BILLINGS — The wet and dry vacuums can be put away at Joe Pirtz Field.
On Thursday at the Billings American Legion Baseball ballpark located at Stewart Park, a new synthetic turf infield was unveiled at a grand opening. The new turf covered the whole infield, including the mound and around the bases.
The bullpens also feature turf. In place of the dirt basepaths, brown turf lined the field. The pitcher’s mound was covered by brown turf. The infield is also permanently “chalked.”
The cost of the project was $270,000 said BALB chairman Jeff Ballard.
“It’s a great asset,” he said. “As far as I know, it’s the first baseball field in Montana with artificial turf. I like the continued investment the community has shown in in the program.”
During a baseball tournament at the field hosted by the BALB Class A teams last summer, then-Blue Jays’ coach David Swecker said a whole day was “wiped out” due to the weather. After the storms, even though there was sunshine, the field remained wet.
“We were using Shop-Vacs to pump out the water at Pirtz. It was wild,” Swecker, now the coach of the Royals, said. “I won’t have to get the vacuum cleaner out.”
Rain also affected the schedule at the annual Goldsmith Gallery tournament this past summer.
Ballard said the field is designed to handle 19 inches of rain an hour. The drainage should help to keep tourneys on schedule should there be rain.
The outfield remains natural grass.
“The outfield, you can play sub-par conditions,” Ballard explained. “It’s not ideal if it is muddy or soupy but you can play on it.”
Billings Scarlets coach Adam Hust said the field will benefit the Billings teams.
“We have less time working on the field and more time playing,” he said. “More field time makes players better. We are super excited to have this.”
The five BALB teams — including the Class AA Royals and Scarlets, the Class A Blue Jays and Cardinals and the Class B Post 4 team — practice and play games at Pirtz. The Montana State Billings baseball team also practices there.
The Royals and Scarlets will continue to play most of their home games at Dehler Park.
BALB board member John Shelhamer said several different vendors were considered but in the end, Northwest Sports Turf Solutions of Oregon was chosen. The turf is a baseball specific turf said Shelhamer.
Ballard said planning and fundraising for the improvements began two years ago. Shelhamer said all work was approved by Billings Parks and Recreation. Ballard said the project was entirely privately funded.
Workers removed 12 inches of dirt in the infield and installed drain pipes. The base is now made of primarily gravel, said Shelhamer.
“On July 29 we had the ground breaking and we are doing the grand opening on Aug. 29,” Shelhamer said. “We did the whole thing in a month.”
Donors to the project included: Scheels, Ballard Petroleum, MSU Billings baseball, Denny Menholt, Economarts of Billings, L&S LLC, John Shelhamer, Jeff Ballard, First Interstate Bank, Montana-Dakota Utilities Company Foundation, Langlas & Associates, Robert and Julie Smith, Dave Langlas, Prill Dental, Kevin King, Bucky Clark, Shaun Cox, Jack King and Roger Daniels.
Behind home plate in big, red letters, “Scheels” appears on the turf.
“We’ve had help from lots of individuals and entities in the community,” Ballard said. “Scheels graciously stepped up and took the lead, and for that they get their name on the turf.”
Hust said the turf should last 10 to 12 years. He said players will adjust to the field quickly.
“Sliding on this is better than some of the rocky dirt you slide on at other fields,” Hust said.
Swecker said past teams he’s coached have enjoyed playing on an artificial surface.
“Two years ago I took my kids to Gillette (Wyoming) and our kids loved it,” Swecker said. “They love how it feels when you slide and your pants aren’t dirty and they like that you don’t get bad hops. The one thing they complained about is you can’t have seeds or gum.”
If all goes as planned, the turf won’t be the only improvements at Pirtz. A capital improvement plan has been formed and the first phase was installing the turf grass infield.
Also planned are the installation of new bleachers, a new announcers’ booth, a new concession stand, a new storage building and a covering to protect spectators from the sun and rain.
“This is phase one of our master plan and phase two would be new bleachers,” Ballard said. “It will all depend on funding. We are still actively looking for people to contribute.”
The field will be put to use quickly as tryouts for the BALB teams will begin Sept. 23 at Pirtz.
“The beautiful thing is there are a lot of kids in Billings, Montana, who will benefit from this. It’s a big deal,” Hust said. “It’s awesome the community comes together and people donate their money and time to update youth facilities.”