Lagoon Park softball in line for major renovations
By Tim Gayle
When the Alabama High School Athletic Association state softball tournament’s final game was washed out on a Saturday evening after a full afternoon and evening of thunderstorms, the game was rescheduled two days later in the new Choccolocco Park in Oxford.
Certainly, the reason given had to do with the location of the park with regard to the two teams in the Class 5A finals, Scottsboro and Springville. But even casual observers could recognize the advantages of playing in the sparkling new sports complex in Calhoun County as opposed to traveling back to Montgomery and playing in a 40-year-old facility.
City officials have apparently paid attention to the age and the wear and tear on Lagoon Park Softball Complex and are in the planning stages of major renovation to the aging facility.
“I think they know what they need, it’s just a matter of getting there,” said Natalie Norman, the former director of the city’s softball program and a consultant for the city. “Facilities have been built, such as the Multiplex, and renovated (such as Cramton Bowl). The Multiplex has been a huge asset to the city of Montgomery. When you’re talking about finances and grants and bonds, there may be different areas that qualify for different things. I don’t believe that it’s been neglected or been tossed to the curb.”
Norman knows better than anyone the needs of Lagoon Park Softball Complex. For several years, she served as assistant to the director of softball services, Janie Little, before moving into that position herself in the mid 1990s. After serving for nearly 25 years with the city, she is now the Alabama state commissioner for USA Softball.
When Lagoon Park Softball Complex opened in 1977, it was a state-of-the-art softball complex whose design was copied by other cities all over the country. When the Alabama ASA Hall of Fame was launched in 1992, Lagoon Park was honored in the first induction class.
Norman, who directed the city’s softball program – and Lagoon Park – for more than 15 years, was herself inducted into the Alabama ASA Hall of Fame in 2012.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of national events,” Norman said, “and it’s never ceased to amaze me that people who travel from other areas of the United States are still (amazed at how tournaments are run at Lagoon Park). The hospitality is always great, the city’s hospitality. The crew that works on these fields always get compliments. Facility-wise, it may be my heart (talking), but this is still the best facility in the United States. When the opportunity comes and all the resources are there, I think it’s going to be even better.”
Norman won’t speak publicly on the subject of renovation, but the facility that everyone copied years ago is showing its age. The Auburn Sports Complex, which opened in 1993, and the Troy Sportsplex, which opened in 1991 and had another expansion in 1996, are among those facilities that are closely patterned after Lagoon Park.
Others that came along later have a distinct advantage. Not only do they feature the best that Lagoon Park has to offer, but more modern facilities certainly include larger restroom facilities and dugouts, better lighting and more amenities.
Orange Beach Sportsplex, Gulf Shores Sportsplex, Florence Sportsplex and Liberty Park Sports Complex in Vestavia Hills are among those that feature a much newer version of Lagoon Park. The latest, Choccolocco Park in Oxford, opened in the fall of 2016 with a five-field softball complex featuring 300-foot fields, a pair of high school softball fields and baseball fields in a four-field addition as well as a signature stadium complex that hosted the 2016 and 2017 Ohio Valley Conference tournaments.
“I don’t want to compare cities or facilities because I have a working relationship with them,” Norman said. “But I’ve seen Oxford and it’s a beautiful complex. But I think we’re going to be fine. This city has a mayor that is very pro-Parks and Recreation, a sports commission that is very active and energetic in seeing that events come to the city and what I think and believe is good leadership. We get to our facilities as fast as we can with what we have to go with.”
The facility has had few modifications since its opening in 1977. The original scoreboards on each of the five fields were upgraded in the mid-1990s, probably at the same time a scoreboard was installed on Field No. 6 in 1997. When the city signed a new contract with the Alabama High School Athletic Association that included a five-year extension in 2012, workers increased the size of the dugouts on each field, paved new walkways into the complex, increased the concrete pads for each set of bleachers and installed a metal roof on each of the dugouts.
