By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Professional baseball in Princeton was going down the drain last fall — until a local foundation stepped in.
The result of special funding from the Princeton-based Hunnicutt Foundation is a new natural-turf playing surface at Hunnicutt Field, a drainage system to address a long-standing problem with wet grounds, and a renewed promise by the Tampa Bay Rays to keep a farm club in Princeton at least through 2014.
Princeton Baseball Association president Mori Williams presented those details on Monday at the Princeton Rays’ ninth annual media appreciation luncheon.
“We were about a hair away from losing Tampa Bay,” Williams said.
It was worse than that, general manager Jim Holland said. “The field did not meet minor-league standards. We were very close to losing minor-league baseball altogether.”
Holland, now in his 20th year as Princeton GM, said the facility had endured eight rainouts in 2008, six in 2009 and three last year.
Williams said, “We basically had a bathtub that we were trying to play baseball in.”
When Tampa Bay officials were informed that a contract to fix the chronic drainage problem had stalled — due to “several things that were beyond our control,” Williams said — the parent club decided “if we could not improve the field, they were going to have to look elsewhere.”
The situation was so dire that Appalachian League President Lee Landers drove from his headquarters in Statesville, N.C., to Princeton “on a very rainy, nasty fall morning,” Williams said, to be present for a conference call with Princeton baseball management, the Hunnicutt Foundation and the Tampa Bay brass.
Williams said, “During that call, we truly expected them (Tampa Bay) to say thank you, but no thanks.” But the men at the Princeton end of the phone line convinced the parent club that they could get the field fixed, and fast.
On Oct. 14, 2010, an agreement was reached and a contract was quickly signed with Carolina Green, which had done turf projects for several professional sports teams and major university baseball programs, including Wake Forest, and the universities of Tennessee and South Carolina.
“Carolina Green started the renovation in late October and it was finished before Thanksgiving,” Williams said. He said the team’s website will soon post a video clip that shows the project from start to finish in time-lapse photography.”
Williams said, “They basically came in here in October and started from scratch. They ripped everything out that was at Hunnicutt Field, and basically … took our soil, mixed it up, built the field up, and placed our soil back down on it, to where we actually have a very nice playing surface.”
“There’s a new drainage system in there. It’s a very high-tech drainage system.”
Holland said the system has gotten tested in recent days. A rainstorm dumped 2 1⁄2 inches of rain on the field in six hours. “We came in the next morning and it was dry as a bone,” he said.
Williams said, “We’re very proud of the product. There’s not been a home game played on it yet, but we can’t wait to start.”
He said that the Princeton Senior High School baseball team will be the first to play on the new surface this spring. The facility is on property owned by the Mercer County board of education.
“The high school kids are also going to be able to play a lot more games than they’ve played in the past,” Williams said.
He expressed gratitude to the Hunnicutt Foundation. He said, “Without the Hunnicutt Foundation, there would be no professional baseball in Princeton, West Virginia.”
Williams said the field drainage problem has been his greatest challenge since becoming president of the baseball association in January 2008.
“It plays into players’ safety,” he said. A major league team also wants to maximize the number of workouts as well as games that their rookie-league teams get, he said.
“As a result of the field (renovation), we will now be associated with the Tampa Bay Rays through 2014,” he said. “That’s great. Tampa Bay has been an excellent partner throughout the entire process.”
He said it was not just the field renovation that kept the Rays franchise in town. “One of the primary reasons they stayed was the Princeton community. They like it here. Their kids are comfortable here. The people treat them like gold here. … The setup, other than the baseball field, was perfect.”
Moving forward, instead of spending an estimated 70 percent of their time on “field issues,” he said, “Now we can be working on the fan experience instead of trying to figure out what to do about that mud puddle in center field.”
NOTE: An overview of other new Princeton Rays developments will appear later this week in the Daily Telegraph.
—Contact Tom Bone