“This is an intolerable and an inexcusable situation that we’ve had to deal with. It’s embarrassing.”
— former Lackawanna County commissioner Mike Washo
The dates: June 17-21 and July 4-5, 2009
The place: PNC Field
The situation: The sun shined. The birds chirped. There was nary a cloud in the sky. Fireworks should have been getting prepared. The gates should have been swung open as wide as they could be swung for what traditionally is one of the biggest crowds of a season to flood a baseball game at PNC Field.
And the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees were forced to do the unthinkable anyway: They postponed their July 4, 2009 game against Pawtucket.
Postponed their doubleheader against the Red Sox the next day, too. Under similar spectacular conditions for baseball.
The reasons why, and the responses to those reasons, would change pretty much everything for the franchise.
The lead-in: The problems started, for all intents and purposes, with a budgetary decision made a little more than two years earlier.
When the New York Yankees agreed to move their Triple-A operation to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre late in 2006, they did so with one immediate, costly caveat: The emerald green Astroturf that was a staple of Lackawanna County Stadium since the dawn of the Red Barons in 1989 would have to come up, and natural grass would have to go down as the playing surface at the newly named PNC Field.
The problem at the time was what got pushed aside. The drainage system underneath the old turf was not replaced as part of a $638,000 agreement with Cincinnati-based Motz Group late in 2006. Basically, the old drainage system didn’t have the proper depth of a sand base — it only had a six-inch layer of sand, and the best have at least twice as much, and often up to 24 inches — beneath the playing surface. There was also a fabric layer between the sand and a gravel layer that could slow the flow of drainage.
Then-Lackawanna County commissioner Robert C. Cordaro admitted the new turf was knowingly placed over an antiquated drainage system because replacing it would have been too costly. Cordaro cited a 2004-05 assessment, which indicated the stadium would need around a $20 million investment to updated it to industry standard.
The Yankees were coming, though. And Cordaro also admitted he, the team and Mandalay Baseball Properties, the firm brought in at the Yankees’ behest to manage the day-to-day operations of the club, had discussed the construction of a new stadium on the old one’s property along Montage Mountain Road. So, Cordaro said, it didn’t make sense — given the cost — to replace the drainage system as well as the field surface.
Kristen Rose, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees’ team president and general manager, said the new field had a shelf life of only a few seasons with the old drainage system in place. Cordaro concurred, saying it was meant to last between three and five years. Turned out, it barely had two once the rains started falling in June of 2009.
The moment: What happened June 30 was understandable. Something that happens rather regularly in professional baseball leagues around the country. Barely news.
More than seven-tenths of an inch of ran fell during an all-day, steady rain in Lackawanna County, and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees postponed their game against Rochester at PNC Field. It was a fitting end to a soggy month.
A steady rain forced the postponement of the June 3 matchup with Syracuse. A game against Toledo was postponed on the 17th, and the subsequent doubleheader scheduled for the next night was washed out by more than half an inch of rain. Same deal on June 20, when a quarter inch of rain fell on a day the Yankees were scheduled to host Indianapolis.
The next night, with a doubleheader against Indy scheduled, the day was largely dry. But, the grass in the outfield was not. Team officials decided to postpone the twinbill due to wet grounds. The Yankees and Indians played a doubleheader the next night, and the weather dried out, largely, until that postponement on the 30th.
Under the surface, though, a major issue literally was seeping upward.
With 4.6 inches of rain falling in June — 15.9 percent higher than the average for the month — the drainage system that wasn’t replaced back in 2006 began to miserably fail. When the Yankees returned home after a two-game series in Pawtucket, they did so on July 4, under partly cloudy skies, with the sun shining, a sellout crowd waiting to see them host the Red Sox…
…and a veritable marsh forming in right field.
“We knew that (the turf” was getting close to the end of what it was built for,” Rose said. “But nobody expected this much rain.”
The Yankees postponed on that sunny Independence Day, ruining their first sellout of the season. The skies were just as blue the next day, and the field was just as drenched. The team brought a helicopter in to hover over the grass, hoping the whirling blades would help dry out the turf. It didn’t work. Three hours before the scheduled start time, the Yankees put the axe to a doubleheader.
That made eight postponed games in the last month, three for wet grounds and another that Rose conceded would have been played had the field not taken on so much water in previous days. The Yankees managed to sneak in a twinbill that they swept against Pawtucket on July 6, but the next 10 days were rather unprecedented in league history, never mind just franchise history.
International League president Randy Mobley determined that the team would be required to evaluate the condition of the field prior to the start of home series. If it wasn’t deemed playable, the series would be shifted to an alternate location. And, twice, that’s how it went.
The Yankees were forced by wet grounds and the failing drainage system to move their home series against Lehigh Valley on July 9 and 10 to Coca-Cola Park in Allentown. Their subsequent home series against Buffalo on July 11 and 12 also had to be moved, to NBT Bank Stadium in Syracuse.
“We will deal with a plan for a longer-term solution after the season,” Mobley said.
