Council says: Let there be lights!

New stadium lighting at Riverside Stadium   

By Thomas Wilson
star staff

  After 10 years of minor league baseball done as film noir, Elizabethton Twins' players will see line drives and curve balls in a whole new light next year.
  Elizabethton City Council members voted 6-0 Thursday night to award a $120,000 bid for installation of a new lighting system at Joe O'Brien Field next year. Professional baseball inspectors have been clamoring for better lights at the home of the E-Twins Stadium for more than 10 years.
  "It is a relief to be able to solve the problem," said Mike Mains, E-Twins general manager and director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department.
  Council members accepted a $120,000 bid submitted by Tommy Lawrence Electrical Contractors of Roxboro, N.C. The bid calls for the installation of eight steel poles 80 feet high having 100 metal halide light fixtures around Riverside Stadium. The company has installed lights at several athletic fields including three Minor League ballparks in the Appalachian League.
  The city will finance the lighting system over a 10-year period. The Elizabethton Electric System is serving as the funding agency for the project and developed the bid specifications to meet Minor League Baseball's lighting requirements.
  Every two years Minor League Baseball inspectors evaluate facilities at all Minor League ballparks. In each report since 1994 inspectors have cited Riverside Stadium for not meeting the lighting standards currently required by the Professional Baseball Association (PBA).
  Mains said improvements to Joe O'Brien Field were not regulated by the Minnesota Twins organization but by the PBA, which is responsible for inspecting professional baseball fields around the country. He produced a 1999 PBA report that stated, "Elizabethton has the poorest infield lighting in professional baseball".
  "If you fall behind the schedule of your facility, the team can be taken away from you," Mains said. "It has everything to do with our facility, whether it meets the requirements of the PBA."
  Dozens of home games for the E-Twins Minor League Baseball team and the Elizabethton High School baseball team are hosted at Joe O'Brien Field each season. Mains said the existing lighting system at the field had gone beyond its expected life span.
  The current lighting system at Joe O'Brien Field was installed in 1974. The wooden poles erected then are still standing but are incapable of handling any other weight if fixtures need to be added according to the PBA. Mains told council members the organization is considering bidding the old lights out to other schools or perhaps using the fixtures for future athletic field developments within the city.
  PBA inspectors have recommended the lighting system be improved for 10 years. A June 1994 light evaluation report for Elizabethton stated that the lighting system did not meet professional baseball standards. A report issued three years later also found the lighting below standard although 18 new light fixtures had been added since 1994.
  Specifically, inspectors complained about poor visibility in the outfield and around the second base area due to lighting deficiencies. Mains said the last thing a major league team wants is a million-dollar rookie with double vision after being hit in the face with a ground ball he could not see.
  The 1997 report found few improvements had been made but the lights still fell below PBA standards. "The old Abbott and Costello act of 'What's on first, Who's on second, could help describe this infield lighting,' " stated a report from a PBA inspector in 1999 regarding the lighting of O'Brien Field.
  Despite the lighting problems, the E-Twins have proven to be a community success story both on and off the field. Twins' home attendance exceeded 24,000 spectators last year as the team won the Appalachian League championship. Mains said the Elizabethton Chamber of Commerce estimated the Twins pumped upwards of $250,000 into the local economy each season.
  According to the city's proposed 2004-2005 budget, Twins-related fund balance was just over $89,000 in actual dollars for the 2003 fiscal year. The fund balance includes revenues from season and daily ticket sales, which accounted for $14,904. Sales of ballpark concessions, baseball cards, Twins souvenirs, stadium advertising and other revenues accounted $50,947 in the 2003 fund balance.
  Mains and his staff organize music and special events at almost every Twins home game that draws hundreds of locals and baseball fans from around the region. The Twins open the 2004 season June 21 when they host the Greeneville Astros.
  "It gets better and better every year that goes by," said Mains of the E-Twins' place in the community. "You have to have lighting at a facility to be able to do all this stuff."