It can be hard to find a Minor League Baseball angle when talking about the Super Bowl, which is as outsized, expensive and global in scope as the Minors are intimate, affordable and locally based. But this year's edition of the proverbial "Big Game" is taking place at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Field, a venue that sits just blocks away from the home of the International League's Indianapolis Indians.
That would be Victory Field, located on the corner of West and Maryland Streets in downtown Indianapolis, a 14,000-capacity facility that has housed the Triple-A Indians since 1996. Those in town for the Super Bowl and its myriad attendant festivities might have trouble identifying it as such, however, as Victory Field doesn't look like its usual self these days. Randy Lewandowski, the club's assistant general manager, sums up the stadium's current condition thusly: "It's a beach inside an airplane hangar, that's the best way to describe it."
Surely, a Minor League Baseball stadium has never been described in this way. This is because, just as surely, a Minor League Baseball park has never been transformed into the host venue for the annual DirecTV Celebrity Beach Bowl (this year's version takes place on Saturday). It's amazing what a million pounds of sand, a concert stage, LED ribbonboards and specially constructed bleacher sections can do -- especially when it's all housed within a structure large enough to accommodate a Boeing 767.
Victory Field's current condition is the result of nearly a year's worth of planning. For soon after Aaron Rodgers and his Green Bay cohorts defeated Pittsburgh in Super Bowl 45, event organizers traveled to Indianapolis to, as Lewandoski puts it, "kick the tires" on potential Super Bowl 46 event venues. With its prodigious capacity and close proximity to Lucas Oil Field, Victory Field was an obvious standout. With one notable exception, of course -- very few people want to attend, or host, an outdoor event in early February.
But this did not deter DirecTV, who, after reaching a lease agreement with the Indians, erected a 54,000-square-foot heated tent that encompasses the entirety of the outfield. The space can accommodate 5,000 people, all of them presumably eager to see celebrities play touch football on an artificial beach. This mammoth third-party undertaking has, to some extent, made the team's front office strangers in their own home.
"We pride ourselves on running a good operation on the baseball side of things, but there are things going on with this that are completely foreign to us," said Lewandowski, who directs stadium operations for the Indians.
Indeed, what would a Triple-A baseball team know about, say, orchestrating a pre-event red carpet featuring celebrities A-list and otherwise (Pauly D from Jersey Shore is the event's guest DJ)? But that's not to imply that the Indians are staying entirely on the sandy sidelines.
"I think that we've been a great help locally, connecting [DirecTV] with vendors and folks that we've worked with through the years," said Lewandowski. "When they throw out those kinds of questions, we can tell them where they need to go."
And as a result of all these "Super" goings-ons, Lewandowski has had to adjust his typical offseason routine. The Celebrity Beach Bowl has made it necessary to "de-winterize" the facility -- using trace heating to unfreeze pipes, pumping heat into restroom and concession areas and other such tasks. Then once the event is over and the Super Bowl circus has left town, it will be time to "re-winterize."
"We had to do everything twice," he noted.
But the de- and re-winterization of Victory Field is a (literal and figurative) walk in the park compared to the primary task that the Indians will be faced with once the Super Bowl has faded into a hazy memory -- re-constructing the playing field. Lewandowski expresses complete confidence in the sub-contractor who has been overseeing Victory Field's current transformation, and great precautions have been taken to ensure that no damage will result to the drainage and irrigation system.
But the simple fact is that the outfield grass is now deader than the proverbial doornail. The task of re-constructing the field falls to head groundskeeper Joey Stevenson, who looks at his predicament with a mixture of pride, frustration and resignation.
"Last year we won Field of the Year, so to see it get destroyed within a day or so was kind of a shock," said Stevenson, who was named the 2011 Triple-A Sports Turf Manager of the Year. "Lots of groundskeepers are against having extra events on the field, but I look at it as a challenge. This hasn't been done before, so it'll be another bullet point on my resume. ... This helps the Indians, and it helps the bottom line. It won't happen again, and it was going to happen with or without me. So I had to get on board regardless."
Groundskeepers are a close-knit fraternity, and Stevenson's peers have been monitoring his situation with interest.
"The groundskeepers from the [Columbus] Clippers and [Dayton] Dragons have been over here to check it out, and I worked with the Phillies' Mike Boekholder for a summer so I've been calling him. He recently had to deal with the [NHL's] Winter Classic, which was somewhat similar.
"I've been calling a lot of people to see what they think," he continued. "When someone tells you they'll be putting a million pounds of sand and 1,700 tons of gravel on the field, you start to get a little worried."
As soon as the last remnants of the Celebrity Beach Bowl have been carted away, Stevenson and his crew will strip the field and then go about installing a new layer of thick-cut sod shipped in from New Jersey. He'll begin planting grass seed "the very next minute," praying for warm weather and amenable growing conditions all the while.
"I can see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
In the spotlight
For now, the Indians are content to bask in the Super Bowl's glow. All this week, Dan Patrick has been broadcasting his syndicated sports show from Victory Field. And following Saturday afternoon's Beach Bowl, the stadium will be transformed into what organizers are calling "an upscale nightclub" where pop superstar Katy Perry will perform.
"Victory Field has been getting a lot of love in and out of every [Dan Patrick Show] commercial break. He's broadcasting live from the PNC Plaza just through the main gates in center field," said Lewandowski. "And he's had all sorts of guests coming through here, guys like Bob Costas, Tony Dungy and Cris Collinsworth."
Lewandowski says it's too early gauge the effect that this onslaught of publicity will have on ticket and merchandise, but, clearly, it can only help. And regardless, the team is relishing its anomalous position within the Minor League Baseball landscape.
"Every market has its positives and negatives. The Colts are a perennial 10-win team, Super Bowl champions and the talk of the town," he said. "They're the big gorilla, and we have to compete with that in some respects. ... But this is a great opportunity to raise awareness of Victory Field and how we fit into the downtown scene. This is something that's unique to our market."