The grass is greener at Riley Park.
Literally, the beloved baseball stadium in downtown Charleston underwent a massive facelift over the offseason, including new turf imported from Sumter County.
Welders created shields at the warning track to keep the earth underneath from pushing back toward Brittlebank Park behind the stadium.
And hundreds of tons of sand had to be scooped out of the ground after sinking several inches into the earth over the past six years.
In short, the park looked like a million dollar construction project. That’s because, every several years, it is one.
One man’s trash …
Lowcountry elders will remember the scenic site where Riley Park sits was once a massive city dump that created a terrible odor throughout the area.
It was so bad the U.S. Corps of Engineers determined the trash was polluting the Ashley River and impacting public health. The dump was shuttered in 1970, about 27 years before Joseph P. Riley Park — named for the former Charleston mayor — opened for business.
A facelift has been needed every few years to make sure the $19.5 million ballpark is game ready. Riley Park is home to The Citadel baseball team and the Charleston RiverDogs, a minor league affiliate of the New York Yankees.
This is the third time since the facility opened in 1997 that crews have had to replace the sand and turf. The first was in 2002 and the second in 2012.
“Everyone knows the challenges of having the field where it is and how it was built,” said Dave Echols, president of the RiverDogs, a member of the Class A South Atlantic League.
There’s no exact schedule for when work needs to be done, said Ed Boinest, the city’s senior project manager for the construction project. The stadium field sinks a little every year because there’s no structural foundation underneath, he said.
So every few years, when sinkholes start popping up and the drainage pipes start cracking, ballpark and city officials know it’s time for a makeover.
“It’s just sediment down there, so it’s basically like starting from scratch when we have to do this,” Boinest said.
‘Not a normal situation’
Jason Linker, a project superintendent with Carolina Green Corp., has worked on some of the best and most recognizable stadiums in the country.
The company, based about 16 miles southwest of Charlotte, has sent him to oversee renovations for the NFL's Washington Redskins’ FedExField, and Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Linker has also worked on the collegiate level, including fields for Texas A&M and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, among several others.
But Riley Park is different.
“It’s not a normal situation,” he said about the dirt sinking down into the earth.
Carolina Green was paid $870,000 to carry out the work. Other related expenses brought the total project cost to about $1.1 million.
Despite its unique needs, Linker said the project was pretty straightforward. His team pulled up 90,000 square feet of the old turf, revealing all of the sand that had sunk about 8 inches.
The sand was removed and replaced with 1,500 tons of newer material that complements the new grass. Specifically, it’s a Bermuda turf that was developed for Riley Park by a company out of Rembert.
“It’s a hearty turf that loves sun and water,” Boinest said. “It really works well for the field and I think players will be able to tell the difference.”
Other upgrades include 17-foot concrete tiles that have been driven into the ground at the outfield wall.
Linker said park engineers saw where the sinking earth was also pushing outward toward the Ashley River. The concrete tiles should prevent that from happening, he said.
Also, the RiverDogs have a new irrigation system that comes with a new technological feature. If operators aren’t on site to activate the sprinklers, they can press a button on their cell phone to start it up.
Since the project started in late October the goal was to have Riley Park ready for The Citadel’s season opener, a Feb. 15 game against Delaware State.
“It’s looking really good. We’ll meet on Friday, and if everything looks good, they should be able to have at it,” he said.
The RiverDogs' first home game is April 11 against the Greensboro Grasshoppers, an affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Echols said it’s hard to believe how quickly it goes from a seven-figure construction project to a completely new field ready to play ball. Fans who didn’t visit the park during the offseason would never be able to tell how much work the city had to fit into a 90-day window.