July 1, 2008
Photography by Paula Burch-Celantano
It’s a bright Thursday morning in April and the baseball complex known as Greer Field at Turchin Stadium is coming awake slowly and in increments, like a giant who ponders consciousness from the comfort of his bed.
Baseball is an activity that demands real estate and lots of it, and so the facilities that accommodate the sport tend to be as spacious as a mountain meadow and, in the morning, equally as serene. The stands are empty, the field is a blank slate and the only sounds offered up are evocative not so much of the national pastime as of another working day.
Someone is hosing down the walkway beneath the bleachers and someone else is dragging a trash can across the concrete. Heavy equipment churns from a nearby site that was formerly occupied by the Rosen House residence hall, which was demolished after being severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina flooding.
Cars whoosh up and down Claiborne Avenue, and if you listen closely you can recognize amidst the other sounds the low murmur of a pair of workers who are sharing a snack during a mid-morning break.
One of them is recalling—no doubt for the umpteenth time—the days she spent in the Louisiana Superdome after Katrina. Her words are shuttled in and out of earshot by the wind, the dark details of that time lifted high above the bleachers and dispersed into the brilliant blue.
It’s nearing the third anniversary of the storm and the stories it generated remain, circulating through the city’s ongoing contemplation of how everything was touched by Katrina.
Even the story of this stadium—brand new and button-down beautiful to the nuts and bolts that hold it together—cannot be told without placing Katrina in a leading role.
Plans had been in the works to revamp old Turchin Stadium since 2001. By summer 2005, the project had progressed to the point where the existing bleachers were being removed. It was here, in the middle of demolition, that Katrina abruptly ended all work at the stadium. New construction did not begin until 2006, after the campus had been largely restored to working order, making the stadium the first major project to be initiated after the storm.
“I remember very distinctly, two and a half years ago, standing on this very site in 3 feet of water,” Tulane President Scott Cowen told a crowd gathered in late February to dedicate Greer Field at Turchin Stadium. “Little did I ever imagine, two and a half years later, I would be standing in front of the stadium itself.”
The new stadium “shows that we have not only recovered, but we have renewed ourselves and our commitment to be worldclass in everything we do,” said Cowen.
That’s a lot to put on a stadium, but that’s how things roll in New Orleans, where every step forward is a step away from the brink. Cowen, who rode out the storm on campus and saw the floodwaters rise and communications systems fail as the city grew isolated from the world, has gazed into that brink.
Yet now, looking up at the stadium that rises sharply and cleanly from Ben Weiner Drive it is hard to believe there was a time when the survival of the university—and even the city—was in question.
Only the stadium lighting, part of the scoreboard and the hitting facility remain from the old Turchin Stadium. Everything else is new— bricks, rails, signage, seats, down to the cupholders.
The turf is state-of-the-art stuff, unnaturally green, but soft and resilient, with the ability to drain the output of a spring thunderstorm in minutes. This is good news because from Todd Graffagnini’s perch the sky looks like it will soon bust open.
It’s a breezy Friday night in late April and the Green Wave are giving the players from Southern Mississippi a pretty good thumping.
From his cubicle in the press box, high above and behind home plate, Graffagnini calls the play-by-play of the game, his voice bringing the action on the playing field to the radios of Wave fans across town.
Graffagnini, who is a native New Orleanian and has called Green Wave baseball games for the last 16 years, says it’s especially fun to see fans in the stands with radios. He keeps one eye on a laptop that displays a colorful graphic indicating an approaching line of thunderstorms. He’s got the other eye on a computer screen displaying game stats of every player.
Which makes you wonder how he’s watching the game below.
With the clink of a metal bat, a fastball thrown by Wave pitcher Shooter Hunt is fouled away.
“A souvenir for somebody,” says Graffagnini as the ball arcs into the stands. “Go get it little man. …”
Another pitch, another clink, another foul.
“Folks, that was over the net. The ball is a-jumpin’.”
