ORONO, Maine — It is true you can’t control Mother Nature, but the University of Maine has proved that with the aid of modern technology you can certainly work around her.
Today ushers in a new era for the University of Maine baseball program, which will play what is believed to be the earliest home date in school history when it entertains Sacred Heart in a 1 p.m. doubleheader at Mahaney Diamond.
Admission is free for Saturday’s doubleheader and Sunday’s noon twinbill, each of which will consist of one nine-inning game and a seven-inning contest.
Even though the facility is surrounded by piles of snow and ice, most of which was recently on the field, UMaine’s new FieldTurf surface — and a fair amount of elbow grease — will enable the Black Bears to play.
The biggest single advantage of the turf is giving UMaine the opportunity to play earlier at home. It also will drastically reduce the possibility of games being lost to inclement weather. “This is the earliest Maine baseball’s played in Maine, so everybody’s excited and we can’t wait to get out there,” said senior outfielder Kevin McAvoy of Brewer.
The Bears practiced on the field Friday for the second time this year. They spent several hours this week contributing to the extensive ice and snow removal process that was begun last week by UMaine’s athletic grounds crew.
“We don’t mind doing it. It’s good for the program to start up early,” McAvoy said. “It’s kind of a tribute to everybody that pitched in and helped out with the field.”
Trimper lauded the efforts of UMaine employees in clearing the snow and ice. That included placing portable heaters in the dugouts and covering them with tarps to melt a substantial ice buildup. “They worked really hard while we were gone,” Trimper said. “They had a couple snowblowers out here. I think some guys from facilities, not just athletics, came over and pitched in. With their efforts, we were able to pull this off.”
The only concession as far as amenities are concerned is the bullpens, which are not ready. Trimper said portable mounds will be place in foul ground and will be in play this weekend. “We’ll have to dodge those things, but that’s it,” Trimper said. The softball team also held a Friday afternoon practice on the turf rather than inside the Mahaney Dome, where outfield play with fly balls isn’t feasible.
The FieldTurf era is expected to mean much more consistency in the way the ball bounces and rolls on the surface. It’s a prospect that excites senior second baseman Danny Menendez.
“For ground balls, it’s great. You never get any bad hops and you dive on it and it’s like diving on a pillow,” Menendez said. “It’s a huge advantage. You still can’t take your attention away from each ground ball, but it’s almost like it’s a perfect hop almost every time.”
However, because the rubber pellets haven’t settled down into the carpet, the balls are rolling more slowly than usual right now. Fans are likely to be impressed by the vivid colors of the Mahaney Diamond FieldTurf. The green portions look like freshly-mowed grass, including a two-tone pattern in the outfield reminiscent of major league parks.
Apparently a handful of “locals” were confused by the appearance of the artificial grass.
“(Friday) morning I had to go out and kick around like 20 piles of deer droppings,” Trimper said with a laugh. “They think it’s green grass. They were all over the field.”
The areas that normally would be dirt — with the exception of the pitcher’s mound — feature a reddish-brown turf that makes the field appear more like a natural diamond.
Even the area around home plate is covered with turf, which will prevent potential problems with the “seam” where the turf and the dirt would have met.
“It’s a great surface. The ball comes off of it real nice,” said junior catcher Myckie Lugbauer, who won’t have to deal with dust and dirt around the plate. “It’s a beautiful field, a beautiful facility we have here, so it’s nice to be able to play on it.”
Playing at home also results in a big cost savings for the Bears. Trimper said a typical weekend nonconference trip to New York or Connecticut costs between $8,000 and $10,000.
“It’s not going to pay for itself overnight, but over the course of years we’re going to save ourselves some money on travel,” Trimper said.
While the weather will be seasonably cool — in the low to mid 40s — this weekend, the turf even helps make things a bit more comfortable.
“Even though it’s only like 35 degrees out right now, it’s radiating heat,” Trimper said Friday morning. “You stand out on the field, it’s like 10 to 15 degrees warmer than it is when you’re in the parking lot.”
The Bears hope to help heat things up for fans by getting some wins this weekend.