Saturday, May 11, 2013

Royal Athletic Park is a ballpark once again

Home of the HarbourCats!
After the Victoria Seals folded in November of 2010, Royal Athletic Park no longer had the look of a ballpark. Sure, there were subtle reminders -- like the video scoreboard in centre field -- to remind passersby of past diamond glories, but long gone were the pitching mounds, bullpens and infield dirt (not to mention the whiff of grilled onions that has long been the trademark of the City of Victoria's concession stands).

Fear not, baseball fans; the Grand Old Dame on Caledonia Street is well on her way to being returned to her former glory -- and then some. The Victoria HarbourCats are just over three weeks away from playing their inaugural game, and the baseball club and city staff have been hard at work for many months to ensure that everything is just right for our new team.

I paid the historic ball yard a long overdue visit this weekend and I was definitely impressed with the transformation. The first thing you notice when entering the park is that the mound, infield dirt and bullpens are all back in place. A groundskeeper who used to work for the San Francisco Giants and is currently employed by the University of Washington was in town recently to help the local field maintenance staff, and the field looks to be in great shape.

Perhaps the biggest change is that the two bullpens have been consolidated into one mega-bullpen down the third base line. One large mound contains four pitching rubbers  --  two for the HarbourCats and two for the visitors. The HarbourCats pitchers will throw towards the backstop, while the visiting hurlers will warm up in the opposite direction. The bullpen catchers for the HarbourCats will be fairly close to third base, so each will need a spotter to protect him from batted balls. All in all, it's a very innovative design that keeps the first base line free of bullpen pitching mounds -- a must for a multi-purpose facility like Royal Athletic Park. A pair of bullpen benches and gates have also been installed down the third base line to remove the need for relievers to be seated on folding chairs in foul territory.

Another difference Victoria baseball fans will notice is that the home team will be occupying the third base dugout. Both the Victoria Seals and Capitals chose the first base dugout to be closer to the clubhouse and its bathroom facilities, but portable toilets will be located beyond the stands on the third base side for use by players during the game. The dugouts themselves have also been spruced up with new paint, hooks above the benches, a cement pad near the entrances and a safety fence.

A new removable home run fence has also been purchased. Sections of the six-foot high fence are on wheels, allowing the fence to be retracted in about 30 minutes at the end of a homestand. The left field portion of the fence will remain up all summer, since it won't interfere with the multi-purpose playing field. Outfield dimensions will likely be 315 feet down the lines, 365 feet in the power alleys and 395 to straight-away centre. The new fence is a huge step up from the flimsy fence used by the Victoria Seals that would occasionally be blown over by a stiff breeze.
Portions of the home run fence

The HarbourCats have also purchased an infield tarp to protect the playing surface (neither the Seals nor the Capitals had one). Although July and August in Victoria usually features impeccable weather, a few games were rained out during the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Last summer we experienced "June-uary", so it's good to know that if history repeats itself this year then the chance of a rain out is greatly reduced.

A pair of foul poles (more accurately known as "fair" poles) will also be installed in the near future. The pole on the third base line will be permanently fixed, but the one on the first base line will be removable. Both poles will be significantly higher than the ones previously used at RAP ballgames.

One difference that is not clearly visible at first glance is the infield skin. The dirt portion of the infield is actually a bit narrower than normal to allow deeply-positioned infielders to field the last bounce(s) of a ground ball on the outfield grass. This will allow for a truer bounce and hopefully reduce the number of bad hops. The idea, along with the dual bullpens, is the brainchild of coach Dennis Rogers.

The tarp -- just in case.
As we previously reported on the blog, home plate is now 15 feet closer to the stands. That change will make for a more intimate setting and put the fans even closer to the action (if Golden Baseball League players thought Victoria hecklers were a distraction before, visiting West Coast League teams are in for a treat). To improve sight lines further, a number of metal poles have also been removed from the backstop.

Not everyone is aware of it just yet, but Victoria baseball fans are in for a treat when they come out to the ballpark this summer. There may be a few minor glitches during the first homestand, but I'm convinced that the HarbourCats will deliver a much better product that the Victoria Seals ever did. There will be an improved ballpark, an exciting style of play, future major-leaguers in action, better food and beverage options, shorter lineups, cheaper tickets, and a state-of-the-art ticketing system free of "convenience" charges. What more could a fan ask for? Come on out and see for yourself -- first pitch is in 24 days!

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