Field of dreams
T-Rats’ donation improves W-F baseball diamond
By Greg Seubert
A long-standing partnership between the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and Weyauwega-Fremont High School is still going strong.
Take a look at the school’s improved baseball diamond, for instance.
The Appleton-based minor league baseball team is in the middle of a renovation project at Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute and decided to donate its old infield sod to area schools.
The team’s full-time employees, including team president Rob Zerjav, showed up in Weyauwega Sept. 9 to install more than 20 pallets of sod on the diamond’s dirt infield.
“It’s just a tremendous opportunity and we’re very thankful to the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers to recognize our program and the need,” W-F superintendent Scott Bleck said. “This is something we’ve been looking at the past few years, but it’s a very expensive project. When the opportunity came up for us to move on this, absolutely.”
W-F athletic director Jeff Fahser, the school’s athletic director and former varsity baseball coach, had a hand in making the improvement a reality.
“I’ve worked for the Timber Rattlers for 12 years as an usher in the summer,” he said. “We had a bad rain storm in June. A parent and I took some pictures and then Rob came out in August with (Timber Rattlers head groundskeeper) Jake (Hannes) and they pretty much offered us the infield because they’re putting in a new infield at Fox Cities Stadium. Our eyes kind of opened up wide and we thought it was a really good idea.”
Bleck said the T-Rats front office contacted the school about a month ago.
“There was a conversation about the T-Rats making improvements to their field,” he said. “During that process, the turf would come out and they were looking for a home.”
“It goes back to the relationship that I’ve had with Jeff for quite some time now,” Zerjav said. “When he was the head baseball coach here, he had me over to speak at their fundraising banquet. They were so kind and they had my wife and me out here to throw the first pitch for a game. We just always just had this kind of connection.
“We talked about how can we grass that field, how can we make the playing surface better,” he said. “We came up with different plans and cost always came into it. With us looking to redo our field, we thought it would be great to reuse this sod. We talked to Jeff and Jeff went through the powers that be here and got it OK’d.”
Out with the old
The Timber Rattlers removed their infield Sept. 9. Two days later, it was ready to be installed in Weyauwega. The team’s grounds crew will return to the diamond later this year to put the finishing touches on the project.
“Once we get our project done, our grounds crew and myself will come back here and build a mound,” Zerjav said. “I guess the old mound had an old giant tractor tire under it. We have some clay that we don’t use at the ballpark anymore that would be great for out here. By next year, this should be a beautiful field.”
“It’s kind of a unique thing we’re doing here,” Hannes said. “We started with cutting it out on our field, two other interns and me, which was about a day project. They’re 1 1/2-foot-wide rolls by 6 feet. We had about 24 pallets of sod brought over last night.
“It’s a timely process and it’s a lot of material to move at one time,” he added. “We put a little fertilizer down before we laid the sod. Once the sod is down, we’ll give it a good roll to flatten it down. It should take about two to three weeks to root. It looks like we’ll have temperatures cooperating where it’ll be nice, cool weather so the bluegrass can really take off.
“You don’t want that really warm weather when you’re laying sod,” he said. “It’s a tough, stressful thing for that grass to survive. That’s why we’re having our field renovated as well. This is the perfect time to do it. You give it a chance to grow in before winter and you can play on it right away in the spring.”
Neenah, Menasha and Omro high schools also received sod, Zerjav said.
“We came up with a master plan to donate it to high schools,” he said. “The last go-round, we just opened it up to anybody in the community. We had a lot of individuals come out just to take it for their lawn or if they’re resodding. It’s great grass. I have some in my yard as well to fill in some bare spots and it’s the most beautiful grass in my yard.”
Several of the team’s full-time employees donated their time to install the sod.
“They were excited about coming out and doing this,” Zerjav said. “It’s a great way to get out of the office. Our season just ended, so it’s a little slower now. It’s nice team-building. Hopefully, they take pride in knowing that this finished product when we’re done today is going to look like a beautiful baseball field.”
Hannes worked with W-F buildings and grounds supervisor Wes Schroeder on getting the project ready.
“Wes has done a ton of work to get this field prepped and Jake has told Wes what he’d be looking for,” Zerjav said. “I know there are some drainage issues in the past with rain. Having the grass on top of it is going to help drain the field better and soak up that water. Jake and Wes came up a plan to lay it all out. This is the easy part.”
Hannes said players will notice a difference with the new infield.
“It’s going to be more of a true hop,” he said. “It’s not going to be rock-hard like it was before. It shouldn’t be too much of an adjustment. It should slow the ball down a little. You’ll be able to get to balls that you normally don’t with an all-dirt infield. It’ll be a little safer to play on as well.”
“We really just wanted to make the field better,” Fahser said. “It was not a very even playing surface in the first place. We were going to level it out and just ask the Timber Rattlers if there was anything they could do for us to make it better. We never expected the sod, but we are very grateful that we got it.”
It would have cost the school district more than $20,000 to do the project on its own, according to Fahser.
“I was just asked that and I said $20,000 or $30,000 for everything they’re going to do for us,” he said. “It would be a very expensive project, for sure.”
W-F baseball coach Joe Sambs didn’t see the field until crews had installed sod for about an hour.
“It was like, ‘OK, I’ll believe it when I see it,’” he said. “I believe it now. They’re doing a great job, I know that. There are a couple of (area baseball fields) that have it, but not like this. It’s going to be slower because we play on that hard clay and it’s usually fast ground balls. We’ve had so many kids get hit in the chest or the face because of a bad hop at practice or in a game. It is going to be safer.”
“Instantly, there’s going to be a ‘wow’ factor when you walk out on the field,” Bleck said. “This is my 18th year in Weyauwega-Fremont and it’s always been a full dirt infield. It’s a good ballfield, but this is going to create a different look and feel. I think it’s going to make it a more comfortable playing field for our kids.”
“We’ll be proud to have other people come and play here,” Sambs said. “A lot of teams us it: Babe Ruth, the Pony League, the BABA team. It does get a lot of use, so we have to make sure we keep it in good shape, which I don’t see being a problem.”
“For them to come here and donate all these hours is absolutely awesome,” Fahser said. “I can’t thank them enough.”
“It’s all about how you feel,” Zerjav said. “You look good, you play good if you’re on a field that you’re proud of. Hopefully, it helps the team out and they take a lot of pride in coming to play baseball.”