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Small Fort Marcy a favorite with the Pecos League

A dandelion rises from thick grass in the Fort Marcy Ballpark. Players have noticed that the field’s grass often slows ground balls more quickly than expected. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A dandelion rises from thick grass in the Fort Marcy Ballpark. Players have noticed that the field’s grass often slows ground balls more quickly than expected. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Zozobra, the 50-foot marionette burned each year as a means of dispelling the collective gloom of Santa Fe’s citizens, and the Santa Fe Fuego independent league baseball team have close ties.

Both call Fort Marcy Ballpark home. Team officials and Zozobra organizers partnered on a merchandising agreement that allows for the Zozobra logo to emblazon uniforms and hats. Even the name Fuego, meaning fire in Spanish, is a nod to the annual Burning of Zozobra, to be held for the 92nd year today.

But a proposal to replace three pedestrian bridges deemed too dangerous during last year’s Zozobra event has the Santa Fe baseball community feeling as gloomy as a Cubs fan in October. The construction of the bridges at a cost of $600,000 would likely spoil any chance of expanding the size of the historic city-owned ballpark, which for all its charm suffers from one big shortcoming: The outfield dimensions are woefully short.

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On Wednesday, the City Council approved a $77,000 contract with an Albuquerque engineering and architectural firm to plan and design three pedestrian bridges, and to assist with flood plain permitting at Fort Marcy Park. One bridge has already been removed and the other two will be off limits to the public during today’s burning.

For the ballpark, the new bridges would effectively eliminate any possibility of expanding its field to more “legitimate” dimensions.

“It would be a massive benefit for the dimensions of that field to be changed,” Andrew Dunn, president of the Pecos League, the summer circuit the Fuego has been a part of for the past five seasons, said in a phone interview this week. “It’s hard to get pitchers to come pitch there (for the Fuego); visiting pitchers don’t like to pitch there … .

“From the league’s standpoint, we love the history and we love Fort Marcy,” he continued. “But playing there is different from playing anywhere else.”

The dimensions of Fort Marcy Ballpark are listed as 340 feet down the left field line, 355 feet in center and 305 feet to the right field foul pole on the Fuego’s website, but others suggest that’s an exaggeration. And with its 7,000-foot altitude, the park plays much smaller.

An area over the arroyo in Fort Marcy Park has been fenced off after the removal of an unsafe bridge. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

An area over the arroyo in Fort Marcy Park has been fenced off after the removal of an unsafe bridge. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Striking fear in pitchers

Santa Fe’s own Rod Tafoya boasts having won 325 games as a pitcher in men’s adult leagues since 1993. Including high school, college and a few seasons he got paid to play for minor league teams in the U.S. and Mexico, the St. Michael’s graduate has been credited with 418 wins in his career.

Even at 52, he still toes the slab from time to time, pitching a few innings for the Fuego this season and serving a brief stint as the team’s interim manager.

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“It’s an eye-opener for these kids coming into the Pecos League out of college, where they play on a normal, regulation field,” Tafoya says. “With the field the size it is and the altitude, it can create havoc for a pitcher.”

Fly balls carry farther at high elevations where the air is thinner. The result is more home runs and more runs scored. Fort Marcy Ballpark is 1,800 feet higher than Coors Field in Denver, the major league stadium at the highest elevation.

Consequently, Pecos League baseball games at Fort Marcy often end with football scores the likes of 21-16 or 17-14. The Fuego’s collective ERA this season was a hard-to-stomach 10.94.

“It takes a special kind of pitcher to win there,” said Tafoya, who estimates that he has pitched about 50 game there. “I love the field, and it’s beauty and aesthetics. However, with those dimensions and the altitude, I’d rather pitch elsewhere.”

Tafoya says it’s really 320 feet down the left field line and 298 to right, dimensions comparable to Boston’s Fenway Park (310 and 302, respectively). But the fence juts out quickly from “Pesky’s Pole” in right field at Fenway and the 37-foot-tall “Green Monster” in left turns some would-be home runs to doubles. And there’s a difference of 7,000 feet in altitude.

The Colorado Rockies say on their website that a batted ball struck at Coors Field will travel 9 percent farther than an identically struck ball at sea level. So a 400-foot home run at Fenway would travel about 436 feet at Coors. In Santa Fe, that same batted ball might travel close to 50 feet farther than at sea level.

Poor drainage often causes rainwater to puddle on the infield at Santa Fe’s Fort Marcy Ballpark. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Poor drainage often causes rainwater to puddle on the infield at Santa Fe’s Fort Marcy Ballpark. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

No place like home

The outfield dimensions at Fort Marcy aren’t the only issue. The infield and outfield grass is notoriously thick, slowing ground balls. The playing surface is bumpy, producing plenty of bad-hop grounders, and it drains poorly – standing water in the infield from monsoon rains has forced the cancellation of several games.

Dunn said that a survey conducted by the Salinas (Kan.) Stockade, the only team to visit each Pecos League ballpark this season, ranked Fort Marcy Ballpark ninth out of 10 as a place for games.

But the ballpark has charm and, for the most part, is fan-friendly.

“It’s a historic park and people like it because of the ambiance,” said Yvonne Encinias, Fuego general manager. “The way it’s built is very open, so you get a good feel for community. It’s a good, family-oriented ballpark.”

While they’ve made do, the layout isn’t the best for game-day operations and, even though the city has put some money into it to accommodate Pecos League baseball, the stadium still lacks modern amenities and falls short of ADA compliance.

And, as a breeding ground for aspiring young baseball players, it doesn’t meet standards, either.

