Upgrade project underway for Pirate baseball

Makeover at Merkel Field includes installation of new turf infield surface Coming off of a historic and memorable 2012 season, which included a Northwest Conference title, a trip to the NCAA Division III World Series and an eighth-place finish nationally, the Whitworth baseball team now anxiously awaits an upgraded Merkel Field.

“We’re coming off of a year where as the season wound down we were ranked as high as number eight in the country,” baseball head coach Dan Ramsay said. “Now we can literally tell kids we’re one of the best teams in the country. With the upgrade, not only is Whitworth a great academic university, not only are we a great team, but we also have one of the best facilities.”

With such grand success, the Whitworth administration and athletic department wanted to reward and encourage the success with an updated facility.

“The baseball facility by and large is the most lacking of all of our athletic facilities,” Whitworth athletic director Aaron Leetch said. “It was imperative that we make a commitment to that program and to that facility and in many ways to honor the success that they had in this last year.”

Gerhard Muelheims, a junior infielder for the Bucs, is one of the players who will benefit from the renovation.

“As far as the team is concerned right now, it’s been a big morale boost,” Muelheims said.

The renovation is to be completed in three phases. The first phase will replace the entire infield with turf, excluding the pitcher’s mound, which will remain dirt. The backstop will become brick with netting on top. Leetch said the purpose of this is to make the field more fan-friendly, which will make games easier to watch than they were through the chain link.

The second phase of the project will include sinking the baseball dugouts three steps into the ground, to give a truer dugout feel. The intention for the final phase is to install new elevated bleachers and a press box.

“We’re hoping that with the new facility and the new stands they’re going to put in, we get the amount of support we did last year,” Muelheims said. “That was a huge part of why we did as well as we did; the last couple weeks we had lots of fan support and we were really thankful for that.”

Leetch said the turf, backstop and netting phases are all in progress now and the anticipated finishing date is Nov. 1. Likewise, the dugout digging began last week for phase two. The timing of phase three will depend on the efficiency of work this fall. The goal is to not jeopardize the Bucs’ home season due to construction.

The projected is estimated to cost somewhere around $800,000, most of which has been fundraised by many generous Whitworth supporters.

“From a fundraising perspective, when you have success like [last season] it creates a culture that people want to invest in the program so we jumped on it as quickly as we could,” Leetch said.

Ramsay emphasized the convenience the new field will have in terms of the unpredictable Spokane weather. The turf will be easier to cover during rain and easier to plow in the event of snow. Likewise, the hope is this will allow the Bucs more practice time.

“People don’t really realize this but baseball is a unique sport as we take care of our own facility,” Ramsay said. “We go out there and grab the rakes at the end of practice. It’s a time commitment to do that. Out of a two hour practice, we spend 25-30 minutes working on the field itself. That’s 25-30 minutes we could be working to make our athletes better.”

Hopes are high for the young Pirate squad again this year.

Last season’s trip to Appleton, Wis., for the Division III World Series was an invigorating experience for the team, and they have the same I hopes for the 2013 season.

“We expect to be back in Appleton,” Muelheims said. “I know a lot of people on the outside looked at our year and said, ‘They had a great season.’ But last year we felt like we didn’t reach our goal and that was to win a national championship.”

Both Leetch and Ramsay made their gratitude very clear to the administration and the donors who have allowed this project to take place and in such an efficient time frame as well.

“It says a lot about the support we have for the program from people who aren’t even invested in the program [as players or coaches],” Ramsay said. “It’s been truly a blessing.”

Sena Hughes Staff Writer

Contact Sena Hughes at shughes15@my.whitworth.edu.