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Bygone ballpark: Fort Marcy is timeless, for better and for worse

May 27, 2019

Like much of historic downtown Santa Fe, Fort Marcy Ballpark is a relic largely untouched by time.

And that’s the problem.

Whereas some of sports’ most memorable venues get better with age — or at least adjust to fit the basic requirements of the times — Fort Marcy’s progression through the years has moved at a glacial pace, and that frustrates some and leaves others wondering whether Santa Fe’s old ballyard has outlived its usefulness.

Let’s start with the basics: It’s not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the bathrooms are often out of order, the decades-old grandstand is dangerous to navigate and the playing surface is in need of a major face lift. And, yes, the abbreviated dimensions are more appropriate for teenagers than professional ballplayers like the Santa Fe Fuego, who start their eighth year in the independent Pecos League at Fort Marcy on Thursday night.

What once was a bustling hub for weekend baseball and youth leagues using both it and the adjacent Magers Field is now a quiet and, at best, adequately maintained city park. Those who know it best say it hasn’t fallen into disrepair; it has just fallen woefully behind the times.

“Well that’s exactly what it is, a city park that’s no different than any other city park because no one has found a way to put more money into it and make it what it could be,” says Ron Trujillo, a former city councilor who helped champion the city’s push for independent professional baseball. “I see it as a place with so much potential, you know? Not just paint or better bathrooms, but some real work that would make it a place Santa Fe would be proud of.”

Fire up the time machine and go back a few decades, and you’ll see the same familiar footprint that exists to this day: To the north is the terraced hill that leads to a small parking lot where Zozobra is annually draped from a 55-foot metal post. Down below is the natural grass baseball field bordered by a deep arroyo to the south, a two-story fire station to the east and a concrete grandstand with its uneven steps and corrugated metal roof behind home plate.

Park too close in the lot behind the first-base press box and you’re just begging for a broken windshield. Take your kids to the playground beyond right field and the only thing protecting you from a horsehide missile are the nonnative elms that tower over the painfully short outfield.

Every now and then, it rains hard enough to put water in the arroyo and gets windy enough to snap off a few of the smaller branches from those elms. Come back 10 or 20 years from now, and it’s entirely likely the place will look exactly the same, save for a minimal alteration.

City officials were asked for feedback about any proposed plans to the park, but each declined to comment. That, in itself, is not all that surprising. Requisitioning so much as a rake to groom the mound or a hose to douse the infield has been an issue for as long as anyone can remember.

“The city isn’t being negligent,” Trujillo says. “They just haven’t allocated the resources. It’s not a priority.”

Eight years ago, someone thought it would be a good idea to put the first professional baseball team in city history at Fort Marcy. On the surface, it made sense: a picturesque downtown location within walking distance of hotels, the Plaza, the Cathedral, the Palace of the Governors — all the usual tourist haunts.

The ballpark itself has its quirks that make it adorable. The crack of the bat hitting a ball snaps loudly inside that metal roof, and the view of the sloping Sangre de Cristo foothills to the left is an oil painting in the works.

“It hasn’t changed much in the eight years we’ve been there, and it probably won’t change all that much as long as we’re there,” says Andrew Dunn, president and general manager of the independent Pecos League of professional baseball teams.

About the only differences from the day Dunn planted the expansion Santa Fe Fuego there in 2012 is the pedestrian bridge beyond the outfield fence, something that hasn’t improved the playing surface one bit. It was done strictly for making it easier for thousands of visitors to flood onto the playing surface to watch Zozobra burn.

The Fuego’s first manager was Bill Moore. One of his first introductions to the way things are came in the spring of 2012 when he resorted to grooming the mound using nothing more than his own feet before one of the team’s first practices.

“But that’s the thing, it’s Fort Marcy and it is what it is,” says current Fuego manager T.J. Zarewicz. “We could always ask for more, but this is just how it is. You do what you can.”

There’s been some cosmetic changes in recent years, like the yellow tubing running along the fence encircling the field. A new scoreboard, a handrail in the grandstand and a few faded coats of paint have been thrown in along the way.

The grandstand is nowhere close to being handicap accessible, and the inconsistent spaces between the seating levels has led to more falls than anyone can count.

“It happens all the time — all the time,” says Fuego general manager Yvonne Encinias. “Even if you’re being careful, it’s still easy to fall.”

“I mean, it could be better and there’s always something we could ask for like a few thousand tons of infield clay,” Dunn says, “but it’s not something to complain about. The city has been fair with us and, I mean, we’re still here after eight years. It must mean something’s working.”

Part of what was once a Civil War fortress, Fort Marcy Ballpark is commemorated with a plaque mortared into the grandstand behind home plate. It reads, “Fort Marcy Stadium, Built in A.D. 1936 by Works Progress Administration.”

Generations of Santa Feans have flocked to the park ever since, including Frank Lucero. The head baseball coach at Santa Fe Prep has worked hard to get his team’s home games there. The Blue Griffins had to play their entire 2018 home schedule in Tesuque and needed a last-second approval from the city to use Fort Marcy this spring — but without access to the scoreboard, public address system or lights.

“It used to be so much more than what it is, though, and that’s what gets me,” Lucero says. “We love the place, and having the chance to get the kids on there is what it’s all about. I’d just like to see more of it. It’s such a great place to play.”

The construction of the Municipal Recreation Complex off N.M. 599 took some of the pressure off scheduling at Fort Marcy. Over the years, most of the high schools have had upgrades to their own facilities, thus easing the burden even more.

Still, the slow death of sports at the park is evident. The post-Little League, pre-high school levels of club ball and Babe Ruth no longer play there. Coaches say the limited access forces teams to travel to Rio Rancho and Albuquerque to keep the sport alive.

The crux of Fort Marcy’s existence remains a two-pronged stance. As a public park, it allows free access to anyone. It’s a great place to walk a dog, have lunch or go for a stroll. It still serves a purpose, and the city is willing to inject just enough resources to keep it that way, particularly since it’s the home of Old Man Gloom and one of the Southwest’s greatest annual traditions. For those reasons alone, the future seems secure.

The other side is justifying the hundreds of thousands — even millions — of dollars it would take to give the park the facelift it truly needs. It would require agreement between the influential neighborhood associations, the city and those who resist any change to the historic downtown district. Any improvements would mean construction, congestion and unwanted traffic in an area that is mostly residential.

“Having been on the city council and been through some of those arguments, I can say that nothing comes easy,” Trujillo says. “Even the argument for cutting down those trees for the [pedestrian] bridge had to have been tough. People don’t like change here.”

And with that comes a new baseball season downtown. The Fuego will open their season at home Thursday, ushering in the time-honored tradition of America’s Pastime — and the local tradition of wondering if the future for Fort Marcy Ballpark will ever improve.

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