Preparing MiLB field for youth football

Ray Sayre doesn’t have to preach his quest, he lives it.

The field is his canvas.

Part of the reward is praise and thanks he receives for making the playing surface at Blue Wahoos Stadium the best it can be. For the next two weeks, it will be a new challenge for Sayre, the Blue Wahoos’ director of sports turf management.

Saturday’s 26th annual Soul Bowl youth football event, featuring five different age divisions in a full day of games, will be followed Oct. 17 by the University of West Florida intrasquad scrimmage. That will serve as a rehearsal of sorts for the Argos’ 2016 season debut at the stadium.

“The conversion has actually gotten easier,” said Sayre, as he completed a recent morning with his staff of mowing the outfield grass and getting the field primed for the football sidelines. “That first year (2012) we didn’t know what to expect as far as the event itself.

“We kinda know the time frame a little bit better so it doesn’t take that long to do this step or that step. We’re not as big of a rush.”

The process takes about a week. Sayre has it down to a set timetable. Goalposts were installed Monday. Painting the sidelines, end zone areas and crossmarks were done Tuesday and Wednesday. The hashmarks and numbers will be painted Thursday.

The final phase is painting the infield area, which for now, is still dirt.

“For us, the dress rehearsal was three years ago when we hosted the first Soul Bowl (in 2012),” said Sayre, who has earned the Southern League groundskeeper of year award the past three years. “I don’t think opening day for baseball is any more important than a game, say, on Aug. 17.

“It is all the same to me. I want the field to be as good as it possibly can be every day. I don’t put in any less effort in the last game or the first game.

“Now with UWF, I see it more on their end. It will be for them….realizing what it will take to get their equipment here, how long it will take, and where to set it all up. It will be more understanding what they need and how we can facilitate it.”

Sayre and his staff never stop caring for the field. It has been a year-round process, even with limited events in the off-season from baseball. The Blue Wahoos are hailed throughout minor league baseball for having one of the finest playing surfaces.

Also in Wednesday’s CMPA meeting, the board approved by an 8-3 vote to help fund a needed replacement for the left field wall that will move it back 17 feet, along with the left field foul pole.

The project’s cost of $71,725 will be shared by the University of West Florida, and a smaller portion by the Blue Wahoos and another portion with the city. Moving the wall and pole expands the field to conform to NCAA football standards.

The Argos will have an intrasquad scrimmage Oct. 17 at Fetterman Field and will play their inaugural season there in 2016.

The work will be completed for the Soul Bowl youth football games Oct. 10 at Blue Wahoos Stadium. Without the CMPA approval Wednesday, it could have put both of those events in jeopardy.

UWF athletic director Dave Scott, along with vice president Brendan Kelly, both addressed the CMPA meeting Wednesday and said it was essential to get the wall moved to have the Oct. 17 scrimmage.

They wanted to have ability to go through a game-like experience at the stadium before playing their first home game next season. It is also a way to showcase the stadium to players, families and recruits for the 2016 class.

“There are a lot of things that are going to go into a game,” Scott said. “Many things that people never see. We need a chance to work through that. And we don’t want to work through that on the first game day. We want a chance to walk through these things.”

CMPA member Fred Gunther, who voted against the agreement, was supportive of a temporary solution of taking down the outfield wall then putting it back next season for the Blue Wahoos. CMPA chairman Jim Reeves explained it would become a continual cost factor and not solve the fact the wall needed to be anchored.

Gunther wondered aloud if UWF was committed to playing at the stadium for longer than its two-year agreement with another year as an option. For UWF to build an on-campus stadium, however, would cost tens of millions of dollars, no matter if it seats 5,000 or 10,000.

“Our priority to play at Maritime Park is to bring UWF football to Pensacola,” Kelly said. “Where we play in the long term is a question that will be answered in the long term, but I can tell you right now we are anticipating playing in (Blue Wahoos Stadium) and we are excited about the opportunity to make that a great success.”

Pensacola mayor Ashton Hayward spoke to the CMPA board, expressing his support to help with some of the costs as well as making the stadium work for football. His support seemed to speed the debate process at the meeting.

“I’m here to offer helping out moving the fence,” Hayward said. “Whatever I can do that can help the solution we hope to be part of that solution. Anything we can do to move the community forward — we have so much momentum — I hope we can do that.”

For baseball next season, the outfield dimensions will now be 342 feet down the left field line, along with an adjustment in the left-center power alley. The straightaway center dimension remains at 400 and 335 feet down the right field line.

The happiest about that change will be Blue Wahoos pitchers and their fellow pitching peers in the Southern League, who watched many wind-aided balls carry out of left field under the former 325 feet dimension.

Remington said the naming rights for the stadium were valued at $225,000. After years of trying, a company has not come forward to offer naming rights. The team will give the CMPA $112,500 each year for the next seven years.

“Under our agreement with CMPA, if we sold the naming rights to the city, we would split the money. We essentially said, we’ll buy your half for $112,500.”