Play ball!

As Manchester and the rest of the southern New Hampshire baseball world await the opening of the brand new $20 million home of the Eastern League champion New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the stadium still doesn’t have a corporate sponsor, nor a permanent name.

Perhaps when the stadium is complete, the team will sell the naming rights to a hair replacement product.

“I’ll tell you, I lost a lot of hair over this project,” said Manchester Director of Public Works Frank Thomas. “It’s been a difficult project, because nobody’s really working for us, even though it’s going to be a city facility, with a long-term lease to (Fisher Cats owner) Drew Weber and the team. The team has contracted for the architectural and engineering work to do the design on the stadium and contracted for the construction. Everything’s being done outside the city, except that the city, through the agreement, reimburses Drew Weber for the cost and has some say over the design aspects.”

Under terms of the agreement that brought the former New Haven Ravens from Connecticut to New Hampshire under Weber’s ownership last year, the city will reimburse the team up to $19 million for construction of the stadium. Anything over that amount will be absorbed by the team. By early March, the team had already ordered $775,000 worth of changes to the construction plan, Thomas said, with more changes anticipated.

Still, the public works director pronounced himself “reasonably confident” the ballpark will be ready to open in time for the scheduled season opener on the banks of the Merrimack on Thursday evening, April 7.

“The final pavement may not be on the road down there, but the concession stands will be up and running, the seats will be in. They’ll have to meet the minimum code requirements to get a certificate of occupancy from the Building Department. Toilet and sanitary facilities have to be available,” Thomas said. “Everybody is optimistic it’s going to be available for opening day.”

But Thomas, whose responsibilities include keeping the city streets plowed through a long northern New England winter, knows well how much the weather can alter the best laid plans of baseball executives and fans.

“If we continue to get these storms right up until opening day, we may have some problems,” he said.

A GMs concerns

At 34, Shawn Smith, president and general manager of the Fisher Cats, is already a veteran of minor league baseball operations. At least Smith isn’t losing any hair over the ballpark construction in Manchester. It’s too late for that.

“I lost my hair between my third and fourth baseball team,” said Smith, who is almost completely bald, despite his youth.

Smith also is confident the ballpark will be ready for opening day. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t worry.

“I worry about everything,” he said. He worries about things in the future, like the quirks that might be found in the stadium after the builder’s warranty has expired. A husband and father, Smith has learned to be concerned about a homeowner’s responsibilities. At least he doesn’t have to worry about the players and how they pitch or hit, field or run the bases, right? Well, no, even there the team’s president and GM admits to some anxieties.

“I feel for the players on a personal level,” he said. “I know how hard they’re trying and how they want to make it at this level and then move on up. So when they’re struggling and things aren’t going well, you can see it in their eyes, you can see it in their faces. You know they’re hurting. So I feel for them. But no, not the wins and losses. I let the managers and the coaches worry about that.”

But just about everything else about the team and its ballpark comes under Smith’s purview, as it did with Drew Weber’s other team, the Lowell Spinners of the Class A New York-Penn League.

The corporate sponsorship and naming of the new stadium in Manchester will take place in due time, he said, though not, apparently, in time for the opening of the new season. It needs to be the right kind of company with the right image for family entertainment, Smith said.

During ball games, he pays attention to things like the kind of music played over the loudspeakers between innings. (Again, the family entertainment theme takes precedence over the musical tastes of the staff.) The cleanliness and upkeep of the stadium, the promotional events on the field, the atmosphere in the stands — the entire look, sounds and feel of the ballpark experience are things that concern the general manager.

A thick layer of snow, meanwhile, covered the field, as giant heaters blew hot air in the direction of construction workers laboring through a winter day to raise a ballpark on the river in time for an early rite of spring. A chainlink fence separated the playing field from the stands, where the seats had yet to be installed. When completed, the fans sitting in the lower seats might be surprised at how close they are to the action on the field, Smith said.

“Yankee Stadium has very little foul territory along the first and third base lines,” Smith noted. “This will have even less.” Fans will like the “intimate” setting in the 6,500-seat stadium, as well as the large picnic area and play area for younger fans.

The players, too, are apt to like the amenities of the new ballpark, which include indoor batting cages, another requirement of Eastern League baseball. There will be season boxes and luxury boxes and other amenities that were hardly imagined for minor league baseball 15 to 20 years ago.

The game is getting more like its major league counterpart in some ways, but still retains its hometown flavor and, more importantly, its affordable prices. Players — none of whom command million-dollar salaries — are more accessible and both the sponsors of the promotional contests between innings and the fans are more involved in the game.

So is the city’s public works director, who found time to talk about the ballpark between snowstorms. Plans for the project were altered somewhat since the drawings were made public by project architect HNTB of Kansas City, Mo.

Most of the planned brick facade has been replaced by metal siding in order to keep the costs of the project as close as possible to the $19 million agreed to by the city. The original contractor, Harvey Construction, was replaced by Peyton Construction, which built a similar ballpark in Brockton, Mass.

“I think it’s going to be a very nice looking facility,” said Thomas, who was part of a city delegation that traveled to Brockton to view the ballpark there. “It’s a very nice looking facility and we’re going to get something that’s very comparable.”

For the time being, at least, the new sports facility will be known simply as Fisher Cats Ballpark, said John Zarf, the team’s media relations manager. “That’s going to be the name until we get a corporate sponsor,” he said. “If that happens.”

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