It’s an expression Fred Burks and Steve Reller have seen countless times since April 4.
Players with their eyes wide, jaw dropped, able to muster one word: “Wow.”
Is this heaven? No, it’s Rock Bridge High.
At a cost of about $15,000, the Bruins redid their infield in the fall. Lawn Care Unlimited, based in Kansas City, removed the old infield, releveled it and lasered it so the field was sloped and water would drain in all directions.
Emerald View Turf Farm in Jefferson City and Merten’s Quarry in Auxvasse also helped.
A crew of fathers, including Burks and Reller, has continued to maintain the field from Rock Bridge’s season opener against Blue Springs South on April 4 until today’s home finale against Smith-Cotton at 5 p.m.
“If you would have seen it last year, it was embarrassing to stand here and look at,” Reller said. “But take a look at that. That’s what a baseball field should look like. That’s the equivalent of a small college baseball field right there on the infield.
“Don’t you think the kids enjoy that, and the coaches enjoy that, and the other parents? That’s what it’s all about.”
Home (field) improvements
Reller, whose son, Scott, pitches for Rock Bridge, is the executive director of the BC Baseball League in Columbia.
He said Rock Bridge’s infield endured more than nine years of wear and tear, plus an extremely hot summer 2003 that killed the grass.
“A field needs constant maintenance,” Reller said. “It had been beaten down from, not neglect, but use.”
In addition to new sod in the infield, Rock Bridge replaced its old dirt base paths with 2 inches of red shale on top of 2-4 inches of white agrilime.
Shale is a soft rock Reller said works like kitty litter and takes about a year to get into good playing condition.
The process includes breaking up the surface with a nail drag, crushing the big clumps of shale with a roller and sweeping the rest with a broom. Unlike the infield at Busch Stadium, Rock Bridge’s infield cannot be dragged.
Burks owns a heating and cooling company and his son, Andy, pitches for the Bruins. He built a double-set row of brooms to pull behind a tractor and refine the shale.
“What we’re trying to do is bust it up,” Burks said. “The more you broom it, the more dust and flakes it makes.”
Burks said the previous field was as rough as a cob and had bad lips between grass and dirt, which led to bad hops and costly errors. Moreover, there were pockets where water would hold.
The new surface allows water to run off the field.
“The shale, when it gets water on it, will shed it off,” Reller said. “When it gets wet it gets soft, but it doesn’t get muddy, like dirt gets. It has a surface tension and it holds, so that way you can play on it. Most issues are never about the grass holding water, most issues are about the dirt and this is no longer dirt.”
Reaping the benefits
Burks and Reller expect fewer rainouts because of the new infield. They note two games that have been played this year that would not have been played last year.
“Most rains you could play on it,” Burks said. “High school baseball seasons are so short anyway and it’s in the rainiest part of the year. We’ll have very few rainouts because of it. It was a major investment, but I think we have the premier field in mid-Missouri.”
In terms of quality of play, second baseman David Hall said the field plays quicker than before.
“The grass is shorter and it’s a little bit faster of a field, but we’ve been playing on it long enough it’s not too big of an adjustment,” Hall said.
Nevertheless, there have been adjustments for others, namely umpires and mothers.
The new surface has left umpires without a dirt source, to the amusement of Reller and Burks.
“We were laughing,” Reller said. “The umpire was looking for dirt the other night to rub up baseballs and we had to get him a bucket of dirt.”
Digging up the dirt
Bruins coach Terry Whitney said some mothers aren’t as pleased with it.
“Some of the moms don’t like it as well because it stains the uniform,” Whitney said. “(LeRoy Siefort of Lawn Care Unlimited) told me it shouldn’t stain, but it leaves a red stain.”
Ron Bartlett, an attorney at Jones, Schneider and Bartlett, designed the Rock Bridge softball and baseball stadiums that occupy land once reserved for football practice fields.
Bartlett’s youngest son, Spencer, pitched the first game against Helias on April 6, 1995.
“They didn’t have a field, but they needed one real bad,” Bartlett said. “We wanted to build one good enough to be here for a long time in the future and one Rock Bridge could be proud of.”
Bartlett and other parents raised the necessary money and spent many hours building the stadium.
Rock Bridge parents are employing a similar approach. Whitney had money available, but the baseball boosters club raised the rest.
Meanwhile, the fathers do the work Burks said the school district doesn’t have the resources to do the way it needs to be done.
“The dads are willing to work on it,” Burks said. “We’ve spent a few nights out here until 11:30, midnight working on this.
“But, it’s worth it. I know the kids appreciate it. You can tell they’re proud of it when they walk in here and the other team is like, ‘Wow.’”