One of the great old ballparks in the state is getting an upgrade.
Mandan Veterans Memorial Ballpark will undergo a $2.5 million renovation project beginning next summer. Already, $1.5 million has been raised.
"We're not going to change the scope of the ballpark, we're just updating it," said Mandan Parks and Recreation Director Cole Higlin. "The bottom line is we need to make some changes to make it better."
The most significant change will be the playing surface. Synthetic turf will cover the entire field. The change was necessary due to significant and repeated drainage issues the ballpark has dealt with.
Long-held nostalgia of baseball being played on a grass field is difficult for many to let go. However, practicality prevailed over passion.
"Admittedly, I'm one of those guys that feels like baseball is meant to be played on grass, but there are just so many problems with drainage that it became pretty clear (turf) was the way to go," said Mandan Baseball Club President Damian Huettl, an alum of the Mandan American Legion baseball program. "The most important thing is getting kids out on the field so they can play games. Doing this gives us the best opportunity to do that."
The project involves much more than putting in turf.
The ballpark was built in 1952. The dugouts, press box and grandstand wings have not been updated since the 1980s. In fact, the dugouts have structural issues that need to be addressed. The $2.5 million is expected to cover the bulk of the project. About 500 permanent seats will be added. The new seats will be closer to the field as the distance between home plate and the grandstand will be shortened from 60 feet to about 45 feet.
Keeping the ballpark current helps in attracting noteworthy tournaments in the future, including the state Class B tournament in 2019.
As for the specifics, those, too, are coming together.
The project is pegged to begin right after July 4, meaning the home schedules for the Legion programs will be front-loaded. The plan is for everything to be done before the snow flies in 2018.
"Actually, it's a pretty simple project," Higlin said. "There isn't really anything overly technical about it."
Of the $2.5 million needed, $1.5 million is in the bank. Mandan Parks and Recreation donated $750,000 and the Mandan Baseball Club committed $500,000. BNC National Bank pledged $225,000, buying naming rights to the playing field. Maintaining the ballpark's name, and its tribute to veterans, was essential. In fact, Huettl said a number of veterans have been integral in getting fundraising kicked into high gear.
"We have such a strong veteran presence in our community with a deep connection to Legion baseball," Huettl said. "We've gotten awesome assistance from veterans in Mandan in the fundraising process. I've seen it firsthand. When they walk into a room they get people's attention."
Huettl, who played on Mandan's 1990 state championship team, is confident his fellow alumni will "donate generously" to the project. But, he and the 10-person baseball board have also been "reaching out to some of the biggest hitters in town," and have received "positive responses."
Huettl said the renovation to the ballpark is the largest project the board has undertaken and that they're "learning as we go."
Ideally, they'd like to raise more than $2.5 million to put toward future upgrades to the ballpark. Projects like this one are engineered in such a way to allow for additional add-ons down the road.
For the more immediate future, they would like to build a Vietnam Veterans Memorial War-style monument on the backside of the grandstand to honor contributors to the project. Funds needed for that are separate from the initial costs of the project.
Huettl said it has helped to have harmony on the team when it comes to covering all the bases of the project.
"We're pretty fortunate in Mandan with the park district where it's truly a partnership. It's not like that in a lot of cities," said Huettl, an attorney. "We have a common goal and that's to treat the ballpark with a lot of respect and make it better for the future of our kids and for the future of baseball in Mandan."