Springtime and the ball yard sits empty.
Like the old-timers, scorecards in their laps, who once graced its grandstands, the place hardly stirs. The grass still grows. On up past ankle high here lately. An April breeze rolls in off the railroad tracks beyond right field, barely raising a whisper.
Luther Williams Field has, in a sense, become Macon’s haunted baseball mansion. You notice it from time to time, but not many folks venture inside.
Spring in Everytown, America, is supposed to be the season of hardball revival. A stroll around Luther Williams, which turns 80 this year, leaves one with the feeling that church has long since let out.
This is the seventh season in a row now that no brand-name, big-league affiliate has called Luther Williams home. The Macon Braves disappeared to Rome for a new park after the 2002 campaign. Since then, save for a couple of independent-league teams, the second-oldest minor league park in America has been an empty, aging nest.
Not that it hasn’t been vacant for stretches in the past. From a span in the 1960s up until 1980, no minor-league teams were housed there.
Still, could Luther Williams, with a wholesale makeover, again someday be home to a farm team with major league ties?
Macon’s mayor thinks so. Maybe.
“I think there is baseball in Luther Williams’ future,” Mayor Robert Reichert said this week. “As for some kind of farm team, you may see that again.”
He added, “We are looking now into what it would take to upgrade that facility and make the venue more attractive to a farm team. It may not be the Macon Braves, but it may be a farm team for one of the other (clubs). ... It is big enough and yet it’s small enough.”
Bobby Pope, Mercer University’s director of athletics and a fixture of the local sports scene, said, “We’ve got a treasure here and somebody needs to fix the problems that we’ve got down there. It’s just too good a facility not to be utilized.”
RENOVATE, KEEP HISTORIC FACADE
Architecture critic Paul Goldberger, in a piece about a pair of new big-league parks opening in New York, recently wrote in The New Yorker that “a football stadium doesn’t need to be in the middle of a city, but a baseball park, smaller and used much more often, does. A stadium is a stage set as sure as anything on Broadway, and it determines the tone of the dramas within.”
One could pose the question whether Macon — both geographically and culturally — has grown away from Luther Williams. No, Macon is no metropolis. But the old ballpark isn’t exactly in a place the local masses typically see in their day-to-day travels. In the last century, all roads may have led to Central City Park, along the river, on the town’s easternmost edge. Of late, the place has taken on an out-of-the-way air. Sure, it’s walking distance from downtown. But when is the last time you walked it?
Pope doesn’t think Luther Williams necessarily needs to be scrapped.
“What I equate it to is a Wrigley Field. You don’t tear it down and start over. Even if you use just the facade itself. ... But you’ve got to do something with the playing surface. And if you’re going to go to that level, you’re going to need some skyboxes. It would take a major amount of money to do what they need to do down there to attract the right team. But I think you keep that facade and the glamour that you’ve got,” Pope said.
“We need to do some major renovations down there and make it attractive. I think we’ve got to make it attractive before we can even attract a team to come in here and look at it.”
BIG LEAGUE ACTION MAY BE A TOUGH SELL
Larry Fortson, assistant director of the city’s parks and recreation department, which oversees Luther Williams, said there are plans in the works for an independent, rookie-league team to play there, possibly next year.
Also, beginning in early June, a local team made up of college players from across the country, the Macon Giants, will play the first of 20-plus home games there as part of a two-month season in the Great South League.
Fortson, though, said it will be hard to lure a true big-league farm team to Luther Williams.
“I don’t know how much expansion the minor leagues are doing. Just because you’ve got a field doesn’t mean that you can get a team,” he said.
“People keep saying that the city lost the Braves, that the city didn’t do anything to try to keep the Braves. ... Rome built a $17 million facility and said, ‘Here.’ ... (Macon) was willing to do a couple of million dollars worth of renovations to Luther Williams, but if you’ve got a choice of that or going to a brand-new facility, you’re going to take a $17 million facility.”
That said, Fortson noted that with the right improvements, ones that would make space for “entertainment areas” where “there’s more to do than just the baseball,” the ballpark could again become a part of the minor-league circuit.
But, he added, “Before somebody put a lot of money into the renovation, I think you would have to have some kind of idea of what would sell and what wouldn’t to bring somebody here. ... Those are some things that are unknown.”
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.