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Bill Everhart: Take me out to a modernized ballpark

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The sign at the front of Wahconah Park in Pittsfield is seen in March 2020. "The mayor wants to create a nine-member Wahconah Park Restoration Committee, which is a fine idea and should include people who have at least been to the park and know something about its limitations and aren’t overly sentimental about the 'historic' (read 'old') ball yard," writes Eagle columnist Bill Everhart.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer is right: The Wahconah Park grandstand needs to be torn down. Sadly, it is about two decades too late.

In April, the grandstand was declared to be structurally unsound and closed off, necessitating the bringing in of temporary bleachers for games of the Futures Collegiate League’s Pittsfield Suns. It seemed odd that the city suddenly found that the grandstand was unusable. It has been parked in the Wahconah Street swamplands well past its expiration date.

The mayor proposed the idea of a major Wahconah Park renovation on local radio June 23. She noted that the problems with the grandstand go beyond the seating areas. Beneath the seats are substandard locker rooms and bathrooms that no one wants to enter. Going to the crowded concession areas involves missing out on the game, a situation that won’t be found at any ballpark built in the 21st century.

Speaking of which, Pittsfield nearly had one of those 21st century ballparks at the start of the century.

The ballpark plan was motivated by the impending loss of Pittsfield’s New York-Penn League franchise because Wahconah Park no longer met the league’s standards. This would end Pittsfield’s long, if off and on, relationship with Major League-affiliated professional baseball.

A plan for a park situated in the area bordered by West and Center streets emerged with funding from Larry Bossidy, a successful businessman and Pittsfield native, Berkshire Bank and Media News Group, then the parent company of The Berkshire Eagle. The plan was supported by Mayor Gerry Doyle.

A civic authority was proposed to own and manage the ballpark, a common action, but opposition to the new park coalesced around the creation of the authority. Conspiracy theories emerged that the authority would employ eminent domain to sweep through the city at the behest of the Doyle-Berkshire Bank-Media News Group axis of evil to accomplish some unspecified villainy. Opposition was led by three city councilors nicknamed the Three Amigos and private citizens who called themselves the modern day minutemen. (“Progress is coming! To arms!”)

The ballpark plan had sufficient support among city officials to be enacted, but foes managed to get it onto a citywide referendum, where the disinformation campaign succeeded and the civic authority and ballpark plan were defeated in June 2001. The pieces that had fallen into place were scattered for good.

Now, the city has to figure out what is to be done with Wahconah Park. The mayor wants to create a nine-member Wahconah Park Restoration Committee, which is a fine idea and should include people who have at least been to the park and know something about its limitations and aren’t overly sentimental about the “historic” (read “old”) ball yard. It’s hoped that no one will be able to yell “charter objection” and gum up the works.

In her radio interview, Mayor Tyer took pains to say that the field would not be changed in any way, describing it as “unique.” Unique it is, as it faces west, causing sun delays that bring games to a halt.

Anyone who has been to a few games at the ballpark — and I have been to several hundred beginning in the 1960s and including a few years covering the Pittsfield Cubs and Pittsfield Mets as an Eagle sportswriter — knows how aggravating the sun delays are. The amateur team in residence has tried to make the delays a selling point. The team is called the Suns, and when a delay strikes the PA announcer chirps cheerfully about this famed occurrence.

But it means 30 minutes more or less, depending on the month, of sitting and watching the sun come down. That means lengthening the game accordingly, which is an issue on a work night or school night.

It may or may not be possible to shift the direction of the ballpark, but that should absolutely be on the table when the restoration committee is formed. In fact the committee should not be burdened by any caveats, restrictions or sacred cows when it does its work.

Decades ago, Pittsfield tore down a beautiful train station in the name of urban renewal. Two decades ago, the city over-corrected and rejected a new ballpark and kept an old ballpark that should have been torn down and now will be. There is no changing history, but there is no forgetting it either, less it repeat itself.

More immediately, Pittsfield will try to make Wahconah Park as relevant as possible in the modern era.

Bill Everhart is The Eagle’s former editorial page editor.

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