Bismarck baseball fans have grown accustomed to dodging raindrops and foul balls, peering around dugouts and watching home runs turn into doubles — or even outs.
That’s life at spacious but dowdy Municipal Ballpark, home of an assortment of college, amateur, American Legion, high school and Babe Ruth baseball teams.
Fans have called the steel-bleachered ballpark the world’s largest lightning rod. They’re a hardy lot. The park lacks a covered grandstand, so everyone is subject to the elements and pop fouls.
Yet the day is soon coming when players, coaches, fans and umpires alike can look back upon the shortcomings of the 92-year-old ballpark and just laugh.
Anyone who’s driven by the ballpark on Sweet Ave., lately has noticed the steel stands have been pushed aside. They’ve been replaced by mounds of dirt, a sure sign that progress is in the works — progress in the form of a $1.5 million renovation project.
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Most of that money has been raised via private contributions by a committee of the Bismarck Baseball Boosters co-chaired by Steve Chuppe and Al Bortke.
Bortke said the campaign has enjoyed broad-based support of many contributors donating relatively small gifts.
“I’m proud of the money we’ve raised so far. ... We didn’t get any of that kind of (large-donor) money,” Bortke said.
Chuppe seconded the motion.
“I’ve never been so proud to be from this community. It hasn’t been one donor who’s carried the ball, it’s been dozens of small to mid-level donors who have carried the project.”
Dakota Community Bank and Puklich Chevrolet did some heavy lifting with gifts of $250,000 and $100,000, respectively. Three other contributors added $50,000 apiece, but over half the fundraising effort has come from a broad base.
“It’s incredible how well-received our committee was. They’ve had a very high success rate,” Chuppe said.
To date, 264 entities have contributed to the project.
The Baseball Boosters’ funds-raising campaign is ongoing.
“Right now (as of Monday) we’ve raised $1,168,130. Our goal was 1.4 or 1.5 million. ... We probably need to raise, by my estimate, another $200,000. That would enable us to do everything we wanted to do,” Bortke said.
The Baseball Boosters committee is hoping to generate additional funds through the sale of stadium seats ($350 per seat), corporate sponsorships and individual sponsorships.
Once the project is completed, the difference should be evident to players and fans alike.
Probably the most obvious change will be seating. A covered grandstand is designed to offer stadium seating for 1,000. Additional bleacher seating down the foul lines will double the capacity to 1,600 spectators.
Both the backstop and seating will be moved closer to home plate. Likewise, the dugouts will be pinched in closer to the basepaths, allowing the bleacher seats to sit closer to the action.
Other improvements include a new clubhouse for players and improved concession, restroom, press box and main gate facilities. The roofed players’ benches, which now sit at ground level, will become dugouts. That will take the dugouts out of the fans’ line of vision.
“The sightlines were just ridiculous,” Bortke said. “Now the sightlines will be excellent,”
Chuppe said seats with obstructed view will be no more.
“The seats are all above the dugouts,” he said. “The grandstand and dugouts will be significantly closer to the field.”
Lights, a significant expense, are not an issue. Chuppe said the current light towers will sit undisturbed where they are now.
The new, improved Municipal Ballpark should be more player-friendly, too.
In the fall of 2011 the infield got a makeover to take away some of the bad hops that endangered infielders. The infield has already gotten additional attention.
“The playing surface was scraped down and re-leveled,” Chuppe said.
Those home run-proof outfield fences are going to be pulled in from the left field foul pole to center field. Fifteen feet will come off the left field line, making it 320 feet. Center field will be reduced from 415 to 380. Right field will keep its ivy-covered chain link fence and remain at 335 feet down the line.
A solid wall will replace the chain link fence from the left field line to dead center.
“First of all (the players) are going to notice the shorter distance for a home run,” Bortke said.
By pulling the left field fence in, there will be room for a full practice infield beyond the outfield wall. Plenty of room will remain for two new batting cages.
Parking accommodations haven’t been overlooked.
“The Parks District will pay for resurfacing the parking lot. ... They’ll extend the parking lots into the area where the Community Gardens are. That’s about a $600,000 project,” Bortke said.
Everyone involved with the ballpark renovation is keeping an eye on the sky. The precipitation over the last three weeks has gobbled up precious time that could have been invested in concrete work.
“The weather has been challenging and has slowed construction,” said Randy Bina, executive director of parks and recreation. “... At this time we plan on having a playable facility by next spring. ... Our main concern right now is to have the playing field ready.”
“Visiting with the contractor last week, they felt pretty good about continuing to move forward. ... A lot depends on the weather. It is an outdoor project,” Bina added.
Work on the areas that affect the playing surface — the dugouts and outfield fence — is currently in progress.
“The first area to be addressed was to replace the dugouts. ... The footings for the dugouts have been poured. That’s the deepest point for underground work,” Bina said.
“The outfield fence will be going in fairly soon. They’re putting in a new fence in left field and center field,” he added.
Concrete work has begun for the grandstand footings. Bina said that’s a meaningful step forward.
“It’s significant to get that stuff done. ... The contractors have to do some work throughout the winter and that will depend on the weather. The longer they have nice weather in the fall it’s going to make it easier to get work done.”
Bina said a lot hinges on the concrete footings for the grandstand.
“That’s what the big push, I believe, is for the contractor right now. They want to get that done,” he said. “... Mother Nature is slowing down progress on construction projects all around town.”
“If the concrete work is done they can build the seats and the press box over the winter,”Bina continued. “... They can build a shelter and heat it and do some brickwork over the winter.”
Both Bortke and Chuppe said Parks and Recreation has been a strong ally in the ballpark rehabilitation process.
“Randy Bina has been very, very supportive of this. ... Randy has worked very hard with the (park district) board members,” Bortke said.
Chuppe said things have gone smoothly with the park district.
“Parks and Recreation has really stepped up. Randy and the staff have put a lot of effort into this — with the blessing of the park board,” he said.
Chuppe said Municipal Ballpark is undergoing a metamorphosis from a baseball field to a ballpark. He remembers attending many games before the ballpark was turned around 180 degrees in 1992 in deference to street construction.
“I loved that old field. I just loved it,” he said. “This (renovation), hopefully, will get us closer to that. I really think this is going to have a baseball feel to it.”
Improvements to Municipal Ballpark will produce a domino effect. The bleachers and sound system that are being replaced are bound for Haaland Field at Cottonwood Park. Haaland Field’s bleachers, in turn, will be moved to the two Babe Ruth baseball diamonds at Tatley Park.
Reach reporter Steve Thomas at 701-250-8244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.