EL PASO, Texas – The popular #MLBatFieldofDreamsGame was trending for weeks leading up to the August 12, 2021 showcase in Dyersville, Iowa between the New York Yankees and Chicago WhiteSox.
Although I didn’t have the distinct opportunity to travel to the cornfields of this Midwestern town, Major League Baseball embarked on what could be described as a “brilliant marketing of America’s Pastime” with two historic franchises playing at the Field of Dreams movie location.
WhiteSox outfielder Tim Anderson’s exhilarating walk-off homer could not have been scripted any better and this was EXACTLY the climactic 9-8 finale Major League Baseball was dreaming of.
Many will agree this inaugural game, which actually drew 5.9 million viewers, was a ratings (and yes…lucrative) baseball extravaganza.
But I was 1248 miles away from Dyerville at a state-of-art ballpark located in the far western part of Texas where there are four international points of entry connecting Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas.
Visiting the Old West
During my very first visit to Texas, I was super excited to visit El Paso’s version of ‘Field of Dreams’ (minus the cornfields) which is the home of the El Paso Chihuahuas, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. Standing alongside their home dugout at Southwest University Park, which opened in 2014, Chihuahuas manager Edwin Rodríguez introduced me to the two men responsible for keeping this baseball landscape in impeccable shape.
Head groundskeeper Travis Howard, who was reared in South Carolina and played Division-II baseball at Newberry College, was awarded the Pacific Coast League’s Sports Turf Manager of the Year award in 2017-2018. And while he had previous experience on the collegiate level, Travis shared a rather detail-oriented explanation on what his day-to-day life is literally on the field.
“It’s a lot of work and a lot of hours for sure. Typically, we get going around 8:30 A.M. First thing is the entire field is mowed. We do this everyday,” said Howard who also mentioned the importance of preparing the pitcher’s mound, bullpen and home plate from the previous night games.
TEXAS DAY 2: Such a gorgeous day to watch batting practice and observe @epchihuahuas manager @UnPicheoAlaVez do what he does best – teach. His classroom: Southwest University Park, home of the El Paso Chihuahuas. What an amazing ballpark. pic.twitter.com/xwL1HEFguH
— Danny Torres (@DannyT21) August 12, 2021
The most important thing
He added: “The biggest thing is infield maintenance. Keeping moisture the way you want it. Moisture is the most important thing on a baseball field.”
Considering the climate in El Paso is quite dry with very little precipitation (although on this visit there was significant rain), Travis also acknowledged the importance of maintaining the infield dirt and the need of “getting it as smooth as possible.”
But most importantly the safety of the players is paramount.
Throughout our conversation, Howard’s unwavering commitment to his craft and attentiveness to the field’s overall appearance is similar to a doting father towards his youngest child.
This immaculate field is his ‘baby.’
“The field could be watered six times a day. Rolling is important to keep it smooth and consistent. We want it to be like a pool table,” said Howard matter-of-factly.
For the remainder of the 2021 season, there would be a switch to a new base for the Triple-A West teams and the grounds crew were fully prepared for this newest directive and Major League Baseball’s “Great Experiment” on the diamond.
Prior to Thursday’s postponement due to severe thunderstorms, I also spoke with El Paso native Tony Tafoya who also played baseball at Centenary College in Louisiana. Similarly to Howard, he takes immense pride in the maintenance of the field (which they’ve also converted to a regulation soccer field along with hosting their first-ever Nitro Circus event at the ballpark).
Tafoya (who I caught proudly wearing a WBC Team Puerto Rico game-used cap courtesy of the Chihuahuas manager who also guided that historic team in 2013-2017) shared his thoughts on the changes.
The Evolution of the Base
“The original bases are 15 inches and now the newest base is 18 inches. This is what MLB wants to experiment to see whatever improvements to the game at the Triple-A level,” said Tafoya as he invited me to take a closer look at both bases.
I did some additional research and the height in the middle of the base is only 2.5 inches tall compared to the current 3 inches (which now includes different groves and textures).
Both men are fully committed to their daily responsibilities at SouthWest University Field and that passion illuminates through respective eyes.
Before the players arrive, the field staff and of course the supportive fans who attend each game I observed the countless hours of a dedicated team maintaining a well-manicured field consisting of burnt-sienna tones, perfectly-aligned, white bases and Bermuda grass reminiscent of that ballpark in the cornfields of Iowa.
And who can forget that memorable line recited throughout that 1989 movie and by every baseball aficionado who has seen this timeless classic countless times. Furthermore, I’m certain every fan in attendance on August 12, 2021 recited those exact seven words from their seats throughout that beautifully, orchestrated pre-game ceremony at this year’s “Field of Dreams” game:
“If you build it, they will come.”
Written by Danny Torres
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In El Paso, There’s A Hidden “Field of Dreams” And The Grounds Crew Are The Perfect Team