Field of Dreams
By Chad Osborne
Dark, ominous storm clouds grumbled across the sky, looming overhead as a steady rain pelted the ballpark throughout the chilly afternoon.
Ordinarily, weather like this would spell doom for a college baseball game. Wet, slippery grass and dirt could force a chaotic, lengthy delay, or perhaps a postponement and burdensome rescheduling. It could mean hours of playing two games on a Sunday and delaying a student-athlete’s work on a pressing project due Monday morning. It could mean no game at all after everyone had gathered and prepared to play.
Time waiting out pesky rain delays often means myriad minutes, or often hours, wasted. It’s time student-athletes could dedicate to their studies. Time coaches could use more wisely to work with their players, tinker on paper with lineups and pitching rotations or plan for the busy schedule ahead.
This afternoon, March 23, at Williams Field at Sherman Carter Memorial Stadium, however, is different than all others before it. “There have been about six games already this season, including this one, that would not have been played on this field last year because of bad weather,” Radford University Head Baseball Coach Karl Kuhn said in late March.
But on this drizzly, 50-degree day in Radford, Highlander Connor Bagnieski ’21 poked two hits against the visiting opposition.
“It misted the entire game,” junior Derek Domecq said with a chuckle, recalling the contest. “It was one of those painfully annoying things where there was a constant light rain. It wasn’t getting you soaked, but you were just getting drilled with little raindrops all during the game.”
The game persisted for three hours and 38 minutes, with Hunter Williams ’21 and Ty Burton pitching superbly. The Highlanders won 11-3 as rain settled and dried unobtrusively in the synthetic grass beneath their feet.
“We didn’t have to stop the game one time,” Kuhn recalled days later. “This new turf is great!”
Before the 2021 Highlanders baseball season commenced, the Radford University Athletics Department installed a FieldTurf synthetic surface at Williams Field at Sherman Carter Memorial Stadium to replace the natural Tuckahoe bluegrass and dirt surface that had been in place since the ballpark opened in 2011.
The project broke ground in November 2020 and was privately funded through an anonymous donor, “someone who has a soft spot in their heart for our baseball program,” Kuhn said.
The smooth synthetic surface is a breathtaking sight upon walking toward stadium seating. It features strips of alternate green shading that looks much like real grass and runs through the infield from home plate to second base. Similar, but wider, strips line the outfield. Residing in center field is a grand display of the Radford University athletics shield logo, which looks as if it had been mowed into natural grass.
The batter’s circle around home plate, and the areas around each base, are Radford red. “Our colors,” Kuhn said. Red, blue and white athletics logos fill the on-deck circles, and the name “HIGHLANDERS” is spelled out in a downward arching fashion, like a warm, welcoming smile, in all capital letters, just a few feet behind home plate.
It clearly states: This is the home of Radford University baseball.
The gorgeous field, however, is much more than an aesthetically pleasing green ballpark cathedral.
“The addition of the turf field for baseball is a significant upgrade for the program,” Athletics Director Robert Lineburg said. “It will certainly help in the recruiting process, and it also gives baseball an opportunity to play games and practice virtually year-round.”
That’s a big deal for the ballplayers, who now can dedicate their time and energy on the field exclusively to games and instruction. That wasn’t the case before this year. Before the synthetic turf was installed, players spent valuable time preparing the field by watering and fertilizing the grass, raking the infield and chalk-lining the batter’s boxes and the two 330-feet-long baselines separating fair and foul that stretch from home to the far corners of left and right fields.
“Saving time on field maintenance increases the amount of time our student-athletes can work on their baseball development,” said Kuhn, now in his second season as the Highlanders head coach. “They don’t have to do the things players at other schools have to do. There’s no raking or chalking or dealing with the tarp”— no tarp is needed on the synthetic field — “they get to come out and play.”
Field prep for players is normal, as Kuhn stated, for most collegiate programs. “It’s just part of baseball,” Domecq added. “But it did take up a lot of unnecessary time.”
Less time spent on field maintenance, plus the durability of the surface, means more baseball not only for the Highlanders, but also for youth and travel teams who come to the University during the summer and fall for tournaments and camps.
“Many baseball programs across the country host youth and travel-team tournaments all summer long. We can do that more now with this field turf,” Kuhn explained. “It allows us to have an unbelievable opportunity to have more quality youth baseball players — on our field and in front of our coaches — who will be potentially recruited to be student-athletes here at Radford University.”
This, Kuhn said, brings more people into the City of Radford, a tremendous economic boost, and gets more student-athletes and their families on campus to learn more about Radford University and immerse themselves in its culture.
All of this, the coach said, is because of the generosity donors have bestowed upon the baseball program and the University.
“I hope the donors know how absolutely humbled and appreciative we are as a coaching staff,” Kuhn said. “We now played on both surfaces” — natural and synthetic — “and it is an unbelievable advantage the donors have given us for the development of our players and recruiting purposes in the future.”
Lineburg echoes this sentiment.
“We have made a number of enhancements to Sherman Carter Memorial Stadium-Williams Field that would not have been possible without the generosity of our donors,” the athletics director explained. “The new turf field is the latest philanthropic gift from a donor who cares deeply about Radford baseball and Radford University. This type of commitment truly makes a difference in the lives of our student-athletes and coaches, and we are all so very appreciative.”
Whether they are playing games in the sunshine or rain, or taking batting practice inside the Sioros Center indoor hitting, pitching and video facility on a cold, early spring day, the players realize and appreciate the commitment that is being made to the baseball program. The kindness and generosity are not lost on them.
“It shows that they care about us,” Domecq said. “We’re putting in the effort — blood, sweat and tears — and we’re getting rewarded along the way with great things like the new turf field and the indoor batting facility they built a few years ago. They’re always improving the facilities, and we’re grateful for it.”
With support from all around — the University, coaches and donors — the future of baseball at Radford University continues to shine brightly.