By Mike London
SALISBURY — Rain washed relentlessly over the Catawba College campus on Wednesday evening, but on the new turf field inside Shuford Stadium, the lacrosse team practiced with no issues.
Synthetic turf changes life dramatically. It eliminates worries, labor and maintenance costs. It allows athletic programs to play more often and to recover more quickly from nature’s rude outbursts.
There’s a firm plan in place for Newman Park to have a turf field of its own in 2021. Catawba head baseball coach Jim Gantt is elated over what’s coming.
“While lacrosse was practicing, I was out on the baseball field putting down sand and boards, just trying to keep everything from washing away,” a weary Gantt said. “A turf field for us would mean fewer rainouts. It would mean playing more baseball and winning more baseball games. The worst baseball field in the world is one that has no one on it. We’ve experienced that too many times.”
Catawba has officially launched a Newman Park renovation campaign. This is Phase 1 of three planned phases.
The first tangible evidence of change that fans can expect to see will be synthetic turf with enhanced field drainage and new field-level dugouts. Phase 1 construction is set to begin in June, shortly after Catawba’s spring season ends.
Dr. David P. Nelson, who was named Catawba’s 24th president in April, and Meg Dees, Catawba’s vice president of development, are the driving forces behind the project.
“I know this has been an idea for some time, an idea that’s been kicked around some in the past,” Nelson said. “But as soon as I saw some of the plans it took me about two minutes to get very interested and eager to see more.”
Nelson did see more. Now he is all in.
“We have one of the best baseball programs in the country and our players deserve an enhanced playing experience,” Nelson said. “We are thrilled to commence the renovation of historic Newman Park.”
Nelson is a scholar first, but he’s also a lifelong baseball fan who grew up in a baseball family.
His first call about the project to Gantt was greeted with at least as much skepticism as optimism because Gantt has heard renovation talk before. But Nelson won him over, even before they’d officially met in person.
“He’s personable,” Gantt said. “One of those people that when you meet him for the first time, you feel like you’ve known him for 10 years.”
Back in June, the renovation campaign received a $1 million challenge match from an anonymous donor. That challenge included an additional gift of $250,000 — as long as the Campaign Steering Committee could raise an additional $1 million by Oct. 31.
That fundraising goal/deadline was met. Dees lists the most recent total raised for the project as $2,504,250.
More millions, some really big money, is going to be needed for Catawba to do everything it wants to do with Newman Park, but the first phase is set in stone. There’s no turning back.
“Getting that turf down will show that real progress is being made,” Nelson said. “That would be an early win. An early win is important.”
The Phase 2 goal is $4 million. In all, Catawba hopes to raise a total of $10 million.
Nelson said it’s important for people to understand that this is more than a Catawba project. It’s a community project.
“These improvements will benefit our nationally ranked Catawba baseball team, the many American Legion players who take the field at Newman each summer, and will be enjoyed by those in the Salisbury-Rowan community for years to come,” Nelson said.
Nelson has started to get a feel for just how important the old ballpark — Catawba’s home since 1926 and with a grandstand constructed in 1934 — is to thousands of people around the city and county.
So many people have a Newman Park story. Of a game they saw or maybe of an epic game in which they played. Maybe they saw Bob Watson launch a home run out there or maybe they watched Aaron Pointer hit .400. Or maybe they remember a long one that Coe Brier slugged out of sight for the American Legion team. Maybe they have a special memory of Legion coaches such as Joe Ferebee or Jim DeHart or Catawba coaches such as Dick Williams or Marshall Murphy. Maybe what they remember is simply the peanuts or the hot dogs or the Cheerwines. Or sitting in the green grandstand with their parents or their children. Maybe it was the resonant voice of Marty Brennaman or Howard Platt on their radio.
The goal is to keep the great old bones of a ballpark, keep the tradition, keep the framework, keep the feel, but also to transform a museum piece into something modern and state of the art.
“Still Newman Park, just newer,” is how Gantt puts it.
Nelson acknowledges there are plenty of challenges ahead. Every day with COVID-19 is a challenge. He’s getting ready to embark on the uncharted voyage of a fan-less basketball season because the players and the coaches deserve to compete and want to compete, even though they understand it’s not going to be normal or easy.
Accomplishments during the toughest times are gratifying. Nelson pointed out that getting the turf field successfully installed in the football stadium this summer was a rallying point for the program, the school and the community. It was a demonstration of we-can-do-it-together progress in the face of uncertainty.
Nelson believes this baseball project can have equally satisfying results.
“I realize this may seem like odd timing,” he said. “But you can always find reasons not to do something. I say it’s better to roll up your sleeves and get it going.”
A who’s-who list of former Catawba and Rowan Legion players, including Jerry Sands, is on board, for the project.
So are celebrities who have come to admire Newman Park. Brennaman, Bob Costas and Bob Ryan are listed as honorary campaign chairs.
Their involvement has impressed Gantt. So has the tireless work of Dees.
Gantt is from the “believe it, when I see it” school, but he’s convinced that a Newman Park renaissance is coming. He believes a turf field will be a reality in June.
“If it doesn’t work out, this is probably strike three,” Gantt said. “But I’m convinced it’s going to happen.”
Members of the fund-raising group, the Newman Park Steering Committee, include Brier, Sands, Voight Basinger, Todd Blake, Heath Bost, Mike Bauk, Bill Butts, Dusty Dellinger, Brad Esarey, Steve Flood, Shari Graham, Bill Hall, Jackie Taylor, Jerry Maye, Sandy Moore, Zack Queen, Bob Rathbun, Mike Reynolds, Bob Setzer, Mark Smith, Matt Smith, David Thomas, Cecil Whitley, Heath Mitchem, Spence Southard and Todd Smith.
NOTE: The project means another summer without American Legion ball at Newman Park, but Gantt says Rowan County still plans to field a team. “With the high school schedule, it’s going to be a late Legion season,” he said. “We’ll find a place to play home games. Even if we have to play every game on the road, we’ll find a way to play.”