Baseball tradition, or just a nuisance?

The dugouts at Highland Park are in need of replacement, but the question now is whether to replace them with below-ground or surface level “dugouts.” Some in the baseball community like the uniqueness of Watertown’s traditional dugouts, while others are tired of the work involved with pumping out water every time it rains.  (Staff photo by Matt Bunke)
The dugouts at Highland Park are in need of replacement, but the question now is whether to replace them with below-ground or surface level “dugouts.” Some in the baseball community like the uniqueness of Watertown’s traditional dugouts, while others are tired of the work involved with pumping out water every time it rains. (Staff photo by Matt Bunke)

The one thing everybody seems to agree on is that the dugouts at Highland Park need to be replaced. But when it comes to balancing baseball tradition with overall practicality in a way that suits everybody, consensus may be much more difficult to find.

For the last several years, the Watertown Parks and Recreation Board has discussed the possibility of replacing the outdated and flood-prone baseball dugouts at Highland Park. The issue finally made it in front of the city council last week, with a Park Board recommendation to replace the existing below-ground dugouts with flat, surface-level “dugouts” that would be less prone to flooding, easier to maintain, and likely come at a lower cost.

The proposal gained the support of both the Watertown youth baseball organization and the Watertown-Mayer High School program, but not everyone was so quick to jump on board.

In a letter to the city, Watertown Red Devils player Jared Duske expressed his support for maintaining the more traditional below-ground dugouts, much like the ones used in most Major League ballparks. Most cities and schools have moved away from that approach over the years in favor of more manageable at-grade dugouts, a trend that Duske said makes Highland Park’s dugouts increasingly unique.

Duske also pointed out that building above-ground dugouts would make their ceilings several feet higher and potentially reduce the visibility of certain parts of the field for fans sitting in the first and third-base bleachers. According to the city, the Watertown Post 121 American Legion team joined the Red Devils in supporting traditional dugouts.

As it turns out, the Legion and town teams aren’t alone in their preference for traditional dugouts. Three city council members said that all other factors notwithstanding — including cost and maintenance — their preference as baseball fans would be for below-ground dugouts.

“I want this to be a very nice project,” councilor Steve Washburn said. “I want it to be aesthetically pleasing and I want it to contribute to the uniqueness of our community and of our ballpark. … Making it a showpiece is very important to me. With that being said, we also have a very tight budget, and I don’t know how all of this fits.”

Ultimately, the council voted 3-1 — with Mayor Charlotte Johnson as the lone dissenting vote — to direct staff to further investigate the feasibility and potential costs of replacing or repairing drain tile that would better filter below-grade dugouts. Johnson favored the Park Board’s recommendation of constructing surface-level dugouts, but Washburn, Michael Walters and Adam Pawelk were unwilling to make that commitment until more was known regarding the possibility of maintaining the current setup.

The city has $30,000 budgeted for the project, which is needed in large part because of the frequent flooding of the current dugouts. The dugouts have drain tile to filter water out of the dugouts, but city administrator Luke Fischer said they frequently become clogged from sunflower seeds, dirt, and other debris, causing water to pool in the dugouts after rainfalls.

“When the drain tile lines plug and it rains, they fill up with water and we’re required to send staff out with a sump pump to pump out the dugout before they’re playable again,” Fischer said. “It’s been a huge maintenance request for the city and for the teams.”

Those frequent maintenance issues seem to be the primary reason the Park Board settled on its recommendation of surface-level dugouts. Pawelk, who used to sit on the Park Board when the issue first came up, said the board went back and forth over the years regarding the pros and cons of below-ground vs. surface-level dugouts.

The Park Board and the Mayor aren’t alone in their preference for surface-level dugouts. In comments submitted to the city, Watertown-Mayer varsity baseball coach Justin Stohs also said he believes at-grade dugouts would be the best route.

“I believe we need to have dugouts where the floor is level with the field,” he said. “It would make it easier to clean out and we would no longer have to pump them out each spring and after big rains. It is a major pain, and it happens all the time.”

The three council members who asked for more information on the potential for below-grade dugouts were also quick to acknowledge the current problems, but remained hopeful the drainage problems could be addressed within budget. Pawelk voiced his support of below-ground dugouts in general, citing their uniqueness and their place within baseball tradition, but said he was hesitant to make the same mistake again.

“That’s the last thing we want to do is put the money into it and repeat the same situation with the sump pump,” said Pawelk, who added that it would be nice to have a better understanding of the scope of potential drainage work before committing one way or the other. “If the cost is way above what it can be, or what we think it should be, at least we can be more comfortable with our decision.”

The city hopes to complete the work this fall, since the dugouts need to be compete for the start of the high school baseball season as soon as soon as spring arrives. That timetable — which still will involve the process of seeking quotes from contractors — leaves the city in a bit of a time crunch.

However, given that the park will likely make use of the dugouts for decades to come, Washburn said it would be foolish to rush a decision. City staff is expected to have more information for the council in time for next Tuesday’s Aug. 27 meeting.

“I don’t want to walk up there in three months and say, ‘This isn’t what I envisioned,’” Washburn said.

City engineer Andrew Budde, based on a quick glance at a map during the meeting, said that drain tile would likely need to be directed to a catch basin or a ditch. He said the nearest catch basin appeared to be 250 feet away, and that part of a sidewalk and parking lot would likely have to be torn through to get there.

Johnson said she didn’t think it was likely that such a project could be completed within the city’s $30,000 budget.

“I don’t know a lot about construction, but we have $30,000, and if we come up with this drainage system that has to go underneath a sidewalk and a parking lot, I think we’re getting over that,” she said.


Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]