West Salem baseball is drawing a lot of attention these days, and not just for the play on the field. The field itself, named after former Major League Baseball catcher and West Salem graduate Damian Miller, has undergone a complete overhaul in recent years.
With the team set to host the American Legion Class A State tournament beginning Wednesday, the renovations represent 11 years of work from the group Friends of West Salem Baseball, a collection of parents and volunteers who came together in 2004 to address the field's condition. The group recently completed the final phase of its three-stage improvement plan, adding bleachers, a press box, and a concessions stand to Damian Miller Field.
Roughly $600,000 was spent on material and goods, but with in-kind labor and donations, Friends of West Salem Baseball chairman Rick Schultz said more than $1 million has been invested in the field.
"It's something to be proud of, it really is," Schultz said. "It's like Friday night lights. The ball lights go on, everybody in town sees it and they roam up to see what's going on. Now with the seating, it's amazing how many of the same faces you see come in and catch a game. It's almost the community center during the summertime."
Miller remembered building the first batting cage with head coach Chuck Ihle and his teammates. Now, he throws batting practice to the 16U team and helps coach on a state-of-the-art field.
"It's transformed into something most high schools would be completely envious of," he said. "This is something that the people who put all those hours in to transform it into what it is should be very proud of. It's just a beautiful high school field."
Schultz is one of the six to 10 people who regularly attend meetings and are actively involved in the group. Within the first two years of existence, the group fund-raised and created its three-phase plan to improve the field owned by the city and rented by the West Salem School District, but neglected by both parties.
"So with the condition of the field at that time compared to the nice campus we had, a bunch of parents got together to say we need to do something with this," Schultz said.
The first phase of the plan was to improve the playing conditions of the field itself. Contractors, volunteers, and high school students re-graded the field and installed irrigation, drainage and fencing at a total cost of about $200,000.
"They just started from ground zero. They just leveled this whole field and put in an irrigation system and put in truckloads and truckloads of black dirt and planted seed," Ihle said. "To look and see what we have now, it's amazing."
The second phase, Schultz said, was to make it a little better for the players. New dugouts and lights were added along with a warning track and new batting cages.
The final third phase was intended to help the fans out. A new concession stand with a restroom, a press box and grandstand were added to complete the group's initial goals. There is also a new batting cage used for batting practice on the field, and a closed-circuit television system so parents working the game can still watch their kids play and the team can review game footage, Schultz said. Eventually, he hopes the team can live-stream its games for parents unable to make it to the field.
As you pass by the grandstands, there is a large brick wall showcasing the financial support from donors and businesses within the community, including the local American Legion and the high school. In the center is a picture of Miller while playing catcher for the Milwaukee Brewers.
"Hitting this final stage, I never thought we'd finish it," Schultz said. It's surreal, especially with the sponsorship wall, knowing that this last stage was probably about $100,000. When we decided to take it on, figuring out where that money was going to come from and it was a bit of a struggle, but the community rallied around us and helped us financially."
Friends of West Salem Baseball made a pitch to host the state tournament before phase three work finished, but being awarded the bid to host served as a catalyst for the group to finish what they started.
"As you can imagine after 11 years, towards the end of it, you start to coast," Schultz said. "But getting the opportunity to have it got everybody more excited about finishing up. There's some bittersweet to it to finally finish it up and then be acknowledged hosting the state tournament."
West Salem earned an automatic bid into the tournament as the home team. West Salem will face Denmark at 7 p.m. Wednesday evening.
Fellow Coulee Region American Legion Baseball League member Viroqua will face Osseo at 1 p.m. Wednesday.