While the team was away — and throughout the Triple-A All-Star break early the following week — a team of experts examined PNC Field and determined the best course of action to ensure drainage would improve in the short term.
On June 12, the Yankees received the results of a study from sports turf expert Murray Cook, who backed the team’s stance that the drainage system was severely inadequate, concluding, “this field is at the end of its service life.” He added that replacement of the field and drainage system would be necessary if the team wanted to play at the stadium over the long haul. He recommended the field be replaced in the fall, with the cost of replacement for both the drainage and the turf estimated to be between $650,000 and $750,000 — on the low end, barely more than the county paid Motz Group to replace just the turf three autumns earlier.
In the meantime, the Yankees said they replaced huge swaths of drenched sod in the outfield, while head PNC Field groundskeeper Steve Horne — with help from New York Yankees head groundskeeper Danny Cunningham — performed several emergency measures to help fix the drainage on a short-term basis. Included in those efforts were a “deep-tine aeration,” a process that involved drilling deeper-than-usual holes into the turf to promote drainage. But it clearly was a short-term measure. Cook’s report said the process isn’t recommended because the deep drilling generally damages the in-place drainage system beyond repair.
“We did it because it’s something that may allow us to play on the field for the rest of season and because we knew the long-term solution was replacing the field,” Rose said.
After the All-Star break, the Yankees returned home and were able to play their July 16 home game against Gwinnett on a dried out field. The deep-tine aeration evidently worked, as there were only three more home dates postponed by rain the rest of the season. None caused the type of flooding that led to the July postponements.
But the damage had been done, and the future of professional baseball in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre had never seemed so tenuous.
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
In many ways, the drainage issues at PNC Field in the summer of 2009 became the embodiment of a years long battle over what team officials said they knew all along, and what area politicians and baseball proponents had to weight against that. A 20-year-old PNC Field was either falling apart, or being allowed to do so in the name of progress.
Many around the area began to feel Triple-A baseball in the community was in peril. The New York Yankees and Mandalay Baseball Properties had a purchase option that kicked in the following year, allowing them to buy the franchise. There was a thought that the franchise would simply be moved if the Yankees and Mandalay didn’t get their wish for a new stadium granted, and Lackawanna County officials were reticent to commit to building a new stadium that could cost taxpayers up to $50 million. When reports that Cordaro made a guarantee for a new stadium part of the deal for the Yankees bringing the franchise to the area surfaced — he later denied the story, saying he only agreed the county would discuss a new stadium if the Yankees invested $150 million in Yankees-themed development around the stadium — in combination with the reluctance to replace the drainage system for what at the time was estimated as relatively little more than they paid for the turf itself, skeptics felt the fix was in.
In his report on the field’s condition that July, Cook wrote that initially neglecting to replace the drainage system ranked as “… further evidence that the field was planned for temporary use.”
In September, the county awarded a $1.1 million contract to Sports Production Group of Cleveland to demolish the old field, replace the antiquated drainage system, then place down a new grass playing surface. But, the stadium still faced upwards of an estimated $13 million in repairs over the next decade to get it up to standard for the long-term.
On Sept. 22, crews rolled into the stadium to start a furious six weeks worth of work to get the project completed in time for roots to take hold and be stable in time for the 2010 season.
‘The field has to be replaced, and we’re committed to doing that,” then-majority Commissioner Mike Washo. “No field, no franchise; This is not something we have a choice in.”
Work was completed on time, and there have been no drainage issues at PNC Field since. But the community didn’t seem to rebound after the so-called “Drain-Outs.” Even as county commissioners said repeatedly they were exploring ways to improve the ballpark through a renovation, attendance sunk to stunning lows. The Yankees drew a team-record 580,908 fans during the team’s first season in 2007, but it dropped to an all-time record-low of 338,731 in 2010. That dubious record was shattered in 2011, with the team drawing just 298,098.
In November of 2010, the inevitable happened if the Yankees — and perhaps the franchise itself — were going to stay in the county over the long term: the county and SWB Yankees LLC agreed to a memorandum of understanding to sell the franchise for $14.6 million. That deal included a 30-year lease for the Yankees to call PNC Field their Triple-A home, and a $40 million renovation project, half of which would come from the new owners, half from a state grant. The necessary repairs at the stadium, effectively, were the final nails in the coffin of public ownership of the franchise.
That project was completed by the start of the 2013 season, but it meant even more missed home games for the franchise, which spent all of 2012 on the road.
Cordaro, meanwhile, had some other issues unrelated to baseball to worry about. In June of 2011, Cordaro was found guilty in federal court on 18 of 33 counts, including extortion, racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy. Specifically, a jury found Cordaro guilty of single counts of conspiracy to commit theft or bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds; money laundering; conspiracy to commit money laundering; conspiracy to defraud the United States; conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right; conspiracy to commit money laundering; two counts each of bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, extortion under color of official right and two counts of income tax evasion; and three counts each of money laundering and subscribing and filing a materially false tax return. Ultimately, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison, a sentence that expires in October of 2021.