“As far as the level of baseball we’re trying to accomplish, we’d be better suited to play on a bigger field and with a little different setup with the facilities,” Encinias said.

There are really no other options. Permitting beer sales at Fuego games was a major hurdle the team had to clear early on and that wouldn’t be allowed at any high school facility.

The Metropolitan Recreational Complex (MRC) has a baseball field with suitable dimensions, but it’s not equipped to accommodate crowds and its location west of town is less than ideal.

“I don’t envision us playing anywhere else,” Encinias said.

Fort Marcy Ballpark is 80 years old this year. A carving into the stone façade between the backstop and grandstand indicates it was built in 1936 as a WPA project sponsored by the city.

Tafoya is old enough to remember the early 1960s when the field was used for Babe Ruth League and American Legion youth baseball, and a couple of men’s league teams, the Giants and Expos. Another one everyone talked about and is still remembered, he says, was one considered “semi-pro” called the Fallstaffers.

Over the years, its use as a baseball facility has declined. But it still serves as home field to Santa Fe Prep, and the Monte del Sol and Tierra Encantada charter schools, a New Mexico Men’s Senior Baseball League team and the Fuego, who played about 50 games there this past season.

Despite its flaws, the stadium is a favorite of Dunn’s and it has hosted the Pecos League All-Star game the past four years. It has also been a moderately popular attraction for fans, typically drawing from 50 people on a slow weeknight to as many as 1,000 for a weekend game.

Oscar Apodaca, owner of Oscar’s Tree Service in Santa Fe, works with his crew installing safety fencing around Fort Marcy Park, getting ready for the burning of Zozobra. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Oscar Apodaca, owner of Oscar’s Tree Service in Santa Fe, works with his crew installing safety fencing around Fort Marcy Park, getting ready for the burning of Zozobra. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Missed chance for fix

John Romero, the city’s Engineering Division director, said in a phone interview that extending the outfield dimensions is not an option. As it is, expansion in left field is limited by the location of Firehouse No. 1.

On the other side, there’s only about 10 feet between the right field foul pole and the 15-foot-deep arroyo the bridges cross, as well as a cluster of Siberian elm trees on its banks.

Any right field expansion would be expensive and complicated, Romero said. Anything affecting an arroyo running through a flood plain would involve FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he said.

City Councilor Ron Trujillo is one of the Fuego’s biggest fans, often passing the hat after a Fuego home run to collect a little money for the players who typically make about $50 per week. He understands how the ballpark’s short dimensions diminish play.

“I would love to see it done,” he said of ballpark expansion. “Fort Marcy is a gem. I think we missed a chance to have it fixed with the parks bond in 2008.”

Trujillo has previously suggested that box culverts covered with dirt could replace the stretch of the arroyo beyond the outfield fence, creating an underground drainage channel that would eliminated a need for bridges.

He still believes that would work, but it would likely be more expensive than simply replacing bridges.

“I understand the city is taking measures to ensure the safety of the people,” he said of the bridge replacement. “At the same time, I will continue to see if we can get Fort Marcy revamped.”

Trujillo said renovation of the baseball facility has been talked about for a long time. When last considered, the price tag was about $8 million, he said, a cost that poses an obstacle to council approval.

Trujillo said fixing up the ballpark could also make the venue more suitable for hosting other events. This summer, the Bike & Brew Festival moved to Fort Marcy Park.

One of the three foot bridges between Fort Marcy Park and the ballpark has been removed, and the other two are slated for replacement. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

One of the three foot bridges between Fort Marcy Park and the ballpark has been removed, and the other two are slated for replacement. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

A blessing in disguise

Zozobra organizer Ray Sandoval said he’d like to see the facility used in other ways.

“We want Fort Marcy to be Zozobra’s home, but we also understand it’s a one-day event,” he said. “We want to see a beneficial use all year long.”

That’s partly why Zozobra organizers and Fuego’s Pecos League have partnered to promote each other, he said. One version of the Fuego uniform this year had “Zozobra” written across the front. The team’s hats and some souvenir T-shirts also incorporate Old Man Gloom into the design.

The Kiwanis Club gets 10 percent of the sales. Prior to that agreement, the Kiwanis Club bought a sorely needed new scoreboard for the ballpark.

Zozobra is more popular than ever, having drawn a record crowd of about 48,000 revelers a year ago, leading some to wonder if Zozobra was outgrowing Fort Marcy Park.

Sandoval said two years ago that, while Zozobra organizers were trying to get the event moved from Thursday to Friday, they studied options for other locations: the MRC, Ragle Park, SWAN park, and the Downs at Santa Fe.

“They all had challenges,” he said.

They ultimately decided that Fort Marcy was the best fit. “It’s been our home and we intend to keep using it into perpetuity,” he said.

Sandoval said the issue with the bridges may have been a blessing in disguise, motivating the Kiwanis Club to come up with a new pedestrian entry/exit plan. “We actually think this configuration will serve our constituents better,” he said.

This year, patrons will be asked to enter the grounds from Old Taos Highway only and not Bishops Lodge Road. This way, people will bypass those bridges and enter the grounds from one of four gates. The first one leads to the family viewing area on Magers Field, a more sedate location augmented by video screens. The next three entrances lead to the ball field.

“We may decide to stick with it after this year,” Sandoval said.

Either way, he said the Kiwanis Club is willing to discuss changes at Fort Marcy.

“We really think there’s an added value for a downtown venue to accommodate other events,” he said. “Anything that would help the local economy, we’d love to be a partner in and be part of the discussion.”

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