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Grass late in arriving at Mat-Su Miners' home field

The outfield fence at Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer was damaged by strong winds last winter and is one of several problems facing the Alaska Baseball League's Mat-Su Miners.
Photo by DENISE CHRISTOPHER
The outfield fence at Hermon Brothers Field was so damaged by a November wind storm that the Mat-Su Miners had to take down many of the billboards and build new wood frames for them.
Photo by DENISE CHRISTOPHER

Iowa has a field of dreams. Alaska has a field of nightmares.

Hermon Brothers Field in Palmer may be the prettiest little ballpark on the planet, a place where Pioneer Peak provides a majestic backdrop to center field.

But from the end of last season until now, the park has been the source of one problem after another.

A hydroseeding project in mid-August went terribly awry, leaving giant brown spots in the infield where grass didn't grow.

A wind storm in November destroyed the electronic scoreboard, blew away a shack used by umpires and damaged 150 feet of outfield fence.

Then came May, when Mat-Su Miners general manager Pete Christopher hoped to reseed the infield and get things nice and green in time for next week's start of the Alaska Baseball League season. Except May served up a double-whammy of uncooperative weather -- cold and dry -- that foiled Christopher's plans.

It wasn't until this week that grass appeared -- a minor miracle that earned the season's first saves for a Valley landscaper and the man who runs the UAF Matanuska Experiment Farm, who together came up with a plan to quickly grow grass.

Thanks to donations of labor and materials, a new scoreboard will be in place, the outfield fence will stand tall and the field will be playable in time for Monday night's season-opening game, Christopher said.

"We're getting there," he said Thursday as he worked on the field that sits next to the Alaska State Fairgrounds.

Christopher's headaches started in August when the Miners decided to put in a new grass infield because the old one had too much thick grass and thatch. They took out the sod, dug six inches deep to take out thatch and brought in 10 truckloads of topsoil. Christopher put down 100 pounds of seed and the next day, Aug. 15, the field was hydroseeded.

"By September I was looking at it and saying oh my god," Christopher said. "It came in blotchy. I mean blotchy.

"There were spots with thick, green grass and spots in 12-inch-square areas with just a few blades of grass. It was not what an Alaska league field should look like."

But winter was on its way and nothing could be done until spring. When May came, it brought nothing but cold, dry weather. The lack of rain was particularly critical. Hermon Brothers sits on land leased from the State Fair and gets its water from the fairgrounds. This year there was no water until May 19, because the fairgrounds' pipes were frozen.

"I started to panic," Christopher said.

Then came Memorial Day weekend and a visit to the ballpark by Jud Scott, the superintendent of the UAF Matanuska Experiment Farm, and Ken Fennell of Lawn Tech. Their plan included borrowing a couple of tarp-like greens covers from Settlers Bay Golf Course, which were placed over the infield after it had been aerated, fertilized and seeded. The tarps create a greenhouse effect that raised temperatures under them by 15 to 20 degrees, Christopher said.

Six days later, on Tuesday of this week, the tarps came off "and it looked pretty good," Christopher said. "It's a little thin in places but it looks 10 times better than it did before."

After the tarps came off, sod cutters were needed to cut out base paths, which had grass growing on them because of overseeding. Christopher and about a dozen players were still working on the infield on Thursday.

"This is what it's like to take care of a natural grass field in Alaska," he said.

November's wind storm, meanwhile, made a mess in other parts of the park.

About 150 feet of outfield fence was nearly blown over, the scoreboard was destroyed by something that blew into it and an 8x8-foot shack used by umpires was tossed about 30 feet.

In all, $30,000 worth of damage was done, Christopher said, although the Miners have only had to spend about $5,000. Many of the repairs were donated to the nonprofit team -- the IBEW bought a new scoreboard, Alcan Electric provided an electrician, Greatland Welding helped fortify the fence, T&J Gravel donated 70 yards of topsoil, Alaska Pacific Rentals loaned an aerator and the State Fair loaned a forklift. And that's just a short list of those who helped.

"We shelled out probably one-fifth of what we could have," Christopher said. "I've lived in four states and I've never lived in a place like the Valley. It's just amazing how people pitch in when something happens."

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

Batter up

Five of the Alaska Baseball League's six teams play home openers next week:

Sunday -- Bucs vs. Pilots, doubleheader, Mulcahy Stadium, 2 p.m.

Monday -- Pilots at Mat-Su Miners, Hermon Brothers, 7 p.m.

Tuesday -- Bucs at Chugiak Chinooks, Loretta French Field, 7 p.m.

Wednesday -- Fairbanks Goldpanners at Peninsula Oilers, Seymour Memorial Park, 7 p.m.


By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News