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The Virginian-Pilot(Norfolk, VA.)
By David Hall | The Virginian-Pilot
 
NORFOLK--The Norfolk Tides' recently approved lease with Harbor Park stabilizes the club's long relationship with the city and calls for improvements to the 21-year-old structure.

What the agreement means for fans of the Baltimore Orioles' top minor league affiliate will mostly play out over the coming years, though it might someday result in a 360-degree view of the field.

An ongoing upgrade of the playing surface and a new four-top table seating area near the right-field corner will be the most noticeable improvements to the 12,067-seat venue when the 2014 season begins April 3.

The 15-year lease, unanimously approved by City Council on Dec. 17, requires the Tides to pay $225,000 in annual rent.

It also stipulates the city must spend $3 million on major capital improvements or fan amenities in the first 10 years of the agreement. The Tides must spend $500,000 on similar upgrades during that period.

The Tides, working closely with the city on all proposed projects, plan to roll out the improvements gradually. Tides GM Joe Gregory therefore urges fans to be patient with their expectations, pointing out that the first major project - essentially, new grass - isn't all that sexy.

"I think in the upcoming years, as we're doing more areas that (fans) can touch and feel and experience, I think that's when the excitement should really take hold," Gregory said. "It's good because it's not all just - boom - out at one moment; it's going to be a little bit every year for the next couple of years, which will show Harbor Park evolving and growing and what it's going to be for the next stage of its life span."

Among the tentatively planned improvements is a rooftop party deck adjacent to the third-base side of the press box. But that project, if undertaken, wouldn't happen until after the 2014 season.

Gregory said the club is taking bids on construction of the four-top table seating area, which was originally slated for the third-base side. It was recently decided to move it close to Hits at the Park restaurant, which overlooks the field on the right side, to allow for easier access to food and beverages.

An area of seating will be removed next to the 225-seat restaurant, and concrete will be fitted to level off every other row to create a series of descending flat surfaces.

The section will accommodate about 120 fans, who will be able to dine as they watch games. Gregory said the section will cater to group outings, which usually sell out in the summer.

Other improvements that fans will notice will be largely cosmetic. The club plans, for example, to replace concourse lighting and signage to give the park a more modern look and feel.

"Something a little bit fresh," said Dave Rosenfield, the Tides' executive vice president and the club's GM from 1963-2011. "Something a little different so people say, 'It's not the same old place.' "

Fans will get their first look at some of the improvements on March 29, when the Orioles face the Tides in an exhibition game at Harbor Park for the second time in three years.

Neither the Tides nor the city has named any major projects they'd like to get done, but there is at least one idea.

Rosenfield, who is entering his 59th year in baseball, has on his wish list an expansive concourse that extends all the way around the ballpark, allowing fans to view the action from the angle of their choosing.

The walkway, as Rosenfield imagines it, would snake behind the picnic area in left field, between the outfield wall and the batter's eye in center and behind the bullpen in right. Elevated in places, it would include a play area for children and additional concession stands.

"A lot of ballparks have it," Rosenfield said. "People seem to like it."

The utilitarian overhaul of the playing surface began immediately after the 2013 season. Workers replaced the grass original to the stadium and moved the outfield fence 10 feet closer in spots to make the park, which is subject to high winds off the Elizabeth River beyond right field, less pitcher-friendly.

As a result, the power alleys are now 375 feet from home plate, about 7 feet closer than they were last season. Dead center field was shortened from 410 feet to 400.

It's just one more subtle sign of the ballpark's ongoing evolution, even if it's more gradual than some fans might prefer.

"I think we're all pretty excited about it," Gregory said. "I'd love to get everything done in the first year, but realistically, it's not going to happen. The season is going to be here before we know it."

David Hall, 757-446-2367, david.hall@pilotonline.com

 
January 13, 2014
 
 
 

 

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