Diamond in the Rough
Worn-out field is land of bad hops
By Joshua WeberAfter finishing his freshman year, Milwaukee Panthers outfielder Derek Peake spent the summer of 2011 caring for the outfield grass at Henry Aaron Field, the Panthers home baseball stadium. When he would get to the field each day, he would not find baseballs and bats, but a homeless man living in the dugout.
“There would be a guy in the dugout with a backpack and a few items, laying down on the benches,” Peake said. “I would get there and he would see me and then pack up his stuff and leave.”
This is the type of place the Panthers try to build a winning Division I baseball program that has sent four players to the Major League Baseball Entry Draft in the past two years. It is also the only Division I program in the state.
Henry Aaron Field, or as the players, coaches and few fans call it, “The Hank,” is a public baseball diamond in Lincoln Park, just off of North Green Bay Avenue in Glendale, Wis., a 15-minute drive from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s campus. The field opened in 1957 and is named after the Milwaukee baseball legend Hank Aaron.
The field conditions at The Hank pay no tribute to the hall of fame career of Aaron.
The outfield is usually in rough shape when the Panthers get out there in the spring to prepare it for the season, but this year was even worse.
“We actually had a three-foot hole in our outfield,” Peake said. “It was filled with water and covered with a board when we got there this spring. We got it filled in but there is still a good divot.”
Most infielders are used to different hops during a game, but off the bumpy infield of The Hank, even the home team can be taken by surprise. Just ask sophomore Michael Porcaro.
“I’ve got hit twice in the face from bad hops,” Porcaro said. “One was in a game and one was in practice.”
It is the job of the coaching staff and the players to try and keep the field as playable as possible and that means that Assistant Coach Cory Bigler, along with Head Coach Scott Doffek, has to spend less time coaching and more time playing groundskeeper.
“He [Doffek] and I are out there five or six hours before the game starts,” Coach Bigler said.
The team is their own grounds crew in exchange for free use of the facilities from Milwaukee County.
The different tasks the coaches have to finish before game time include dragging the field several times, watering or trying to get water out, cutting the grass, chalking the field, and then doing all the cleanup after the game is finished.
Outside the fences, things do not get much better for spectators and the media. The Hank has capacity for roughly 500 people on its wooden bleachers and foul line grass areas. The press box is just that, a box that sits above the first base dugout. It has enough room for the public address announcer and the sports information director.
When the university sends out a broadcast team to stream the game online, they have to set up outside the press box on a 4-foot by 4-foot wood platform, subjecting their broadcast equipment to the unpredictable Wisconsin spring weather and other hazards.
“It’s crazy, when we’re calling a game, we have so much to focus on in the game, and on top of that we have to make sure we don’t get hit by a line drive,” Nolan Murphy, a student broadcaster for the athletic department, said.
For the players, all they have is a dugout, no clubhouse or training facility. The only thing they have is a public restroom with toilets and sinks. No locker room to shower or take care of an injury.
The facilities receive plenty of criticism from opposing players and coaches, but it also comes from Panther parents.
“Ours is an absolute joke, it’s an absolute joke,” said Anthony Porcaro, father of Michael Porcaro. “Most high schools have a better field than this.”
UWM is considered a mid-major program by many standards and will never have the budget to afford the highest quality facilities in the nation, but they do not even stack up with their competitors in the Horizon League.
The other teams in the conference have their own baseball facilities or play at a minor league ballpark. The Valparaiso Crusaders play at Emory G. Bauer Field, just across the street from the main campus. According to the Valparaiso Athletics website, the field has a clubhouse along the first base line featuring offices for the coaches and staff. Two locker rooms equipped with showers. The complex features a training room and indoor hitting cages. It also includes a team room featuring a kitchen, television, and a variety of games.
The Youngstown State baseball team plays at Eastwood Field, home to the Mahoning Valley Scrappers of the New York-Penn League. The stadium is a 6,300-seat minor league baseball facility with furnished locker rooms, sheltered batting cages and a new Daktronics ProStar LED video board, according to the school’s athletic website.
Wright State University added a FieldTurf playing surface to Nischwitz Stadium in 2012, along with a new press box.
The University of Illinois at Chicago is the only other school with a baseball program in the Horizon League and it already boasts one of the nicest facilities in the country by many standards, things like a turf field, locker room facilities and a beautiful skyline with the Willis Tower in view over the centerfield wall give it this reputation, and it is about to get much better.
Announced in early February, the University of Illinois at Chicago alumnus and current New York Yankee centerfielder Curtis Granderson has pledged the funding for a new multi-million dollar baseball stadium on the campus of UIC.
According to the press release, it will feature approximately 1,200 chair-back seats and two grassy berms for spectator seating. The structure style will be an open-air brick and stone clad ballpark. In addition there will be one level of disability seating and another level with press amenities.
