How MLB got Williamsport, Pa., ready for big leaguers


Joe Mock, Special for USA TODAY Sports
Published 11:11 p.m. ET Aug. 17, 2017

The City of Williamsport, PA is accustomed to having its population of 30,000 swell to over 300,000 for ten days every August when the Little League World Series comes to town. What they aren’t used to is having Major League Baseball players in their midst.

That changes this Sunday evening when the Pittsburgh Pirates play the St. Louis Cardinals in the MLB Little League Classic in Williamsport’s 91-year-old Minor League facility, BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field. It is timed to coincide with the playing of the Little League World Series across the river in the borough of South Williamsport.

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Much like the regular-season game played in a temporary stadium in Fort Bragg, NC last year, the contest will be televised on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball.

That’s where the similarity ends.

Murray Cook, President of BrightView Sports Turf, is the official Ballpark and Field Consultant for Major League Baseball. Speaking as if he were an artist preparing to paint a portrait, Cook tells USA TODAY Sports that “At Fort Bragg, we had an open palette to work with. It was a rough palette, but it was open.”

Cook and his fellow consultants at Populous and BaAM Productions constructed an entire stadium, complete with stands, clubhouses, lights, media facilities and a big-league-caliber playing surface on what had been an abandoned golf course – all for one Major League game.

Then just as soon as the final out had been recorded, they tore it all down, leaving just the field for recreational use by military members.

The situation in Williamsport couldn’t be more different – or more challenging.

“Here we had existing grades, existing fencing and existing stands to work with,” Cook explains. His list of renovations includes new dugouts and bullpens, moving sections of the outfield fence, erecting tents for clubhouse functions and the media, and moving home plate because it was too far from the backstop.

And the biggest hurdle? “We had to replace the field entirely because the grade was off to a huge extent.” The top 1-1/2 feet of playing surface was removed and replaced with 4,500 tons of sand and root-zone material before new sod could be laid.

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As work on BB&T Ballpark progressed, the schedules of both the Pennsylvania College of Technology’s baseball program and the Minor League Williamsport Crosscutters were impacted. “Penn College didn’t mind. In fact, the college kids are going to be my tarp crew this weekend,” quips Cook.

The Crosscutters, short-season Class-A affiliates of the Phillies, didn’t mind, either. After all, they are ending up with a significantly renovated ballpark. “The changes have been remarkable,” says Doug Estes, the team’s Vice President and General Manager. “They’ve been very well received by our players and fans. Season tickets are up. Walk-ups are up. We now have more points of sale so we can service our customers better. It’s like a whole new park.”

The team worked with the New York-Penn League to be on the road this week so final preparations can be done to the park. A good idea, since most of the parking lots surrounding the park are now occupied by temporary structures to house the functions necessary for Sunday’s big-league game.

The stands Sunday will be filled largely by players and family members from the 16 Little League teams competing in the World Series, which began Thursday. Pirates and Cardinals players will interact with the young athletes during the afternoon Sunday, all part of Major League Baseball’s initiative to “grow the game.” Joining the big-league players will be Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark and MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre.

City officials in Williamsport are thrilled that MLB is bringing The Classic to town. “It’s amazing,” says Mayor Gabe Campana, who has served longer in office than any mayor in the city since 1866. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a city the size of Williamsport to garner so much national and international attention.”

And he adds, “I’m also a diehard Pittsburgh Pirates fan, so I’m ecstatic. I’ll be sitting near the Pirates dugout Sunday, feeling like a ten-year-old again!”

Mock operates BaseballParks.com, affiliate site of USA TODAY Sports Digital Properties. He has visited all 203 parks currently used by MLB, spring training and the affiliated Minor Leagues.



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