have new baseball fields to go with them. They each moved away from an old facility that was both cramped – and different – from everyone else’s. Parkway had a gigantic left field fence that was 250 feet from home plate. A home run to right field at Benton didn’t have to travel much farther, but retrieve the round-trippers at your own risk — be careful of the horse dung beyond the fence.
Former coach Ronnie Coker began his career at Parkway (he went on to coach at Byrd and Shreve) and has seen the transformation first-hand. “More schools are making it a priority,” Coker says. “Which is fantastic for the kids because the kids win. If somebody else is doing something with their field, you want to do it too.”
It doesn’t happen overnight, but with the right amount of fundraising and volunteer sweat equity, things can happen. And there is ego involved as well.
“You don’t want to be the team,” Maynor says, “that has the worst field in the district.”
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