It is evident that the facilities in Milwaukee are much worse than the rest of the Horizon League and they have only been able to do the minimum to try and keep up.
“We did re-sod the infield last fall,” Coach Bigler said.
Coach Bigler, Coach Doffek and the players did most of the work on the project.
Bigler knows this is only a band-aid solution and the first real improvement would come when the university is at least able to make the upgrade to turf.
“That’s the step that makes the most sense as far as being able to maintain a field that is up to standard for Division I and this climate,” he said.
According to Bigler, the time it takes to get a turf field ready to play is minimal compared to what it takes now. The only thing that would need to be maintained is a dirt pitchers mound, if the university would choose to have one, otherwise a synthetic mound can be used, which would not require maintenance.
“Basically, you’re just plopping the bases in and going,” he said.
As most realize, in order to make these changes, there has to be funds to do so. According to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee 2011-2012 budget, the baseball team was allocated $255,000 of the athletic department’s $7,282,542 budget.
The $255,000 is used mostly for scholarships and travel, what is left after that goes to keeping the field from becoming completely unplayable. The turf upgrade would cost the program an estimated $750,000 according to Coach Bigler.
In comparison, the men’s basketball program was budgeted $1,279,700. The disparity between the funding of the two programs is confusing in the mind of Anthony.
“If you think about it, in the state of Wisconsin, we have four Division I basketball programs, we only have one Division I baseball program,” he said.
Anthony noted that Milwaukee is the fourth choice for basketball in the state behind Madison, Marquette and Green Bay. All four had better records than the Panthers this past basketball season.
Milwaukee Panther baseball, however, is atop the Horizon League standings with a 26-19 record overall and 14-7 in conference with two non-conference games left. They also clinched the regular season league title for the first time since 2001 on May 11.
Youngstown State’s baseball program has a budget of roughly $362,000 and Valparaiso’s budget is approximately $110,000, according to each school’s sports information director. UIC would not give their figures and Wright State did not respond. Youngstown’s program uses $20,000 of its budget to rent Eastwood Field.
Milwaukee is also required to keep the field playable for all the other teams that use it throughout the year. That includes the Milwaukee School of Engineering, a few high schools and city recreation teams.
“I would say right now, it averages 5-6 games per week on the field,” Coach Bigler said. “Once the summer hits, it could be every single day.”
The fees those teams pay to the county for use of the field are kept in the county and not given to UWM.
One of the hardest things for coaches, players and parents to deal with is the fact that the team could represent the state of Wisconsin every year around the nation, but because of the poor facilities, they cannot recruit the best talent.
“There are recruits that we can’t even go after because they won’t consider us because of our facilities,” Coach Bigler said.
Other schools around the state know that, and they use it to their advantage.
“When Mike [Porcaro] was being recruited by Whitewater, that’s what they kept on saying ‘Are you going to go there and play on a public park with no locker room?’” Anthony said. “They point it out to you and tell you about it.”
Both the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Concordia University in Mequon have turf fields with state-of-the-art facilities and both are Division III programs.
“It sure does stink when you see a D-3 team getting a nicer field than what you have,” Michael said. “And we have to go to a public park and drive 15 minutes off campus to go to our field.”
The hope of getting their own facilities, or even field turf, has been a long time coming and was almost a reality in September of 2012. Steve Sanfilippo, Assistant To The Director of Athletics at UWM, said that the department tried to acquire land in Glendale, Wis. across from Estabrook Park but could not secure the area because the city had other uses for it.
“It wasn’t zoned that way [athletic facilities] and we went about it in the wrong fashion and it got shot down,” Sanfilippo said.
According to an article by Don Walker of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Richard Maslowski, Glendale's city administrator, said an athletic facility belongs somewhere else, not in an office park with health-care employees.
Sanfilippo said Andy Geiger, the former athletic director, hoped to campaign for $10-20 million to build new facilities for track & field and tennis, along with baseball facilities. However, with the transition to Amanda Braun, who became the fourth athletic director in three years when she started on May 1, those plans are on hold.
The university can put the plans on hold, but the baseball season must continue.
The Panthers had their first 14 home games postponed, cancelled or moved due to rain or snow this season. They easily could have played these games with turf because snow can be plowed off and rain does not puddle.
The Panthers first home conference series against Valparaiso was moved to UIC’s turf facilities where the Panthers were the “home” team. Interestingly, neither the parents nor the players minded.
“If we could go down to UIC for every home game, I would do it,” Michael said.
And his father agreed.
“We [the parents] talked about playing them all down here,” Anthony said. “We actually said that.”
If the team does not upgrade the facilities, the baseball program may end up the homeless ones.
“My biggest worry is the university cutting the program altogether,” Anthony said.
For now, the Panthers will use the rough facilities to try and gain an edge.
“You can tell when teams come to our field that are used to turf, they are unsure of the hops and the way the ball is going to play,” Coach Bigler said.