Graffagnini stands, hitches up his pants, surveys the field from dugout to dugout, perhaps looking for subtle clues of strategy or any other bit of information he can feed the oneway conversation he’s having with listeners.
“I get locked into the game,” he says during the downtime of a between-innings commercial break. “So I really don’t get to watch it.”
Which is an interesting comment that can make you a little sad if you think about it too much. Because if you’re not working up in the press box calling plays or keeping stats or running the scoreboard, if you’re just a visitor watching the game play out without having to say anything or keep track of anything, then it’s a pretty sweet experience.
Despite its size and the fact that it can hold 5,000 people, Greer Field is an intimate space in which every seat seems to not only put you close to the action but also makes you feel integral to the design. Just like the shortstop standing between second and third base has his position, so does each fan, and no matter where you are, you are always aware of where everything else is.
If you are up in the press box behind home plate, then everything else is spreading out in the perfect symmetry of a ballpark. From the press box is where you shoot the photo for the postcard.
But it’s from the stands that you experience the angles and curves, breadth and depth of a place that is large enough to be grand but modest enough to be comprehensible.
Look to the east of the right field wall, to the top row at the very edge of the stadium, where the empty seats are likely to be most plentiful. There’s a guy sitting up there who is far enough away to make it tough to tell whether he’s a student, alumnus or vendor taking a break. You wonder about a guy who chooses a spot like that.
Maybe he’s like Graffagnini, intent in his own space as he scans the field for the little clues that the game offers up, or maybe he’s a resident of the surrounding neighborhood looking over the side of the bounding rail and out into the treetops and rooftops, sidewalks and streets of his own home turf. Or maybe he pays the price of admission just to be up high and feeling the spring night air.
Which in New Orleans can be a roll of the dice.
“It’s a 15 flagger tonight. They are all blowin’,” says Graffagnini, the Voice of the Wave, as the wind kicks up and the rain comes down.
The game comes to a halt and umbrellas and raincoats sprout throughout the stands. A couple of players from the Wave squad help the ground crew pull a small tarp over the pitcher’s mound, the only nonsynthetic surface on the field. Almost before they have it in place the rain is over and the game resumes.
“Ah, New Orleans showers,” says Graffagnini.
Wearing a headphone radio, Eddie Geoghegan (A&S ’74, B ’78) listens to the broadcast of the game while watching it from his primo seats behind home plate. He’s the go-to guy when any of the number of friends with whom he’s sitting want to know the number of strike outs, innings pitched, bases on balls, batting averages, RBIs or any of the other myriad statistics useful to appreciate this game of numbers at a connoisseur’s level.
“Stop the presses!” Graffagnini shouts into Geoghegan’s headset. “Hunt’s got two outs and he’s thrown three pitches.”
Geoghegan didn’t go to many games when he was a student, but he’s got season tickets now, he says. Ask him how many games he attends and he asks back, rhetorically, “How many games do they play here?”
The group he’s with did a little tailgating in the parking lot tonight “in preparation for the LSU game” that’s scheduled for next week.
Geoghegan grew up within a mile of campus and as a kid made extra money parking cars during the Sugar Bowl, which was played in the old Tulane Stadium, not very far from where he’s now sitting.
“That was a long time ago,” he says, “so I have real ties to Tulane. I think it’s great what they’ve done—the way they brought it back.”
You have to figure he’s referring to the university bringing baseball games back Uptown.
For two full seasons after the storm, the Green Wave baseball team played all its home games out in Jefferson Parish, on the field of the New Orleans Zephyrs, the city’s minor league team.
So yeah, they brought it back. Through hell, high water and spring showers, they’re playing baseball again in the neighborhood.
Geoghegan and his buddies erupt as a Wave batter hits a line drive and sprints down the baseline trying to beat out the throw to first. “Go, go, go…” they call out as if all the world depends on it.
Nick Marinello is features editor for Tulanian and a senior editor in the Office of Publications.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org