Metropolis: Wednesday, May 02, 2002
New field, old worries

LaGrave Field’s biggest problem may be its polluted neighbor.


When the Fort Worth Cats open their 2002 season on May 23, almost everything about the minor league baseball team will be revamped: new league, new front office, and a new commissioner — Miles Wolff, better known for his stint as owner of the famed Durham Bulls and founder of the Northern League in 1993.

But the reborn Cats’ second season will also be a return to the past, connecting the new team to the players who wore that name on their jerseys back in the 1950s and before. Carl Bell, chairman and CEO of the company that owns the team, says that, for him, the rebuilding of LaGrave Field brings back memories of trying to catch foul balls with his father at the original Cats’ games.

Foul may also be the right word for the other parts of the past that are being dredged up, but we’re not talking mis-hit pitches.

The $4 million field that Jim Anglea Turf Construction Company is trying desperately to get ready by May 23 is on the site of the old LaGrave Field between Main Street and the Trinity River levee a few blocks north of downtown. That field originally was promoted as a temporary facility that would eventually be replaced by a more elaborate ballpark to be built just to the south, on land the city purchased last year for $650,000, with intentions of leasing it to the Cats.

The city bought the 34-acre tract following an agreement between the city and the team owners that the ball club would underwrite construction of an $8 million stadium there, to be owned by the Fort Worth Sports Authority. The authority in turn would lease the facility back to the club for $1 a year. When the city decided to buy the land, Council member Jim Lane assured the public that it was a “good deal.”

However, continued problems with chemical pollution at the city-owned site may mean that construction there will be delayed for years, potentially leaving the city with a very expensive parking lot.

Michael Ganage, city environmental supervisor, said metal wastes in the soil — left from the days when American Cyanamid operated a chemical processing facility there — can be dealt with, but that volatile organic compounds found in the groundwater beneath the property could take at least two years to resolve. City officials had predicted in May 2001 that pollution problems could be dealt with by August 2001, and construction of the permanent stadium could have begun long before now.

The most troublesome of the volatile organic compounds in the groundwater is trichloroethylene, or TCE, designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as a probable carcinogen. Ganage said that on a two-acre section of the city property, a “hotspot” has been found where the TCE levels, based on two studies, range from 23,000 to 33,000 micrograms per million. Allowable levels, Ganage said, are only 5 micrograms per million.

Although the city bought the property last October, it has not done its own water sampling. Cytec, a corporate relation of American Cyanamid that took over most of the site in 1993, tested groundwater in February 2001.

“We’ve had delays since,” Ganage said. “We are trying to find which direction to test.” He said he hopes to begin the testing by mid-May.

Mike Frew, TNRCC’s manager for the voluntary cleanup program at the site, said he doesn’t know how long it will take to remedy the groundwater problem. “Their (the city’s) plan is to contain it and to not clean it up. It usually takes several years to show that it’s not growing, and not impacting other points of exposure,” he said. For these contaminants, Frew said, making the groundwater relatively safe could take a long time.

“We can’t just close our eyes to this,” Ganage said. “We have to protect the public. We are held to a higher standard because we are funded by the citizens’ tax dollars.”

The city has installed test wells on its property, he said, but has been delayed because it needs Bell’s approval to install an additional test well on his adjacent property.

“We are playing phone tag with Carl Bell and his investors to get an agreement to put another well” on part of the Cats’ property, Ganage said. “We need to get that well installed... so we can get the best picture of what is going on out there.”

The location where the city needs the well, he said, is on property that Bell recently acquired as an add-on to his original lot, and on which he is building LaGrave’s right-field bleachers. Additionally, Ganage said, TNRCC has requested soil samples from that area. But, he said, the city has not yet been able to get the help it needs from the Cats’ architects.

“We need to know what soil will be reused to tell TNRCC what needs to be tested,” he said. With the temporary field being constructed ... it has taken a lot of time away from this.”

The area where the high level of TCE was found is covered by an enforcement order from TNRCC, Ganage said. Until pollution there is handled to TNRCC’s satisfaction, that property can’t become part of the city’s voluntary cleanup program on the overall site.

Carl Bell emphasizes that the old LaGrave Field site itself, where the Cats hope to play this year, is not contaminated. When he talks about delays in building the larger permanent ballpark adjacent to LaGrave — and maybe connecting the two sites — he talks about attendance figures, not pollution levels.

“I’d say it’s better than 50/50 — probably closer to 100 percent [likelihood] that we will make it a baseball theme park,” Bell said. “We might make this stadium bigger and put a smaller one on Cytec land, maybe for softball. There are a lot of things we can do. We can put up a museum, a baseball theme park, and other mixed-use development. The good thing is we intend to fully develop this as a destination point for baseball. We will be deciding what exactly what we want to do as our season gets under way when we know what our fans want and the people of Fort Worth want.”

However, even if pollution on the city-owned site is dealt with to the satisfaction of regulators, the environmental problems there are so severe and long-lasting that both TNRCC and the EPA forbid its use for such things as playgrounds, where children might come in contact with polluted soil or groundwater.

In the meantime, a new team is getting ready for the season. The biggest change will be in the pitching staff. Jackie Davidson, who was the sixth overall draft pick in 1983 for the Chicago Cubs, will double as player and pitching coach. Returning pitchers Jose Guzman and Estivinson Lina will be joined by newcomers Rick Powalski, Boswell High alumnus Shawn Morgan, Roderick Lewis, Tyler Swinburnson, and Shawn Onley, a sixth-round draft pick for the Atlanta Braves in 1996.

Powalski, who played for the Albany Alligators last season in the All American Association, said Davidson’s coaching already has had a great impact on him.

“Jackie is like working with one of your best friends,” said Powalski, a 23-year-old pitcher who had an 8-4 record with a 1.81 ERA in 89 innings last season. “It’s like having a big brother who knows a lot about pitching. He’s a fun, crazy guy.”

Contractors are working feverishly to get the LaGrave site ready for the team — and doing it in a painstakingly historical manner. Home plate is exactly where it was back in 1925 when the old LaGrave Field first opened. There will be four dugouts instead of two — two for players, two for well-heeled fans. The newer ones, closer to home plate, will be filled by players. The original 10-seat concrete caverns will be turned into $500 suites. The park will eventually have 4,100 covered seats, with space for another 2,000 fans on the lawn. Anglea said the playing surface and stadium should be ready for the home opener, but that bathrooms, concession stands, and ticket office will be located in temporary quarters until the end of this season.

“It’s possible that all of the wood might not be trimmed, and we might have to put some folding chairs in, but we are committed to playing ball on May 23,” he said.

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