Dell Diamond, home of the Round Rock Express (Class AAA; Pacific Coast League), was turned into a post-apocalyptic TV set for AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead in the 2017-2018 offseason. The process of restoring the ballpark from TV set was completed on a tight schedule, earning the Express our Best Ballpark Improvement (Under $1 Million) Award.
Dell Diamond was used as a production site for Fear the Walking Dead and its fictional team, the Armadillos. The process began with a call in the summer of 2017 to Express general manager Tim Jackson.
“We have a good friend who used to work here who works for the Austin Sports Commission. He said we have a big production coming to town and they need a ballpark,” Jackson said. “We’ve had various movies and TV shows set here but not to this big of a scale, so I asked who it was. He couldn’t tell me. I asked when they wanted to meet, and he said today. They really wanted to be in the Austin area and identified us as a spot.”
That day, a passenger van loaded with 15 to 20 people arrived at the Dell Diamond and walked around before saying they had seen everything they needed and set the plans in motion.
“They gave us an idea of what they wanted to do like live—in quarters in the suites, having livestock on the field, growing crops, and making the field look apocalyptic,” Jackson said. “I said I needed to talk to my ownership and we got the ball rolling. Legal teams got in and that’s when we found out that it was Fear the Walking Dead. I asked when they wanted to be here, and they said September. I thought it was a really quick turnaround.”
Dell Diamond was transformed into a post-apocalyptic landscape as production took over the facility from September to March. For Gene Kropff, director of stadium operations, it meant becoming part of the cast and crew.
“It took up my entire off-season. There were visits with almost every department like director visits, writer visits, art department visits, lighting crew visits, and every visit had about 20 people,” Kropff said. “They told me what they wanted, and I pointed out areas that might work for them.”
One area that caught their eye were the batting cages in center field.
“I took them out there and they saw the pitching machines and asked what they were. I said they could turn them on and baseballs shoot out and they could hit zombies with them,” Kropffsaid. “They stepped aside and talked about it before they asked if they could put exploding baseballs in it. I said I’m sure they could use it but they had to replace anything they broke so that’s what they did.” (To see this in action, go to this YouTube video and forward to the 2:40 mark.)
The end result was a scene with a character drilling holes in baseballs, filling them with powder, and lighting the fuses before dropping baseballs into the pitching machines that shot into the parking lot hitting zombies.
Kropff said he got many requests like that over the course of filming, from crashing a truck into a parking-lot light pole to playing rock music over the ballpark speakers to get the crew excited for filming that day.
Another one of Kropff’s responsibilities was making sure that in the process of being made to look old and dilapidated, the ballpark wasn’t damaged and could still be ready for Opening Day.
“I was with the crew throughout filming because if they wanted to drill holes in the dugout or drape things on poles, for example, I had to make a note of it and make sure they wouldn’t do damage that we couldn’t repair, and that production could replace certain things.”
One thing that would have to be replaced is the field itself, even though a new field had been installed a year earlier.
“I wasn’t very happy about it, but I knew we had the right guys to do it,” Kropff said. “We run Ryan Sanders Sports Turf Services out of this stadium. We do field maintenance for high schools, public parks, and even the Cotton Bowl. I knew we were pretty uniquely positioned. As far as quality of playing surface, we had no concerns about that. It was a matter of if there would be enough time to get it done.”
The extra time for the front office led to what Jackson called a true offseason.
“We were excited about a true off-season. We always have non-baseball events and it allowed our staff to focus on just baseball,” Jackson said. “Through the holidays, it was great. They allowed us on the field to meet the actors. The closer we got to March, we had a little more anxiety about the field and were nervous about what would happen if the weather was bad. But they stayed on target with filming and were wonderful to work with.”
For Laura Fragoso, the team’s senior vice-president of marketing, it gave her department more time to work on the upcoming season including planning a Fear the Walking Dead night at the park.
“We had a few events we had to move because usually we have events like Mexican League soccer or rugby but from a planning standpoint, it was good for me and my department,” said Fragoso. “We had all that time to really get into the details for the 2018 season.”
Getting Ready for Opening Day
Filming ended on March 1, which gave the Round Rock stadium operations team three weeks to turn the field from a desolate landscape to a baseball beauty. It’s not an easy task, and for Kropff, it meant a lot of long days and nights for this extreme makeover.
“To get everything ready, our timeline was compressed into three weeks, not only to replace the field but also to do normal team maintenance that we had to add in as well,” Kropff said. “March 2 was move-out day for production and it was all hands on deck. Members of the front office got to the field at 7 a.m. and we started moving everything off the field to one of the parking lots.”
That meant tearing down structures like barns and water storage tanks, shoveling excess dirt off the field from the farming plots, and removing props from the show. That’s when the 15 to 16-hour work days started as the team moved fast and furious to be ready in time for Fan Fest on March 24.
