City looking over plan for ‘intermediate’ field

When Little League baseball players move on, they go from a pitching distance of 46 feet and a base running distance of 60 feet all the way to major-league dimensions at the teener-minor level.

That means 60 feet, 6 inches from the mound to home plate and 90 feet between the bases.

Lots of them – particularly kids who haven’t hit their growth spurt by age 13 – throw their mitts in their duffel bags and look for some other pastime than the classic American sport.

“We lose a lot of good local baseball players [that way],” said Shane Himes, coach of the local Honey Badgers travel team. “[The transition] is too enormous.”

To ease that transition, in a move being replicated in progressive baseball areas in other parts of the country, Himes is working with the Central Blair Recreation and Park Commission to turn the derelict youth baseball field at Hamilton Park in Logantown into a facility that is adjustable to two intermediate levels, mainly for kids between 13 and 16 – although the field could serve for those as young as 10.

Himes has taken his Honey Badgers – 10 and 11 years old – to play at the “Ripken Experience” in Aberdeen, Md., where there’s an intermediate field like the one he hopes to create at Hamilton Park.

There, they learned to take leads off bases and hold runners on base and not commit balks as pitchers.

“They get to play like the pros they see on TV,” he said. “You can see their faces light up.”

Himes would use a large mound with two pitching slabs, one removable, plus removable bases to accommodate both the “bronco league” dimensions found at Aberdeen, with a pitching distance of 50 feet and 70 feet between bases, and the “pony league” dimensions of 54 and 80 feet, he said.

Himes has been in touch with local contractors for help to recut the infield.

The commission would need about $2,000 worth of infield mix, according to commission Executive Director Mike Hofer.

The commission maintenance staff could spread the mix and get the rest of the field ready, he said.

Hofer suggested Hamilton Park when Himes approached him with his idea for an intermediate field.

Rehabilitating the park is in the commission’s comprehensive plan, and Hofer had already instructed his maintenance staff to make improvements to the field before next spring, he said.

“When Shane came, it was the perfect opportunity to pull his resources in,” Hofer said.

Not only will the field accommodate the intermediate ballplayers it’s designed for, it will also help alleviate the shortage of practice fields for ball teams of all kinds in the spring, both men said.

And it can become an outdoor practice facility for ERA Sports Inc., the organization that runs an indoor baseball training facility on Route 764 in Duncansville, they said.

ERA, whose principals include local native and former major leaguer Mike Holtz and former Altoona Curve player Mike Connolly, “in the baseball world, is one of the biggest things that this area has seen for quite a while,” Hofer said.

The field could also attract travel teams to this area for tournaments, boosting revenues for area hotels and restaurants, Himes said.

Hofer, his maintenance supervisor and Himes are working on an “action plan” for the project to present to the commission for approval.

“It makes a lot of sense,” Hofer said.

Himes would also like to turn Hamilton Park’s derelict tennis court enclosure into batting cages, covering the paving with artificial turf and using netting as wall and ceiling material.

The commission already has the artificial turf, donated by the Altoona Area School District, Hofer said.

The batting cage proposal will probably be part of the action plan, Hofer said.

Both the baseball field transformation and the batting cage proposal would be cheaper to execute than competing proposals for the tennis courts received by the commission at the same meeting this spring, Hofer said.

Those – one for a skate park and one for a pair of basketball courts – stalled because of the $20,000 to $30,000 cost of resurfacing the tennis courts, Hofer said.

Himes’ long-range plans for the ball field call dugouts and fencing, but getting those installed would require funding, Hofer said.

Himes would use pony league dimensions for the outfield.

Those are a minimum of 300 feet to center and 250 feet to the corners, according to an online diagram.

Funding for the potential costly proposals for Hamilton Park – including the skate park or basketball court proposals – could become available after the commission knows more about the cost of its proposal to build a spray park on the site of the former Juniata Memorial Pool, and to upgrade the adjacent playground area.

The commission is working on final arrangements for a $318,000 grant from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to help pay for the spray park.

That will be supplemented by a $72,000 grant obtained by U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, repurposed from a now-defunct proposal for a skate park near Peoples Natural Gas Field.

The commission will pay the remaining costs from $1 million in recreation bonds floated a few years ago by City Council.

There is about $650,000 left of that bond funding.

If the commission hits its $750,000 target for the Memorial Park project, it should have about $200,000 left in bond money to put towards additional recreation projects – which could include work at Hamilton Park, Hofer said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.