NORTHBOROUGH — Build it (plow it, shovel it), and they will come.
Boy oh boy, they will come.
The New England Baseball Complex may not be a Field of Dreams, but its three state-of-the-art ballfields are no April Fools Day joke, either.
“It’s like heaven,” gushed University of Connecticut baseball coach Jim Penders, whose team hasn’t been on its home field since October because of the horrendous winter weather. “You can actually play a game here.”
OK, this isn’t “The Natural,” either. The grass is artificial, and the basepaths, batting areas, and even the pitcher’s mound are cushy synthetic turf. But the fields are playable now, when many New England diamonds are still buried in snow.
The scenery is surreal. Set on a hillside with tons of plowed snow piled up, the ballfields look as though they have been airlifted next to Mount Everest.
Getting field time is almost as hard as getting a tee time at Augusta National. They are booked through August.
“We’re everybody’s best friend,” says CEO Steve August, who was assistant general manager of the Red Sox during the Dan Duquette era. “It reminds me of my days with the Red Sox when everybody called me for tickets.”
“People have been clamoring all over New England looking for time — borderline begging,’’ says Peter Batchelder, the director of media and marketing operations.
It was no small feat to clear the fields so teams could play ball this spring at the $9 million facility. On March 15, the fields were buried under 2 feet of snow, with drifts of 5 feet in the outfield.
“It just didn’t seem possible,” says Batchelder.
They contacted Dennis Brolin of Sports Turf Specialties, who was once the Patriots’ field superintendent at Gillette Stadium. Then out came the Bobcats and the blowers.
“He’s the best in the business,” says August. “He had 14 pieces of equipment. Then we manually had to shovel the bullpens. But these fields have rescued college baseball in New England.”
It didn’t matter that there were no locker rooms, no running water, and no flagpole to face for the national anthem. The concession stand has no concessions, and the press booth/radio booth is a trailer deposited behind home plate. Twelve port-o-potties were trucked in, and management held its breath.
Not a soul complained.
So far this spring, 40-50 teams have played or practiced here. On some days, the activities start at 7 a.m. and go to 10 p.m. Last Sunday, there were 12 games here. The average rental fee is $150-$200 an hour.
But August swears he’s not making enough to buy a small island in the Bahamas.
“We’re not making a lot of money,” he says. “We’re just trying to help out, to be honest with you. We spent an awful lot of money to clear the fields, just to make it happen. We’ll make a little bit back but it’s certainly not strategic, let’s put it that way.”
On Monday afternoon, Boston College played UConn. The Huskies wore their dress whites and were the home team despite having to travel double the distance that BC did.
There has been less snow in Storrs, Conn., than Boston, but the UConn field still has ice on the warning track. BC’s home field has a blanket of snow in right field, the basepaths are like quicksand, and the infield is full of souvenirs left by Canada geese. This is typical throughout New England. And Boston, of course, had its snowiest winter on record.
The coaches are thankful to play here.
“It’s a great option for us,” says BC coach Mike Gambino. “We are very comfortable here. Any time we get to play here, the boys are very excited. They love the turf, and they love the facility.”
Gambino even uses the New England weather as a recruiting tool.
“Your biggest goal is to be a big leaguer that plays in the cold at least on Opening Day in April and then in October,” says Gambino. “If you don’t like that, then you’d better tell the Yankees and Mets and Tigers and our Olde Towne Team, the Red Sox, not to draft you.”
Penders, who recorded his 400th victory when UConn defeated BC, 8-7, agreed.
“We call ourselves road warriors,” he says. “We tell them, ‘You’re not going to be in Tuscaloosa for 38-40 games.’
“Our budgets are such that we can hop on an airplane and go somewhere. I feel bad for the guys that don’t have the budgets to do this. That’s why places like this are instrumental in keeping baseball players happy in the Northeast.”
Some locals showed up for the BC-UConn matchup. It wasn’t exactly the Rolling Stones playing Sir Morgan’s Cove in Worcester in 1981, but it was a big deal for local baseball fans.
“It’s awesome, it’s free, you can’t beat it,” says Karl Brenner of Holden, who brought the kids. “It’s nice to see the big D1 schools down here on the local field.”
After the game, UConn outfielder Jack Sundberg said he didn’t mind being “a road warrior.”
“A hot shower would be nice, but we just like to roll with the punches and take what we get,” he said. “It’s New England.”
Umpire Dick Cacciatore guarded the third base line and surveyed the fans between innings. He looked at wide-eyed kids from Wellesley High School and Elms College who got here early and were just enjoying the game.
“It’s a life saver,” says Cacciatore. “Thank God for turf.”