HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) _ Scott Berry can tell you exactly when he knew something was going to have to be done with the playing surface at the University of Southern Mississippi’s baseball stadium, Pete Taylor Park.
“When we started losing balls in the outfield this year,” University of Southern Mississippi baseball coach Scott Berry said. “When they started disappearing in the ground.”
To the casual eye, the green, green grass at PTP provides the kind of luxuriant, natural surface where baseball was meant to be played.
USM’s outfield has become nearly as vicious as Charlie Brown’s kite-eating tree. But, instead of munching on flying paper and balsa, Pete Taylor has resumed eating the random fly ball.
“I’m telling you the truth,” Berry said. “In the Gonzaga series (in early March, I had to put that in the ground rules, that if the ball plugs and disappears into the ground, then it’s a ground-rule double. If you can see any part of it, dig it out and we play.”
Berry said the outfield hasn’t received the kind of loving overhaul its needed since 1993, when French drains were first installed.
That was during the tenure of Hill Denson, who experienced first-hand the phenomena that Berry’s Golden Eagles had encountered.
“When I told Hill that, he said, ‘Oh, I know what you’re talking about,” Berry said. “I had the best center-fielder in the game, Chad Hebert, and he slopped around for three years before we finally got those (drains). We used to lose balls out there all the time in (batting practice). Pitchers would be out there, trying to look in the ground and see where it went.’
“He said whenever they finally redid the field, when they started digging it up, baseballs were coming out of the ground like sweet potatoes.”
But rather than do a $600,000 nip-and-tuck on the outfield, Berry is convinced that most-cost effective alternative for the program is turning to a solution that might sound anathema to some: synthetic turf.
“The argument is this: While I would love to have natural grass, we don’t have the resources to have natural grass,” Berry said. “We don’t have the manpower to keep it up. The cost factor is against it.
“If we look at synthetic turf, based on our facilities, we don’t have an indoor facility, outside of the hitting cages. So, what synthetic turf allows you to do really is to never miss a game or a day of practice, unless it just absolutely flooding or lightning. Once it’s done (raining), it’s done, and you can play in another five minutes.”
The first catch: It will cost an estimated $1.2 million to $1.3 million to convert Pete Taylor Park in synthetic turf. The second catch: Berry would love to see the conversion done between the end of fall practice and the opening of spring practice in 2020.
That’s an expensive and tight window.
But both Berry and USM athletic director Jeremy McClain are determined to do their best to meet both criteria.
“As we speak, we’re working on getting commitments to get us to the finish line of getting that done,” McClain said. “it’s on the front burner for us, and we’re working daily on it.
“There’s work to be done, don’t get me wrong, but we’re going to be leaning on some people to help us get it done. There’s a lot of support around the baseball program, and Scott’s done that, put us in the position to be a nationally-competitive program. So, we’re going to be leaning on some people who want to support Scott, want to support the program, want to be part of this.”
Berry called the decision to go synthetic a “no-brainer.”
“If you talk to everybody, and I have, who has synthetic turf around the country, there is not one coach that has said, ‘Don’t do it.’ Not one,” Berry said. “Every one of them, 100 percent, have said, ‘It’s a no brainer. It will change your life.”
Berry said the surface would allow the Golden Eagles to keep a more consistent schedule.
“We missed so many days in the early spring because we couldn’t get on the field because it was so wet,” Berry said. “Even if we put the tarp on, you’d pull the tarp, and it’s still wet. What happens with synthetic turf, when it stops raining, you just go down there and start practice.
“Early in the mornings, you can do your strength and conditioning on it. You’ve got a dry place. There’s just so many factors that benefit programs like ourselves and the development of these kids.”
The decision also would impact the program’s bottom line, Berry said.
“We’re one of the tops in the country for total attendance,” Berry said. “When we miss a gate, we’re missing revenue coming into the athletic department and we can’t afford to miss that revenue. We can’t afford to move into a doubleheader and only get one gate, because that’s a significant loss of revenue that we need to have.
“Not that you would never not get rained out, because there are times. But the adjustments are, when we get that window, we could play. I get all the time, with our current field, ‘Well, it’s supposed to stop by such-and-such,’ but what are we supposed to do with the four inches of water that’s already on the field? Can’t play with that.”
McClain said the pros for a synthetic surface outweigh the cons, though one negative is huge.
“The only reason it doesn’t make sense is because a lot of us have a comfort level of playing on a natural surface,” McClain said. “I get that. I’m a baseball guy, and I get the attachment there of playing on natural turf.
“But the technology is so good now, that this synthetic surface plays as true as any natural surface.”
While the initial cost may give pause, the cost is spread over a playing surface with at least a 10-year life.
"You have to frontload it, but then on the back end, you’re not worrying about all of the fertilizer, adding clay, coming and reworking your infield,” Berry said. “When I have to have my infield shaved down, that’s $60,000 right there.
“So, the grass cutting, the labor _ you’d no longer have to have somebody there on weekends to line the field, There’s a lot of cost-saving over the 10 years.”