Baseball fields aren’t like any other playing quarters for high school sports programs.
Both playing surfaces - the grass and the dirt - have great affect on the game and the dimensions are never the same from one park to the next.
Tri-Nine Conference players know that no two fields are alike, and after playing on many of them throughout the years, they’ve have their own thoughts about which ones they favor and which ones are the hardest to play on.
For most their favorite field is the one they work on everyday after games and practices.
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“We help maintain it every day, so you have a connection to that field,” said Apex senior Kyle May. “You love being there, putting on the home jerseys and going out in front of your friends and your family.”
But depending on what position you play in the Tri-Nine, there are other fields which you dread to travel to, and also some that you can’t wait to visit.
The hitters’ park
Batters can all agree on one topic - Fuquay-Varina has a welcoming park to its hitters.
It’s one of the smallest fields in the conference to almost every corner of the park. And it features the “Green Monster” - which, just like the more famous one in Boston, provides a tall wall in left field that’s only 310 feet away from home plate.
“It’s a short porch,” May said. “It always makes it a little more fun and a little more incentive for you.”
The lights at Fuquay also help the hitters. They “cycle” - changing color several times over the course of a second - which makes the field dimmer than other stadiums and harder for outfielders to get a good read.
“When the ball goes up over the lights it gives us a little advantage,” said Fuquay-Varina senior Addison Braswell. “We’ve learned how to play with it over the years.”
Pitchers’ parks aplenty
Traditionally, the Tri-Nine distinguishes itself from other Triangle conferences not only in its strong non-conference play and year-to-year parity, but also in having more low-scoring games.
Some of that can be attributed to the pitching, of course. But the stadiums have something to do with it too.
There are more pitchers’ parks than hitters’ parks in the conference, and hitters brought up a number of reasons to explain why they think one is tougher than the other.
Panther Creek received mention because some hitters felt like the stadium’s unique location allowed the wind to work against them.
Holly Springs and Middle Creek were recognized for their deeper dimensions.
And then there was Green Hope, who Braswell said felt like hitting “uphill.”
“It’s like 380 in center and it’s all uphill,” Braswell said. “It feels like you need to hit it 420-430 (feet) to hit it out.”
There aren’t any issues with the outfield grass at Tri-Nine stadiums, thanks to the tender care of their respective coaches.
But sometimes the infield dirt doesn’t cooperate no matter how much care goes into it. Geography plays more of a role than anything else.
Athens Drive senior Eric Berger plays on some of the sandiest dirt in the Tri-Nine.
And it’s hard to get sand to stay flat where it meets the grass - otherwise known as the “lip.” If a ground ball strikes right at the lip, it can take a sharp bounce into the infielder’s chest or face.
“It’s definitely home field advantage because we know where the ball is going to bounce after playing on it for four years,” said Berger.
The sand also doesn’t allow runners to get the head start they want.
“It’s hard to run because everything’s real mushy - so it’s hard to steal bases,” Braswell said. “Everything just plays slow.”
Middle Creek’s infield can also be hard for visitors to play on because it’s recluctant to soften.
When there’s plenty of foul territory, a catcher stays busy. Not only with tracking down wild pitches or passed balls that skip behind him, but also the short pop-ups where he must rip off the face mask and locate the ball in a short period of time.
In the Tri-Nine, no other stadium comes close to having as much foul territory as Lee County’s Oldham Stadium.
Yards of green grass separate the basepaths from the dugouts and outer fence.
“That’s a huge adjustment. Apex is so small, and then you go to these places that are a whole lot bigger - it’s just different,” said May, who plays catcher most of the time for Apex. “You’ve got to get big and make sure nothing goes by you. And foul balls - you’ve got to at least attempt to go after to everything.”
The quirks of high school
Sometimes a stadium just has its quirks. And sometimes they have nothing to do with the baseball team.
It was earlier this year when May, who on this day was playing right field, was driven to his breaking point at Athens Drive. The sounds of a nearby band practice carried just far enough for May to hear.
No instruments were being played. Just the constant pinging of someone keeping time.
“Someone was just hitting the cowbell the entire time and I kept looking around trying to figure out what it was,” May said. “It’s funny now, but at the time I was getting really mad about it.”
Athens Drive and Panther Creek are the only two Tri-Nine stadiums without lights - which by default take visiting teams out of their usual pregame routines. For Lee County, it means leaving school early to get to the field in time.
“You get used to it, but I like playing under the lights better,” said Berger.
Some players call their favorite stadium the one they play their best in.
Others like the more “scenic” parks - which Fuquay-Varina and Apex each got high marks in.
But like with any high school sport, it’s the rivalries - especially those games where players know or grew up with ones on the other side - that get Tri-Nine athletes looking forward for another evening at the park. And sometimes that’s a bigger factor than lights, stadium dimenions or which dugout has the most comfortable bench.