A minor league ballpark welcomes fans with boulder-sized baseballs.
If you build it, they will come” is the popular proverb from the baseball-themed movie, “Field of Dreams.” It summarizes Major League Baseball’s ingrained connection with young and old fans alike. But those familiar with the minor leagues know that drawing regular crowds takes constant promotion built around a family-friendly environment away from the action on the field.
“At this level, people don’t just come to see the 18-year-old kid strike out three times, learning how to hit with a wooden bat,” says Tim Vangel, general manager of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, a single-A team in North Carolina. “You have to offer more. It’s about the promotions in the middle of the game and the giveaways at the beginning. It’s about the entertainment. It’s about providing something extra for them.”
Increasingly in the sports and entertainment businesses, the stadium itself is the attraction. Reflective of the resurgence of minor league baseball and the accompanying renaissance of new stadium construction across the United States, the Grasshoppers unveiled First Horizon Park in downtown Greensboro in April 2005. The $30 million privately funded 8,000-seat stadium replaced the team’s previous 79-year-old home. The new stadium was an immediate hit with fans, drawing more than 400,000 in its inaugural 2005 season.
Today, baseball stadiums tend to set themselves apart with unique attractions. Some stadiums are fitted with jumbotrons, fountains and even party decks (in place of private suites). The Grasshoppers’ plaza entrance to First Horizon Park has its own unique attraction: six larger-than-life concrete baseballs.
“They’re wonderful – nearly everyone walks up to them,” Vangel said. “Kids love to climb on them. They’ve really been a focal point for us.” A common question is “What are these made of?”
Vangel’s answer: “Precast concrete.”
The stark white sculpted orbs, 5 feet in diameter and weighing more than a ton each, were the creation of husband-wife team Roger Halligan and Jan Chenoweth, artists commissioned for the project. Constructed from symmetrical precast concrete shells, the two halves were fused together with industrial strength epoxy. The mix design was unique: portland cement, white foundry sand, marble chips and structural synthetic fibers. It was a mixture that provided strength and durability, but also the aesthetic true-to-life off-white color of actual baseballs.
Halligan, a versatile sculptor, now specializes primarily in fine art and structural hardscape work for the private sector (including rock-oriented fireplace hearths and mantles as well as outdoor waterfalls). He carved his niche earlier while working at the North Carolina Zoo, using concrete to design and construct natural habitat exhibits with faux rock formations.
The divergent experience of creating the Superman-sized baseballs proved to be a particular labor of love, Halligan said. “Baseball is the first game I experienced with my father while growing up, throwing a baseball in the front yard,” he said. “Baseballs are such American icons. This opportunity was too good to pass up.”
An accomplished artist, yet like others in his craft who often toil in anonymity, Halligan said that his work for the Grasshoppers has brought its own share of unexpected but welcome recognition.
“I have a Masters in Fine Arts in sculpture,” he said. “I’ve shown in museums and galleries, I’ve shown internationally. Yet it’s a small segment of the population who even cares. Everybody, however, knows me for the baseballs. It’s amazing because people really relate to them.”
Chenoweth, a painter who contributes that artistic aptitude to the husband-and-wife partnership, also acknowledged the visibility of the project, considering the stadium as a cornerstone of the revitalization of downtown Greensboro.
“They’re becoming a bit of a landmark, which is really nice,” said Chenoweth, an art teacher at Elon ( North Carolina) University. “I really never thought I’d make a landmark.”
Commenting on the landmark appeal of the baseballs, Halligan compares his recent masterpiece to his favorite historical sculptures, the Neolithic standing stones of England and Ireland.
“What made those special is that they became a destination where people met,” he said. “Creating these baseballs ties into my own art. They help designate that place, and to me that is special.”
As is typical in ballpark construction, a tight deadline loomed for Halligan and Chenoweth. The duo began molding the baseballs in early March and production took one month. With only one mold for manufacturing, the six sculptures each required three days total to pour and cure. With one day left until opening day, the final baseball sculpture was delivered and installed April 2, just before the stadium hosted the Florida Marlins in an opening day exhibition game versus the Grasshoppers.
Local team hits home run
Halligan and Chenoweth’s business, Two Oaks Studios, manufactured the baseballs, while Moser Mayer Phoenix Associates provided architecture services and Samet Corp. served as general contractor; all three companies are located in Greensboro.
Initial plans by Samet Corp. called for the baseballs to be created using pneumatically placed concrete.
“I told them I wouldn’t do it that way,” Halligan said. “Instead, I recommended, ‘I’ll pull a mold, we’ll cast them and then deliver them after the footings are in place.’ I think they were relieved with the alternative proposal.”
Halligan explained that the concrete baseballs did not require formal drawings.
“Instead, you go out and buy a baseball and match it,” he said.
With the Internet as his research tool, Halligan found mix design recommendations, leading him to mixtures of 120- and 80-bit white foundry sands. The three-eighths-inch marble chips were also white.
“This way, if they get chipped or nicked they will still radiate that white color all the way through,” he said.
Halligan said a substantial investment in a high-grade silicone rubber mold, while costly, successfully generated the sought-after texture to replicate how real baseballs feel. To mimic authentic style, Chenoweth painted the stitches bright red through a combination of two golden acrylic artist paints.
“Off-the-shelf paints wouldn’t work,” she said. “We wanted something that would be incredibly light-fast and durable for years.” Anti-graffiti coating was also applied to the balls.
Tough at their core
Synthetic fibers, lent to the project by Euclid Chemical Corp. in Cleveland, helped reinforce the hollow structure of the baseballs, which led to increased flexural strength and impact resistance. “Conventionally you would use rebar or wire mesh, but of course trying to create that spherical shape would be very difficult,” says Mike Mahoney, a materials engineer and Euclid’s structural fiber technology manager.
Euclid’s fibers are comprised of a polypropylene/polyethylene blend that Mahoney said is marketed specifically to the precast, shotcrete and slab-on-grade segments of the concrete industry. According to Euclid, the proprietary structural fibers meet ASTM C 666, ASTM C 672, ASTM C 157 and ASTM C 1018 standards.
The fibers were provided at no cost to Two Oaks Studio, and the attention garnered from the project has heightened public interest.
“This was certainly a unique type of application,” Mahoney said. “Six years ago, there wasn’t that much of an enthusiastic response when fibers were first used in septic tanks. It never really gained speed. I’m asked all the time about the baseballs.”
Halligan said this new venture has encouraged him to pursue additional precast-based art projects in the future. “Structural fibers reduce the need for steel, which opens up doors to other artistic opportunities for me,” he said.
Since the success of the Grasshoppers project, Halligan has received more inquiries and even a private business order for baseball sculptures. He hopes more orders will follow, perhaps for other stadiums.
“We’re excited about the possibility of doing this again,” he said. “We have the mold ready just in case.”