By Ken Jackson
A crazy extra-inning loss to the Charlotte Stone Crabs on Wednesday was the Florida Fire Frogs’ seventh defeat in a row. That game, like the rest of their contests this week, were played on the road.
But, of late, Mother Nature and some very poor outfield turf has been the Atlanta Braves’ Class A affiliate’s toughest opponents here in Kissimmee.
During a scheduled seven-game home stand July 23-29, only 17 of 63 scheduled innings were played, all parts of doubleheaders made necessary by rainouts.
On three of the days — July 25, 26 and 29 — games were canceled when it wasn’t even raining. A portion of the grass from center field through the right field gap, where the stadium’s maintenance team, hired and managed by Osceola County, cut a trench made an impromptu drainage adjustment was made and sodded back over. But on those three days, that part of the field was deemed too soft and uneven by the managers for the outfielders to safely play out there.
With the team on the road this week, no games have been played. Even with little rain at the stadium on Tuesday and the early part of Wednesday, the turf in question was still spongy and uneven before an afternoon storm moved in late Wednesday afternoon.
It’s gotten the attention of those outside of Kissimmee, like Florida State League President Ken Carson, who said in an email to Fire Frogs and stadium officials, “the number of games lost this year in Kissimmee is an embarrassment and totally unacceptable.”
He’s not the one frustrated. Fire Frogs fans have shared their feelings on the team’s social media about finding out about the cancellations once they’re in the ballpark, and Team President Erik Anderson used words like “frustrated, disappointed and appalled.”
“I’m disappointed at the lack of effort from the county,” he said. “We have 13 more home games this year. I’m thinking that we need no more rain to be able to play our home stand that starts Monday. I’m worried about that, and about 2019.”
Rain is nothing new for the team and stadium — the Fire Frogs had 17 rainouts in 2017, all from May 23 to the end of July, with only one due to unplayable field conditions.
In the aftermath of a downpour last Sunday, the Monday game was canceled, and a Tuesday doubleheader started as scheduled but was cut short around 6 p.m. by a strong storm that dumped nearly two inches of rain in about 45 minutes. That forced the cancellation of a scheduled day game the next morning, and the outfield was still deemed too wet to play on Thursday evening less than a half hour prior to scheduled first pitch.
Rain also cut into a Friday doubleheader, and only three innings were played Saturday before another strong storm ended the day. Officials deemed the field too soggy to play again on Sunday morning.
Fire Frogs Manager Luis Salazar is in on those discussions that occur prior to games about the field conditions, and said it comes down to that there’s just been too much rain.
“Believe me, we want to play, but we also want the best for our players,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do if it’s going to be bad or too soft for us to go on the field.”
Frogs’ outfielder Jared James has played both left and right field this year, and said the area in front of the scoreboard has been soft all year long.
“I haven’t seen anything like it. I’ve seen fields be fragile with a lot of rain, but even in batting practice, balls hit out there just stick in the mud,” he said. “It’s on our minds every day when it starts raining, and it gets a little depressing, and also mentally draining to prepare to play a game and then have it be canceled. I feel bad for the fans, too.
“We’re getting evaluated and in a week like last week, we’re only judged on batting practice. We’re trying to show how to properly play in the field.”
James said the biggest problem is when two outfielders charge for the same fly ball; if one calls for the ball the other must pull up, sometimes quickly.
“When it’s that soft it’s tough sometimes to get out of the way effectively,” he said.
Until October, Osceola County’s Community Development Division oversees the operation and maintenance of Osceola County Stadium. Come October, a county contract with SMG, which currently runs and manages the rest of the venues in Osceola Heritage Park like the Silver Spurs Arena, will begin. In general, all stadium personnel will remain the same, they’ll just get a paycheck from SMG rather than the county.
Stadium Facility Manager Chris Cavender said this week that the canceled games couldn’t really be avoided while in the midst of a home stand.
“While we understand that there may have been no rain at the time games were canceled, by Saturday night we had rain at the complex for nine straight days,” he said. “Different options were attempted throughout the week to make the area in center field playable to the teams’ standards. Being in the middle of a home stand, we weren’t able to cut up the grass or replace sod at that point. This week (with the team on the road) we have already made improvements to help with the drainage in center field, and with the rain we have had this week, the improvements appear to be making a big difference. Those improvements will help us finish this season and hopefully get in the remaining 13 home games on the schedule.”
Cavender noted that pumps were replaced in the offseason and the drainage system’s main pipes were flushed, and additional drainage was added early in the season.
“This off season will are planning a full rebuild of the stadium field including a full new drainage system and re-grade of the field for the system to be as effective as possible,” he said.
In an email to team and stadium officials, Lead Stadium Groundskeeper Wayne Thompson said a new drainpipe in the area of concern was added Monday, and spliced existing pipes, which were “filled with water”, into the new pipe.
“The field is constructed in a manner as to which all the water runs downhill and into this spot. A little insult to injury, this area is also blocked by the scoreboard for a good portion of the morning not allowing it to receive as much sunlight as any other areas of the field. This is an issue that has not come about overnight, and should have been addressed in the past,” he said. “As always, I am up to and willing to try anything to improve our current situation.”
Thompson also said there isn’t enough quality sod on property, or at local sod farms, to re-sod the entire right-center field gap because of all the recent rain.
“I also feel like this area will recover in time for the return of the team on Monday,” he said. “If we do re-sod this entire area, and with the rain we are expected to receive this week it is highly likely this area will not be ready and can cause an even larger safety concern.”
Anderson acknowledges how wet the sod has been the last two weeks, but he says he also knows that the county budgeted funds as of Oct. 1, 2017 to fix it. He is the former facility manager, and took a position with the Fire Frogs just less than a year ago, so he went from landlord-to-tenant.
“I know the money was put in the budget to fix the drainage system last year,” he said. “And even the back fields aren’t in shape for a professional team to play on now. I just don’t know why the county would bring this team to the area, and then not give it the support it needs to have the facility ready to play on.”
So, with that said, the Fire Frogs are scheduled to host the Palm Beach Cardinals beginning Monday, and the Fort Myers Miracle from Thursday to Sunday. Game times are at 6:31 p.m. except for 11 a.m. starts on Wednesday and Sunday.
10 innings of no-hit ball — that’s rare! On Wednesday, Florida pitchers Ian Anderson and Justin Kelly combined for 10 no-hit innings until the Charlotte Stone Crabs came up with a hit in the bottom of the 11th inning. The last time a Florida State League club combined to toss at least 10 hitless frames was in 1996, when eventual Major Leaguer Kerry Wood and Jairup Diaz did it for the Daytona Cubs.
Unfortunately, Charlotte’s Kevin Paldo halted Florida’s bid at history with a leadoff single in the 11th and ended the game with a three-run homer in the 12th as the Stone Crabs won, 6-3.