By Scott Smith
Tribune staff writer
Kokomo — The big block of bleachers along the first base line of Highland Park Stadium kind of seems out of place, but it does serve at least one purpose — it blocks innumerable foul balls from traveling over to the South Side youth baseball diamond.
And the short porch, 270 feet out to right field?
Well, the old Kokomo baseball crowd calls it ambiance, a throwback to the days when baseball facilities weren’t cookie cutter clean, and managers had to agree on ground rules before the games.
One thing local baseball fans can agree on is that the stadium, once home to a minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Los Angeles Dodgers, is a piece of Kokomo history which must be maintained and cherished.
It hasn’t seen an update since 1985, when it hosted the American Legion World Series. That’s when the huge bank of bleachers was added, bringing the stadium’s capacity to around 3,000 fans.
Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight brought the stadium back into the spotlight last month, when he announced plans to renovate the facility during his annual State of the City speech.
“It was partially prompted by the last semi-state they had there, with Western, where we got some feedback about the parking, the restroom facilities and the press box,” Goodnight said. “The playing surface itself is perfect, but the facility itself is not what it used to be.”
Goodnight is putting together a commission, culled from the local baseball community, to come up with a set of recommendations.
When the city’s 2014 budget process gets underway in late summer, Goodnight said he’ll work to bring a plan to the Kokomo Common Council, to be funded next year.
The dugouts, the restroom facilities, the press box and the storage areas (which were meant to be used as locker rooms) are all issues which might be addressed.
The short porch is another, possibly, but Goodnight acknowledged the fact there are residential properties immediately behind the right field wall. Likewise, he said he doesn’t want to take down trees to make way for parking.
“If you look at Highland Park itself, it’s one of the best parks around in terms of mature trees, and as much as parking is an issue, we don’t want to damage the integrity of Highland Park,” Goodnight said. “It has so many natural qualities to it.”
With trees on one side and a neighborhood on the other, the baseball stadium itself has become a nice transition into the park, as well as a buffer between the park and the outside world.
“It’s a great stadium, and one of the nice things about old stadiums is that they have personality,” said Dave Kitchell, retired Kokomo Tribune sports editor. “Now they build stadiums where it’s 340 feet down the lines, and it’s the same in each power alley. That’s not what I would prefer.”
Dean Hockney, editor of Indiana Sports Journal, called Highland Park “one of the best baseball diamonds at the high school and amateur level in Indiana.”
Like Kitchell, Hockney has mixed feelings about realigning the field to address the short distance to the right field foul pole, saying he’d prefer to add a tall wall atop the right field fence, a la the famous “Green Monster” left field wall at Boston’s Fenway Park.
Installing something other than chain link for the outfield fence, perhaps even wood, and renovating the press box (“In fact, just tear out that whole back area” he added) would be good steps, Hockney said.
The huge bank of seats down the first base line presents an interesting problem.
The stadium was expanded for the American Legion series, but both Kitchell and Hockney expressed doubt that quite as many seats are needed.
Still, the seats are there, even if they are bleachers without backs.
“They’re old, loud and clunky, but they actually protect the South Side [youth baseball league] diamond from foul balls,” Hockney said.
One thing that probably won’t happen ever again at Highland Park Stadium is minor league baseball.
Both South Bend and Fort Wayne have Single-A baseball teams, but both cities boast metro populations of more than 300,000 people. Howard County has about 82,000 people.
“I can’t see [minor league baseball] being that likely to happen, but that’s not the reason I’m doing it,” Goodnight said. “It needed to be upgraded either way.”
Kitchell, who spent 40 years with the Tribune’s sports department, and who served as publicity chair for the 1985 Legion series, said the stadium has seen a lot of great baseball games.
Opposing hitters’ eyes still light up when they see the short porch in right, but Kitchell said he can’t remember one game where the distance to the wall ended up being the deciding factor.
“I think it’s just great they’re doing it,” he said. “From living so close to it, I’ve seen a lot of baseball tournaments, and a lot of people have complimented that stadium. I think the baseball community will embrace the renovation. It will be fun to see what happens.”
Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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