Iowa pushes ahead with baseball stadium renovations

Matt Cozzi
The installation of AstroTurf in the outfield at Duane Banks Field was completed last month.

There is no chalk, no drawing of the foul lines and batters boxes minutes before the game. The umpire never dusts off home plate. There is never an uncomfortable landing on the pitchers mound.

And now, even the warning track in the outfield is different.

Duane Banks Field is completely dirtless.

In mid-December, a major portion of Phase II renovations were finished for the Iowa baseball team's stadium. AstroTurf — both the name of the state-of-the-art playing surface and company that constructed the field on the west side of the UI campus — replaced the natural grass outfield and warning track. AstroTurf was installed in the infield prior to last season.

New padding will be installed on the outfield and foul line fencing soon, while a new scoreboard with video capability should be ready in late February or early March. Changes to both the visiting and home bullpens and batting cages are also a part of Phase II.

"The turf really gives you a chance to play sooner in the spring and later in the fall," Iowa coach Rick Heller said. "With the advancements that they've made with the turf, you're now able to hit off of it and pitch off of it and have little worry for weather to cancel the game."

In Heller's first season at the helm in 2014, Iowa went 30-23 overall and 10-14 in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes began the season 9-1, their best start since 1940, and advanced to the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 2010.

Iowa built a reputation as an offensive threat last year under Heller and the new coaching staff. The Black and Gold were first in the Big Ten in batting average and on-base percentage, second in home runs and slugging percentage, and third in runs, hits, and stolen bases.

Heller noted that while the weather won't be as much of a factor with the all-AstroTurf field, the oddities of game play also won't likely be a major concern.

"It plays like it would in the summer, which is what you ideally want," Heller said. "A lot of times in the spring just because of the freeze and the thaw and the fact that the grass hasn't even turned green yet, it played slower or played wet. The ball would divot all the time. … Last year, we played with the outfield pretty much brown until late April because of how late the spring was. All those variables are taken out now."

With Phase II due to be done by the home opener in March — Iowa opens the 2015 campaign Feb. 13 against Kansas State in Port Charlotte, Fla. — the program now is thinking about Phase III: the final steps.

Phase III calls for a brand new stadium surrounding the existing playing field, with an emphasis on better and more seating.

All of this could be perhaps symbolic of Heller's tenure since he took over Iowa.

"I couldn't be more pleased," Heller said. "Things are moving as quickly as I wanted. We're getting great support from our boosters in fundraising efforts, which was crucial to this project. Hopefully we can continue to get more contributors in the fold and get this project finished. We were striving to get it done in four or five years tops, and we're right on pace to get that done."