Rocks, glass and a nail in center field, new lights that some say are too short obscuring the scoreboard, patchy grass around the edges of the field -- something is not quite right at the Red Wing Athletic Field these days.
The venerable Ath, which five Red Wing baseball teams call home, is scheduled to host 117 games this season. The cache of concerns raises questions about who is responsible for such a mess.
"It worries me for the safety of my players," said Red Wing junior varsity coach Dave Jenson. "And as a player myself, I'm a little worried for the way I play. I don't want to dive for a catch and come up with something sticking out of my arm."
When Jenson hit the dugout for his team's first game this spring, the changes he saw at the Ath were obvious. More to the point, what he didn't see concerned him.
The scoreboard in right field was partially obscured by the installation of brighter, more cost-efficient lights. And longtime groundskeeper Kelly Bohmbach was nowhere to be seen.
These two issues have been at the center of a lively discussion between the Red Wing Amateur Baseball Association and the city for the better part of the past year.
With Red Wing's amateur season starting Saturday against Bay City, I tried to track down the details surrounding the situation. It wasn't easy.
Bohmbach, Aces manager Corey Tauer and RWABA president Dan Plein declined comment. Their silence could speak volumes.
While the discussions between the RWABA and the city have often grown heated, Red Wing Parks and Cemetery Supt. Bill Rooney has pledged to work closely with the RWABA to help maintain the field's integrity.
"I told Corey that I'll do whatever I can. I told Kelly I'll do whatever I can," said Rooney, who was thrust into the role of mediator when responsibility for local parks was added to his job description last year. "It's a partnership, and that's what we need to continue to make it work."
One step back, two steps forward?
Jenson graduated from Red Wing High School in 2003 and returned to coach at his alma mater this spring. He played at the Ath growing up, and is starting his third summer as a member of the Aces. He feels a sense of ownership for the field, which the RWABA rents from the city each summer.
"Growing up, we've been spoiled with playing on one of the top fields in the state and I really hope that doesn't go away," Jenson said.
The grass hasn't been edged. The mound hasn't been reinforced with clay. The windscreen around the outfield fence wasn't hung until last weekend.
In short, the field is in rough shape, though how much of that is due to chaotic spring weather and new additions is hard to gauge.
Installing the new lights created trenches around the field's perimeter that are still being fixed, while a new irrigation system was also installed. Each should prove beneficial in the long run but the changes have created a heavy workload this spring.
Regardless, the once regal field has a very unfinished look.
"I'll be the first to admit it looks like a war zone," Rooney said. "But it certainly isn't because we haven't put in the time."
The new arrangement has Dan Anderson overseeing the Ath and all three youth fields in the vicinity, along with the A.P. Anderson diamonds on the north end of town.
The coming weeks will be important for the Ath. Given Anderson's relative inexperience and Bohmbach's extensive history with the field -- he was a seasonal employee for three years and volunteered his time for many more -- a working relationship would seem beneficial to both.
However, asking a former employee to volunteer his time could prove interesting. It's something Rooney hopes will work itself out.
"We really appreciate (the RWABA), especially people like Kelly," Rooney said. "He was probably volunteering up there as a little kid. We don't want it to stop. We need them. We appreciate them."
Tender feelings and a shaken bond of trust are difficult obstacles to overcome, but there are physical concerns to address as well. Specifically, how a light pole came to be installed in front of the scoreboard and why rocks, shards of glass and a nail were found in shallow center field after the field had been used.
The installation of new lights seemed like a good idea, given that the old ones were put in place more than 50 years ago. The city approved the $150,000 project in August 2007, and the new system was erected last fall.
Apparently, no one saw an issue with installing a pole in front of the scoreboard.
Another pole was installed behind the dugout along the right field line, creating an unwelcome obstacle for those who enjoy sitting in the sun atop the grassy hill.
"There were a lot of things considered (with the lights), but obviously the scoreboard wasn't one of them," said Rooney, who wasn't involved in the decision-making process.
While the new lights will save the city about 50 percent on its electricity bill and they're nearly twice as bright as the old ones, other concerns have been raised. The poles are 20 feet shorter than their predecessors and could make tracking fly balls difficult in night games.
The entire outfield is wired to handle a scoreboard shift away from the pole in right field, but no timetable has been set for such a move.
Moving it to left field or putting it on a raised platform in center seem the best options, though discussion remains in the preliminary stages.
The more immediate concern would be the materials Jenson found on the field April 20 during an Aces practice. While randomly digging in a dirt patch in shallow center field, Jenson pulled out the dangerous debris.
The Wingers had already played one game on the field and hosted another the next day. They got lucky the first time, and Jenson's best impression of Pigpen may have prevented a disaster in the second.
Rooney, who replaced the tainted fill himself, has an easy explanation for the tragedy-in-waiting. In fact, the problem stems from an issue last year. It was fixed over the offseason, though it's clear someone forgot to check the corresponding fill.
The Athletic Field's water system was previously connected to the adjoining youth field. When members of the youth league began complaining about dying grass in right field, the ensuing investigation found a leak in the spot where Jenson found the debris, which caused a bubbling spot at the Ath whenever the sprinklers were turned on and limited the water flow to the youth field. Fixing the issue meant digging up the Ath outfield, which wasn't possible while the Aces were playing last summer.
It remains unclear where exactly the nail, broken glass and rocks came from, but Rooney is confident the situation has been corrected. The irrigation systems were upgraded and split, so each is now a separate entity. This should prevent such a disaster in the future, though the new water system has yet to be turned on this spring.
While I have no reason to believe the new water system won't work, it certainly wouldn't surprise me if that turns out to be the case. Predicting and addressing such issues has been Rooney's rather thankless job over the last 12 months.
It'd hardly seem right if they stopped piling up now.