Polishing Yellowknife’s downtown diamond

There are two big developments at Yellowknife’s ballpark this year. The first, you probably know about. The second, you probably don’t.

The obvious change is the introduction of grass — grass! — to the downtown ball diamond’s outfield. This is the first time fastball players in the city have had the luxury of a grass outfield, a commodity taken for granted down south.

Less obviously, you’ll need to run harder to reach first base this season.

“Well, guys, you’re going to find it a little farther this year,” is how Rob Johnson broke the news on the weekend.

Johnson has been helping to lead the revitalization of Yellowknife’s Tommy Forrest Ballpark — a project which, after many years of planning, has been steaming ahead for the past 12 months.

“We found it was 52 feet to first base, so we were eight feet short,” added Johnson, a little sheepishly.

“I don’t really know how that happened.”

Vince Barter, the planner behind improvements to theballpark, at work on home plate

This is why, if you turn up for this season’s opening day on June 16, batters hustling to first may seem a little shorter of breath than usual. For the first time in years, they’re having to run the full, regulation 60 feet.

Opening day promises to be quite the spectacle. To a verdant green background never before seen in Yellowknife, the mayor will throw out the first pitch in front of local children assembled for fastball’s annual Family Day at the Ballpark.

Gamechanging: all the improvements so far, and to come, at the ballpark

“The idea for Family Day is that all the kids come out and run the bases — we’ll have candy draws and all that stuff,” board member Garrett Hinchey explained at last week’s annual meeting of the Yellowknife Fastball League.

“But this is doubling as the official reopening of Tommy Forrest, so we’re trying to get some mainstream publicity and hype behind that as well.”

At last year’s Family Day, dozens of kids — many part of the city’s minor ball program, which has seen registrations more than double this season — had the chance to run the bases, win prizes and indulge in candy if certain players earned a hit.

This time around, morning show hosts Jesse Wheeler (Moose FM) and Loren McGinnis (CBC North) are tipped to coach two all-star teams as they open the new, greener ballpark. The grass has survived its first winter after being planted last fall.

“We couldn’t be happier,” said Johnson. “You spend all that time, energy and money and you’re just waiting for the melt to see that it’s not dead. Now, if you go around town — go to any of the soccer fields — you will see that this is the greenest piece of grass.”

Work on the infield

Grass isn’t the only new addition. A team of players spent their Victoria Day weekend working on a new-look infield, incorporating crushed volcanic rock known as Turface. The finished product will be more level (i.e. less likely to take your face off when a ground ball gets a bad bounce) and less prone to becoming a dustbowl.

More developments are promised. With funding from Sam’s Monkey Tree Pub, a scoreboard is planned. The diamond’s backstop is due to be replaced with a better structure. If a plan to sell signage to local businesses comes off, there will be more money for improvements to the concessions stand, announcers’ booth and batting cage. New maintenance equipment is on the list.

But the team behind these changes hopes the ballpark becomes more than a better place to play ball.

“The designs from the beginning incorporated not just the fastball, but more of a community piece,” said Johnson.

“Now we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of different elements like concrete walkways and flower gardens.

“We’ve talked to [neighbouring seniors’ community] Avens and they’re super excited to have this area across from them — they’re going to look after the watering, the weeding of all the flowers and stuff like that.”

The eventual ambition is for the ballpark to act more like a downtown centrepiece than a derelict dust trap, but realizing that grand design will take years.

The first step is June’s opening day: making sure the infield and the grass play the way they should. The ballplayers have been on this project long enough to know they must walk before they can run.

And when they run, first base will be eight feet farther away. So let’s see.

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