Stadium Review: Columbia’s Spirit Communications Park

Originally published April 19, 2016 at http://www.baseballamerica.com/minors/stadium-review-columbias-spirit-communications-park/#mTvSlfI3LDTXEZhH.97

by Josh Norris

Spirit-Communications-Park

 

The Columbia Fireflies on April 14 opened the gates at Spirit Communications Park, the new home of the Mets’ low Class A affiliate in the South Atlantic League.

Judged solely by minor league stadium standards, the park is tremendous. It’s shiny and new, holds 7,501 spectators with room for thousands more on its 360-degree concourse that spans a third of a mile.

The batter’s eye in center field neatly divides two informal sections. Beyond the left-field bleachers there’s a sizable play zone for families with children, filled with inflatable games and diversions. Over right field, there’s an island bar intended as a spot for 20- and 30-somethings to meet and mingle over the course of nine innings.

The stadium was designed with much more than minor league baseball in mind.  A full season in the SAL contains 70 home games over five months, which leaves the park, save for its conference rooms and front offices, untouched for the rest of the year.

Year-Round Wonder

Unlike most baseball stadiums, however, SCP is a public park. Its gates are open at dawn and don’t close until three hours before game time. Before then, fans are welcome to roam the concourse, eat lunch at a table around the field or just use the facilities to enjoy some time outside away from their office cubicle.

That’s part of the vision set forth by John Katz, Jason Freier and the team at Hardball Capital, which also owns the Midwest League’s Fort Wayne TinCaps (Padres). The group also owned Boston’s high Class A affiliate in the Carolina League, formerly known as the Salem Avalanche, until they sold the team to the Fenway Sports Group in 2007.

Roughly two years before construction began on SCP, Katz and members of his team who were in Savannah, Ga., which the Fireflies franchise left after last season, took several trips to Fort Wayne’s Parkview Field to assess, evaluate and formulate a plan.

“We learned a lot from the Fort Wayne design. Fort Wayne is a beautiful ballpark, second to none,” Katz said, “and what we did was we took the things that we realized after operating Fort Wayne for three or four years that, hey, there are some things we could do a little differently to maximize efficiency when we start designing Columbia.”

One of the solutions they settled upon was to tweak the outfield dimensions ever so slightly. Fort Wayne’s right-field foul pole sits 318 feet from home plate. In Columbia, that distance is 330 feet. With those 12 extra feet in place, it becomes much easier for SCP to be a year-round venue.

“The whole concept and theme of Spirit Communications Park is that it’s more than just a baseball stadium,” Katz said. “So by moving the wall out just 12 feet we can now accommodate a full-length high school football field that runs basically from the third-base line straight out to the wall.”

And when SCP hosts a football game this fall after the Fireflies have gone home for the offseason, the wraparound seating overhanging the outfield wall will provide excellent views of the action.

The design also allows for a regulation, 110-yard by 70-yard soccer pitch. Given that Columbia is South Carolina’s capital and largest city, there are sure to be plenty of local schools vying for a chance to play at on a field far nicer than the setting of a typical high school facility.

After a brief stop at home for the team’s fan fest the Sunday before the season began, the Fireflies started the year with a week on the road before the team got to settle into its new digs.

From Earth To Heaven

Grayson Stadium, the team’s previous home in Savannah, was built in 1926 and was renovated in 1941 and 2009.  Jose Leger has managed in the Mets’ system since 2010, and has led the low Class A affiliate over the last two seasons. The difference between his team’s home parks over the last two years, he says, can’t be overstated.

“It’s the difference from Earth to heaven, I’ll tell you,” he said. “(Grayson) itself had a lot of history behind it, it was a decent ballpark but the ball doesn’t go anywhere there as opposed to here, (where) the ball flies.”

To Leger’s point, the teams combined for 11 home runs in SCP’s inaugural series. There were 34 home runs hit all of last year at Grayson Stadium. Both the atmosphere around the stadium and the product on it have changed drastically.

And while SCP’s gates are open, Hardball Capital’s goal isn’t complete, despite the attractive current product. Come back in 12-18 months, and it will look entirely different.

Freier’s vision for SCP is as the centerpiece of an oasis. The areas beyond its outfield walls now are mostly barren, but that’s beginning to change. There’s a brand new office building up in right field with its first tenant scheduled to move in late April, and that’s just the beginning.

When it’s all said and done, there will be commercial and retail buildings set beyond the outfield, with the possibility for student housing for the University of South Carolina beyond the center-field wall.

“Between here and Bull Street, there’s going to there’s be 35 acres—offices, stores, all with residential above it,” Freier said. “So the point is there’s going to be things all around the ballpark, and the ballpark is at the center.”

Because its gates will be open during the day even when the team isn’t there, SCP will function as the heart through which everything else flows. With open gates, the ballpark ceases being an obstacle. “If we had closed all the gates and made everybody go around, it would be sort of this black hole in the middle of the development,” Freier said. “Instead, we feel we’re sort of the glue that holds it all together and sort of a central gathering place.

“We can’t let people down on the field for obvious reasons, but aside from that we think of ourselves as kind of like the popular parks in a big city, whether it’s London or New York . . . We want to be like Washington Square Park is in Greenwich Village.”

The New Standard

The phenomenon of a city space blossoming around a ballpark isn’t new. Freier himself points to the businesses that sprang up around the Durham Bulls Athletic Park after it was built in 1995. The DBAP is ringed now by that trio of commercial, residential and retail properties and serves as the bustling center of the city’s downtown area.

That’s the goal, too, in Texas, where new ballparks are planned in both San Antonio and Amarillo as homes, respectively, for relocated Triple-A and Double-A teams. The proposed stadiums would be in the cities’ downtown areas and would be fulcrums for future development. That’s especially true if those stadiums, like the ones in Fort Wayne and Columbia, are constructed with multiple uses in mind.

In the hours before Columbia’s Sunday finale with Greenville, a fan strode around SCP’s concourse and took in everything he was seeing for the first time. He stopped at the area just above the berms in right field, where the rocking chairs were already filled with fans enjoying the springtime sunshine.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “It’s really beautiful.”