SIOUX CITY – Needless to say, a summer without baseball at Lewis and Clark Park was only collateral damage compared to all the havoc we’ve experienced from our global pandemic.
Sitting out their 2020 campaign, however, didn’t mean the Sioux City Explorers organization was left twiddling their thumbs.
Looking hopefully to 2021 and a resumption of play, the X’s are delighted with a number of upgrades that have been made to their home facility while the seats at the 28-year-old ballpark sat empty.
A resurfaced parking lot is one feature that catches the eye. So is the rebuilt structure in front of the stadium where tickets are dispensed and all the front office business is carried on.
Most exciting to me, meanwhile, is the major makeover of the park’s oft-criticized infield. Thanks to DuraEdge Products, a Pennsylvania-based company, the Explorers should enjoy one of the premier playing surfaces in the American Association.
Heading up that project, I’m happy to report, was Luke Yoder, who was hired as the X’s first full-time groundskeeper in 1994, coming fresh out of Clemson University and the nation’s most respected turf management school.
“What you have is 30,000 square feet of playing surface, the infield, which is where 70 percent of the game is played,’’ said Yoder, who has enjoyed quite an impressive career since working here in 1995, the team’s third season. “It’s a major league quality surface heading into the 2021 season. It turned out great. I was extremely happy with the end results and I’m really looking forward to seeing how it’s looking.’’
Yoder, now 48, was just 23 when he was hired by former X’s general manager Tim Utrup. He was prepared to stay three or four seasons while learning more about his business. However, he was promptly scooped up by the Iowa Cubs in Des Moines, the major league Cubs’ top farm club.
After four seasons at Principal Park, he landed his first big league job as the head groundskeeper with the Pittsburgh Pirates, building the new field as the team prepared to move from Three Rivers Stadium to their new home at PNC Park.
After just three seasons in Pittsburgh, Yoder was hired to tackle a new field for the San Diego Padres, where he worked the next 12 years.
It was in 2015, shortly after marrying his wife, Lori, he opted to leave California and move back to Greenville, S.C., where he grew up.
“We wanted to start a family and we wanted to be closer to our immediate family, where we had the kind of support we didn’t have in California,’’ said Yoder, who has two daughters, ages 4 and 2, and plenty of close family to make life more fulfilling.
His job with DuraEdge isn’t an easy one, but it allows him more quality time at home. That doesn’t mean he’s not traveling quite a bit.
After overseeing the final week of work in Sioux City, he returned home for a bit before heading to Florida, where he’ll eventually inspect all the spring training venues that major league teams have in that state. Last week, he toured ballparks on the Gulf Coast side of the state. He’ll return in January to check out parks on the east side.
Yoder was a DuraEdge customer during his time in San Diego and he and Grant McKnight, the company’s founder, became close friends. After discussing the possibility of working together, the decision was made to work in the private sector.
The primary product DuraEdge provides is an engineered soil that promotes healthier and more durable turf. I’d need a doctorate in agronomy to grasp it all, but the bottom line is as terrific an infield as you’ll find anywhere in the world.
Yoder’s crew basically removed the infield grass and graded the soil, removing enough to install four inches of their engineered soil before topping it off with sod purchased from another company by the X’s and the City of Sioux City. DuraEdge does not sell sod, but Yoder’s crew did install it.
X’s Manager Steve Montgomery, who had four playoff teams in a five-year span before the team sat out 2020, makes his offseason home in Tampa. As a result, he won’t have a look at his team’s home field until he arrives, knock on wood, for 2021. He typically gets here in mid-April.
“To be able to bring a big-league surface to Lewis and Clark, obviously I’m excited about it,’’ said Montgomery. “It’s a long time coming, long overdue. It doesn’t matter if you play in a parking lot, both teams are going to play on the same infield. I’m just excited about actually putting my feet on that surface.’’
The time off from his managing job allowed Montgomery to spend time helping with the progress of his son, Stephen, a junior in high school who has gone through a major growth spurt. Now a 6-4, 185-pounder, he was 6 feet tall and 139 pounds barely a year ago.
The younger Montgomery, a pitcher whose fastball has been clocked as high as 94 mph, is a highly regarded prospect who has fielded contacts from several major college programs. So, his dad, a nine-year minor league hurler who made it to Triple-A with the Orioles, hasn’t minded a little extra time to offer some of his considerable knowledge.
Former Journal sports editor Terry Hersom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.