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St. Pius X Baseball Has a Home Field
September 16th, 2011


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St. Pius X has its own baseball field for the first time, and while there is a long list of benefits to be gained by practicing and playing home games at the spiffy new spread just north of the school, all plusses can be summed up in short order:

The age-old idiom, “Out-of-sight-out-of-mind,” is finally dead here.

SPX baseball is about to move out of the dark and into the light, from after-thought status to center stage on what is believed to be the first completely synthetic high school field in Georgia.

Call it a dream come true, and please forgive varsity head coach J.T. Gilbert if you see him dancing a jig any time soon, like perhaps on Sept. 24 when the field is “christened” with a baseball alumni game (8:30 a.m.-1 p.m.).

“I teach ninth grade, and soon after I started at St. Pius we had a game and I explained to my class that I had to leave early and a substitute would be coming in,” recalled Gilbert, who has been head coach since 2004. “I told them we had a [home] game and we had to travel.

“Some of the kids said, ‘What are you talking about? Pius has baseball?’ They had no idea that we had a team, a program, in part because they’d never seen a field.”

St. Pius has usually had a baseball team, beginning in 1959 when legendary football coach George B. Maloof skippered the squad. There was no team from ’65-’70.

A great many people deserve a tip of the cap for making SPX’s “Fields of Dreams” a reality. One of Gilbert’s predecessors is among those eager to offer heart-felt congratulations.

Now the head coach at Blessed Trinity, where the Titans won the Class AA state title in 2006, Andy Harlin was the Golden Lions’ head coach from 1994-2001. He guided SPX to the state playoffs in three of his final four seasons, and compiled a record of 44-11 over his last two.

“When I first started, the varsity was at Mercer and ninth grade and JV practiced at Shamrock or Sequoyah middle school,” Harlin said. “Then we couldn’t use Mercer any more so we converted St. Judes to home for varsity, and ninth and JV practiced at Dresden Park.

“Students are going to be more apt to go to the games. I went and saw the field over the summer, and it almost brought me to tears. That place is Cadillac now, and with the indoor facility [built behind the softball field in 2006] they’re going to be up there with anybody.”

More recently, the Golden Lions played varsity home games at Oglethorpe University while the middle school teams have been based at Dunwoody Park.

One need not go far to find testimonials for the new field, which is part of an $8 million upgrade that included purchase of property north of the school.

Mark Hoban, a former Golden Lions pitcher who struck out a school-record 18 batters against Tucker in 2006 and then pitched a no-hitter against the Tigers a year later, predicts multiple positive trickle-down effects.

“It’s beyond words what it will do,” Hoban said. “It will help gain recognition. Baseball has kind of had its drawbacks [at St. Pius X], like where you had to drive every day. I played a lot of summer ball, and the schools that have fields on campus were able to use those for summers while some kids didn’t even know about St. Pius. Now, it’s like a recruiting tool.”

Gilbert said that this is the first freshman class in his tenure that he believes did not lose a player who had previously been in the SPX middle school baseball program for sake of the lack of a field.

He said, “I don’t think baseball was ever intended to be the red-headed step-child, so to speak, at Pius, but it kind of felt that way at times because of the lack of a home field.”

Dylan Knight, a senior at Ole Miss, played football and baseball at St. Pius X from 2005-’08. His father, Joe, is an architect and designed the indoor batting/pitching tunnel. That is now used chiefly by the baseball and softball teams in poor weather, and by the wrestling team to practice.

The new field has sparked Knight’s sense of the Golden Lions’ future.

“For the program I think it’s huge,” said Knight, who hit for the cycle in a 2008 game against Columbia. “When a kid shows up at a school that he’s thinking of attending, sports are a big part of it. That looks gorgeous. Now, they don’t have to go far to play baseball. Now that it’s there, I think it’s going to be a huge draw.

“I think that’s going to increase . . . the number of kids who want to go to Pius. When I was at Pius, the main focus for every baseball player was another sport first. We didn’t have a field, or a locker room. It felt like our focus was maybe 80 percent football and 20 percent baseball. Now, it might be more like 50-50.”

The new field features Deluxe Athletics DXT SystemTurf everywhere, even in the infield and batters’ boxes (where it’s tan in color). It has drainage capabilities that Gilbert said will make it playable -- or good for practice – 15 minutes after a heavy rain.

There is, in fact, a storm water retention pond built under the adjacent utility field currently being used for practice by the freshman football team. That pulls water quickly from the baseball field.

Deluxe guarantees the field for 10 years in the event of a turf tear or anything like that, and there are testimonials of similar athletic surfaces lasting considerably longer than that before replacement.

There will be no need to chalk baselines; they’re painted permanently. Never mind fertilizer, or mowing grass, or baseballs getting scuffed up, or uniforms getting dirty (unless pitchers develop a habit of falling down on the dirt mound). Forget about an irrigation system, a water bill, or frozen or broke pipes.

“My old pitching coach from the University of Minnesota [Mike Dee] is now head coach at Illinois-Chicago, and he installed it,” Gilbert said. “We’ve kept in contact, and he knew our situation. When we purchased the land, he said, ‘J.T., you really need to consider this. It’s going to save you a lot of money in the long run.’ ”

Some work remains.

St. Pius X officials hope to raise funds for and build dugouts, a press box and concessions/rest rooms.

Gilbert said he hopes that the field will become a source of revenue, perhaps as a destination for the Sunbelt League. That is an emerging college summer wood bat league that is based in Atlanta. Perhaps SPX will field summer teams as well.

Regardless of what happens in future summers, future SPX seasons are going to be a lot different – and for the better – beginning soon.

“At Dresden Park, those fields are pretty dilapidated and small,” Hoban said. “It would have been nice to have a home field. It was a hassle. We had no locker room, and nowhere to change, and it was hard to get our friends to come watch. It was really kind of a pain when all of the teams would practice at the same time at Oglethorpe; there was less room to move around.

“I loved my four years, and I went onto play in college [at Piedmont and Oglethorpe], but I know that [field] was something that my parents and the parents of others were really striving to have.”

Now, the Golden Lions have it.

There will be no more loading up buses for baseball practice or home games, often mucking up the schedule for other spring sports teams, nor will the Golden Lions have worry about late-night practices/games at Oglethorpe because the University team needs the field first.

As pointed out, thanks go to many people, including SPX principal Steve Spellman, athletic director Mark Kelly, and SPX graduate Andy May among others. May has coached Golden Lions middle school teams for many years, and his construction firm helped build the, “The Field of Dreams,” and the hitting tunnel before that.

“My hat’s off to coach Kelly and Mr. Spellman for getting that done; that’s not easy to do,” Harlin said. “You’ll get no complaints from me about my time at St. Pius; I enjoyed it immensely. Great school, great people . . . I have great memories over there. That field is just going to be so great for the kids and their families.”

Once again, a reminder: don’t be shocked if you see the SPX coach walking on air at the thought of his players playing and practicing on the Golden Lions’ new turf.

“Not only did the school build a baseball field, we built a beautiful athletic complex for the future of St. Pius,” Gilbert said. “James Earl Jones was right [when his character said in the movie Field of Dreams], if you build it they will come!”

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