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Seeing Grass

Seeing Grass

A downtown Yellowknife ballpark transformed from blight to beauty
By Herb Mathisen
Jul 29
2016
From the July 2016 Issue

The rain came in on a cold wind and when it began beating down hard, you double-checked to see if it was hail. It felt more fall day than spring. Still, thirty or so ballplayers turned up one Saturday morning in May to put a few last dabs of polish on one of Yellowknife’s finer fix-ups.

Lumber—unbundled, measured, cut—became benches. Bags of clay-based Turface—hauled over by loader, split open, spread and carefully raked—formed a warning track along the outfield fence. The Tommy Forrest Ballpark was just three weeks from its grand unveiling.

The downtown diamond has long been the city’s home for fastball—a game once equal to hockey in local popularity and importance. In its heyday, mines recruited southern ballplayers north with cushy jobs just so they could beef up their company teams. Later, crow-hopping pitchers with names like Smokey whizzed risers and drop-balls past flailing hitters in front of adoring crowds during heated territorial tournaments. Yet by the 2000s, Yellowknife’s summer pastime—once thriving with a two-tiered men’s league, a healthy women’s league and a storied junior dynasty—had dwindled to just four men’s teams. 

Like the game, the ballpark had fallen into disrepair. The diamond’s dugouts, essentially wind-protected bunkers, had become shelter for some of the city’s homeless. Before games, we’d empty them of bottles, soiled clothing, and sometimes worse.

The playing surface could only be called that because we somehow managed to play fastball on it. Imagine a field of rolling sun-bleached-pink sandpaper, sprinkled with just enough gravel and patches of weeds to make any screaming grounder an adventure—every so often, the ball launched off the ground and over you like it’d just tripped a landmine.

But three years ago, a group of ballplayers banded together to do something about the eyesore. With architects, business people, carpenters and bureaucrats among them, they sketched out plans, petitioned the city for cash, fundraised like hell, and last fall, to the disbelief of even those involved, there was grass on the field.

But some weren’t around to see it. Like Burger Bob—the cackling, beer-loving lord of the concession stand. I can still see Bob sweating under his foam-and-mesh ballcap, plaid shirt splayed open at the top, chest hair heaving out, as he polishes off a cold one in the beer gardens once the line outside his shack has been satisfied. He’d get progressively tipsier—and less attentive of the line—as the day and the weekend wore on. Bob wasn’t the greatest cook. I once chomped down to discover something slippery between my teeth and pulled out a freezie wrapper that had been concealed in my burger. But he was always there. (Did he sleep in his burger shack?) Bob passed on a few years back and requested his ashes be spread in the outfield. They were. I guess Burger Bob will experience the grass in his own way.

Just as I expect to. As a kid, ball was summer. I batboyed for my parent’s teams most nights of the week, and outraced packs of kids for foul balls during tournaments, returning them to the scorekeeper’s booth for a quarter and then trading in my keep for a burger, a bag of chips and a Pepsi at the end of a hard day’s work. I played until I left town. When I came back five years later, I was too busy to think about joining a team. Until one night last fall, biking down the city’s main drag, I stopped at the intersection by the field and felt the thrill of the grass, like a kid. I had to play. No question.

The draw of the game didn’t leave me. It didn’t leave Burger Bob. It didn’t leave the players who revived our park. Maybe it hasn’t left the town either.