“At one point, I had five cranes out here working on the stadium. Not only did we need to replace the field, but we also needed to get off-season projects done as well,” Kropff said. “We changed from standard lighting to LED lighting. We did some AC work. We added a new backstop net that extended to the end of both dugouts. There were a number of projects.”
Opening Day came and went, and fans were none the wiser, with the stadium operations team pulling off what seemed like a miracle.
“Our Opening Day was April 5th. Our grounds crew probably wasn’t happy with it 100 percent but it looked beautiful,” Jackson said. “We always try to show a lot of visiting teams what it looked like a few months before and they are blown away. The players and fans were none the wiser when we kicked it off on opening day. “
For Kropff, the ballpark wasn’t perfect, but he and his staff were proud.
“Being here day in and day out, we saw the little things. There were a lot of areas that still needed to be painted. There was gaffer’s tape in certain spots and there were a few black powder marks left from a gun fight scene,” Kropff said. “But having seen it on March 1 and seeing it on Opening Day, we had a huge sense of accomplishment and pride. We would see other on the concourse and shake our heads. It was surreal to think that we had pulled it off.”
Round Rock honored their partnership with Fear the Walking Deadnight. Held on May 5, the promotion included themed jerseys, playing as the fictional Armadillos, custom videos and graphics matching the tone of the show, and vehicles and props from the show that fans could check out on the concourse.
“We worked directly with both the AMC corporate offices in New York and the people on the ground here,” Fragoso said. “They sent us all sorts of assets like the theme music and we were able to actually get walkers here for the night which added a fun element to it.”
The cast and crew also joined in on the fun.
“The majority of the cast were here. We had Danay Garcia, who is one of the stars of the show, threw out the first pitch as well as one of the directors,” Fragoso said. “They watched the game from a suite. We had a post-game concert that night and they stayed for the concert. It was a really fun night.”
It was the first time the cast and crew had been back to the Dell Diamond since wrapping filming and they were amazed by the quick transformation.
“It was cool for them to see the stadium. Their jaws opened wide and they were shocked. They couldn’t believe we did this in four weeks,” Kropff said. “I smiled and told them that we’re just as good as you guys. You guys are amazing at transforming the place into a wasteland and we’re good at taking it apart and transforming it for baseball.”
As the Express transformed the ballpark into a perfect place for the zombie apocalypse, questions arose from curious baseball fans wondering what was happening to the Dell Diamond.
“When word started getting out, the production folks had wrapped the stadium gates in black tarp, so you couldn’t see through. Then you see all the production trailers showing up and people started getting curious driving around,” Fragoso said. “A local drone photographer that has a big following on social media got aerial photos and rumors went wild with people asking what was going on at the Dell Diamond.”
Luckily, the fans didn’t have long to wait as Round Rock announced its partnership with Fear the Walking Dead in late March and the response has been positive.
“Usually we’re very welcoming and want people to come here and walk around but you couldn’t this past off-season and that was a challenge,” Fragoso said. “But once they started airing snippets of the show and you saw the stadium, people started recognizing it which was really cool. Fans started reaching out and asked if we were having a promo night for it. They have really enjoyed it.”
So will Round Rock take on a production of this size again?
“It was a ton of work, but it helps us in the long run,” said Kropff. “They were very appreciative of the work we do, and we were very appreciative of the work they do. AMC was great to work with. People always want to film TV commercials and promo videos out here and now we have a good idea of what they would want. We know ways to make it work and can say it’s because of our partnership with Fear the Walking Dead.”
Images courtesy Round Rock Express.
Prior to the 2018 season, the Clinton LumberKings (Low A; Midwest League) undertook a number of improvements to Ashford University Field that addressed fan and team amenities, while preserving the ballpark’s historic characteristics. A new ribbon board was part of the project, along with new front entrance monitors, picnic garden pavilion, batting tunnel heaters, kids playground equipment/ inflatables, renovated restrooms, a complete ballpark repaint, and much much more. “We appreciate the recognition from Ballpark Digest for our renovations this past season,” said LumberKings general manager Ted Tornow. “The upgrades to the facility adds to our fan’s experience while maintaining the charm of our 82-year old ballpark.”
2018 Ballpark Digest Award Winners
Editor’s Choice: Ivy at Berlin Place
Best New Logo/Branding: 2018 Best New Logo/Branding: Copa de La Diversión
Marketing Campaign: Omaha Storm Chasers
Marketing TV Spot: Quad Cities River Bandits
Continued Excellence Award: Fort Wayne TinCaps
Promotion of the Year: Deaf Awareness Night, Myrtle Beach Pelicans
MLB Broadcaster of the Year: Pat Hughes
MiLB Broadcaster of the Year: Tim Heiman
Commitment to Charity: Hartford Yard Goats
Team of the Year: Indianapolis Indians
Executive of the Year: Doug Scopel
Ballpark of the Year: SRP Park