Now, with the contract set to expire next school year, the city is apparently planning on a new set of renovations to keep the largest annual softball tournament in the Capital City.
–A new LED lighting system will replace the antiquated lighting system at each of the six fields. Each of the fields’ configurations have changed since their initial construction and a new lighting system will better aim the light in the proper areas of each field.
–A new fieldhouse will be constructed on the edge of the facility behind the fields, with one of its top functions to serve the officiating crew. During large events, such as the AHSAA state tournament or USA Softball national tournaments, a large officiating crew is needed. Currently, those officials can park and assemble at a large tent behind the fields.
–The berms will be lowered and replaced with pavilions or other covered areas for fans. When the complex opened, the berms between the fields included several trees that provided shade, but over the years disease and other factors have caused the removal of all the trees, leaving fans with no shelter in the sweltering heat.
–Additional restroom and possibly concession areas will either be included as part of the new pavilion areas or as separate facilities between the pavilion area and the road the circles the outfield fences.
The new fieldhouse may be placed where the Lagoon Park Batting Range is located and that facility, which has been run by Robert Dees since 1995, may be replaced by a new range beyond the outfield fence on the back side of the facility to bring the six softball fields under one architectural umbrella.
When Auburn coach Clint Myers was at the complex recently for a game with Alabama State, he joked about how his players were livelier because they were crammed into a tiny dugout, although the Field No. 6 dugouts are twice the size of the dugouts on the other five fields.
“Stadiums are always assets,” Norman said. “Signature fields, in this day and age, are always an asset.”
Clearly, if Field No. 6 was converted to a stadium in hopes of hosting collegiate events, the dugouts would have to be enlarged. In 2014, when Auburn and Alabama played a game there, bullpens had to be constructed for both teams. The idea of hosting other events in the future may hinge on the city’s conversion of the field to a stadium.
Lagoon Park Softball Complex “is 40 years old,” observed Central Alabama Sports Commission executive director Johnny Williams, “but there are opportunities around women’s softball much like there is baseball. The growth of women’s softball the last 20 years has been phenomenal. That’s another opportunity we have at all levels – high school, travel teams, colleges.”
But even Field No. 6, which was constructed in 1997, is in dire need of an upgrade to bring it in line with newer facilities. The light poles were set for a 250-foot field when the facility was constructed because that was the depth of the men’s fast pitch field at Highland Gardens, where the Blue-Gray Fast Pitch League played. Girls’ softball is closer to 200 feet and while the light poles don’t have to be moved, it’s a good indication of how much the game has changed in the last couple of decades.
The press box at Field No. 6 could not host a collegiate event in today’s world of radio and television broadcasting – which didn’t exist for women’s collegiate softball in 1997 – and the original press box on the five-field complex is hopelessly outdated as well, with lines wrapping around the press box for the women’s rest room and the concession stand operating on a cash-only basis because it is not equipped with wireless internet to conduct credit or debit card transactions.
Both are incredibly embarrassing setbacks to a city that prides itself on hosting sporting events, but it’s doubtful city planners would consider rebuilding both, or either, press box.
Even the portable fencing, purchased 20 years ago to convert the slow pitch fields to fast pitch, are showing their age. Once considered the best in the business, they have holes in the plastic from years of use. Will the city continue to rely on portable fencing or will it install new permanent fencing to accommodate fast pitch softball? Will the backstops continue to be chain-link fencing or will the city modernize the park with backstop netting?
“There are 100 different types of fencing out there,” Norman said. “This used to be the nicest breakaway fence you could get. And we still have to serve our adult programs on Fields 1-5, so we get portable fencing that serves everything else that needs a shorter fence for fast pitch.”
There are plenty of unanswered questions, which is why city officials are moving slowly with renovation plans. Lagoon Park Softball Complex helped the city of Montgomery establish a reputation as one of the best softball cities in the nation and any changes must enhance the fields that have earned acclaim from a generation of softball players all over the country.