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Groundskeeping Nighthawks Give New Meaning to the Phrase ‘Pitchers Who Rake’

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks players Cordes Baker, left, and Jarod Yoakam hold portions of the hose used to soak the Maxfield Sports Complex infield before a June 25 game in White River Junction.

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks assistant coach Matt Lynch sprays water on the Maxfield Complex infield before a June 25 game in the New England Collegiate Baseball League.

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks pitchers Dakota Edwards, left, and Joseph Levasseur exit the Maxfield Sports Complex infield after raking it smooth prior to a June 25 game.

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks pitcher Bill Maier, right, laughs with infielder Sean Breen after his June 26 attempt to chalk the Maxfield Sports Complex's first-base foul line resulted in a curve.

  • Upper Valley Nighthawks assistant coach Matt Weckerle drives a mower modified with an infield dragger attachment before a June 26 game at White River Junction's Maxfield Sports Complex.



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 06, 2016

White River Junction — Should you attend a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park, you won’t see David Ortiz raking the pitcher’s mound, Dustin Pedroia watering the field or Xander Bogaerts chalking the first-base line.

Arrive a little early at the Maxfield Sports Complex for an Upper Valley Nighthawks contest, however, and you’ll see the New England Collegiate Baseball League expansion team’s competitors and coaches toiling on their infield. Assistant coach Matt Weckerle hops aboard a three-wheeled vehicle and drags the infield, first using a trailing attachment with long teeth and then with another that smooths the churned-up surface.

“With how much this field is being used, you have to constantly work to level it and keep it smooth,” said Nighthawks manager Nick Cenatiempo, noting that hard and soft spots and uneven patches may not be readily noticeable to the naked eye. “You want as many true hops as possible.”

Hitting instructor Matt Lynch then mans a large hose to soak down the dirt. He begins at the third-base side, and as he moves around toward first, an eventual line of six pitchers stretches behind him, draping the tubing over their shoulders so it doesn’t disturb the manicured pitcher’s mound. The hump was earlier tended to by the hurlers themselves, using rakes and a tamp.

It’s now time for the batter’s boxes and infield foul lines to be chalked, which can be something of an adventure when involving inexperienced hands. On opening night, a pair of pitchers who shall go nameless used the inside, not the outside, of the box templates, resulting in comically small rectangles. On June 26, hurler Brian Maier and infielder Sean Breen laid down a foul line that curved as it reached the plate.

The pair backed off, stared at their handiwork, shook their heads and tried again. Still, the line curved. Shrugs. This time, the line was left as it was.

“Everyone understands that’s part of summer ball,” said Cenatiempo, who recently put music on the Maxfield public address system and hosed down the outfield for what he described as 45 minutes of mental relaxation. “What we do is actually pretty minimal, but it takes you back to your childhood and working on the fields in Little League.”

Scott Denny is one of the Hartford Recreation Department employees charged with more extensive Maxfield maintenance. Tuesday morning, he cut the infield grass with a push mower and said he’d recently filled two wheelbarrows after raking dead grass out of it. Hot temperatures and frequent use by the Nighthawks and White River Junction’s Post 84 senior American Legion team have stressed the greenery and hardened the surface beneath it, so watering has been frequent.

“It’s not just a park; it’s personal,” Denny said.

The Recreation Department also mows and waters the outfield, paints the outfield foul lines, keeps the dugouts and outbuildings clean and does its best with the mound, which has been a source of struggle.

“It’s the only thing that’s not holding up and that’s been a learning curve,” department director Tad Nunez said. “But I don’t think that’s our responsibility. We built a diamond that’s conducive to what we needed it for, and that was high school baseball.”

Nighthawks general manager Noah Crane said he’s planning to bury clay bricks on the mound’s front side to firm up pitchers’ footing. The lighter, less durable material now in place is quickly displaced by NECBL hurlers weighing as much as 250 pounds and generating much more force than younger players.

Some Nighthawks would like to see clay also used around home plate, but Crane likes that area and the base paths as they are, which is sandier and softer than one would find on a professional-grade field.

“It’s a little dusty, but we just hit it with water before a game,” Crane said. “I’d much rather have a field that drains well and where we can play an hour after a rain storm than a clay one that becomes soup. That’s a huge advantage, because we’re not eating up our off days by making up rained-out games.”

Nunez said the Nighthawks pay $100 per night to rent Maxfield’s main diamond and also ante up for four portable toilets and the electric bill generated by the field’s floodlights. Crane said he chose to have his players and coaches perform pregame work on the infield so he wouldn’t have to pay Hartford employees to do it.

“It didn’t make economic sense for us,” Crane said. “The kids don’t object because they take pride in what their field looks like. There’s also an intimacy here when the kid you see raking the mound before the game may be pitching on it later.

“We don’t want our guys acting like entitled brats and (field maintenance) ties in with what we’re about as an organization.”

Notes: Midway through their home schedule, the Nighthawks are averaging an announced 398 fans per game, ninth in the 13-team league. Crane said the organization will work to increase that number for next season by adding more bleacher seating. A video scoreboard and a permanent grandstand behind the plate are on a wish list for the future. … Crane’s former team, the Winnipesaukee (N.H.) Muskrats, are last in average, announced attendance at 158 fans per game. The Newport (R.I.) Gulls lead the league at 1,92.1… Upper Valley catcher A.J. Walden, an Alabama native and No. 16 on the roster, was recently asked to sign with that same number that’s displayed on the wall of West Lebanon’s Stateline Sports. … The Nighthawks are holding youth baseball camps during mornings this week and next. Approximately 35 youngsters participated Wednesday, herded about the fields and batting cages by six players and the squad’s coaches. … Cenatiempo said Maxfield’s cleanliness is an unsung benefit. Wednesday, Denny scrubbed not only the public water fountain, but the tops of nearby recycling and garbage bins as well.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.