Many ballpark renovations are driven by necessity, while others are projects of passion. In the case of upgrades to Franklin Rogers Park, home of the Northwoods League’s Mankato Moondogs, both factors were in play, leading to the 2018 Ballpark Digest Award for Best Renovation (MiLB/College).
Franklin Rogers Park opened in 1961 as Key City Park, with the Mankato Mets of the old Class A Northern League arriving in 1967. That New York Mets farm team lasted two seasons, with the ballpark hosting town and high-school ball until the summer-collegiate Northwoods League launched the Mankato Mashers in 1999 (a team featuring a young Curtis Granderson) and then the Mankato Moondogs. The original classic grandstand was accompanied by some minor upgrades over the years—a all-you-can eat deck, a new concession stand, a rooftop deck—but past and present owners, as well as city officials, have always had a more expansive vision of how the ballpark could perform.
And that vision was largely fulfilled with improvements made for the 2018 season. We discussed the upgrades with Moondogs co-owner Chad Surprenant and GM Austin Link.
Surprenant, president and CEO of the Mankato-based engineering and architectural firm ISG, had been involved in planning Franklin Rogers Park upgrades since former owner Joe Schwei first outlined a vision for ballpark renovations, a project continued by Mark Ogren, who purchased the team from Schwei. (Others in the current ownership group: Kyle Smith, principal and director of development of The Tailwind Group, and the trio of Dan Kapanke, Chris Goodell and Ben Kapanke, owners and management of the La Crosse Loggers.) Though there was agreement on the scope of renovations and the need, one vital piece was missing: money.
But that problem was solved after the city instituted an extension to the local sales tax, which made additional city revenue available. At the time Ogren still owned the Moondogs, but he was looking for some new blood to take over the club.
“The city was saying we mean it this time, we’re going to do it,” Surprenant said. “Time to dust off that master plan, so a new design came out of our Mankato office. When we met with Mark Ogren, he asked if I wanted to buy a baseball club. I said no.”
After six months or so, the answer became yes.
The Vision Becomes Reality
“We were committed, and the city was pretty committed,” Surprenant said. The $4.5-million renovation ($3 million from the city, $1.5 million from the team owners) touched on all parts of Franklin Rogers Park, including upgraded dugouts, two levels of new group and four-top areas, new synthetic turf, an overhauled Dog Pound all-you-can-eat deck, a new home clubhouse and new concessions. The new ownership group paid cash for a new videoboard, currently the largest in the Northwoods League.
Going to artificial turf in a northern climate like Minnesota made sense for the team and the community, Surprenant said, citing lower maintenance costs and superior drainage, giving the chance to host an evening game following an afternoon shower.
But it’s the new group areas and berm down the right-field line that really stand out. The four tops were essentially sold out before the beginning of the season, leading the team to add more in 2019.
“I was really impressed with the demand for the four tops,” Surprenant said.
“We added 27 high tops, and I didn’t think we’d sell all of them, but we had a waiting list once the season started,” Link said. “We’ve seen a high renewal rate, and some current customers say they might get two.”
The berm was set up as a family area, as well as a way to create a handicapped accessible route to the second-level group and four-top seating. “Our idea was to create a better neighborhood for people to congregate,” Surprenant said. “The GA seating on the berm is a great family situation; you’ll see kids playing ball and parents able to keep an eye on them while watching the game.”
This won’t be the end of renovations to Franklin Rogers Park. The right-field corner will be upgraded in coming years after the possible move of a water utility building, perhaps with a new entrance, a kids’ play area, new points of sale and potentially a new raised seating section in the corner. The team wants to add offices at the ballpark as well.
Local Ownership Key
Earlier we alluded to passion being part of many a ballpark renovation, and that was certainly true here. While the funding and vision were essential to completing the project, a little hometown pride fueled the proceedings.
“I grew up six or eight blocks from the ballpark,” Surprenant said. “As a kid, I used to break into the ballpark and play catch, and in the 1980s I played high-school baseball there. A lot of hours were spent at the ballpark.”
As a Mankato businessman, Surprenant combined that passion for the ballpark with an investment in the Moondogs ownership. That, in turn, led to the realization that an upgraded ballpark was essential to keep Northwoods League baseball in Mankato, a city that was looking at the loss of the Minnesota Vikings training camp at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
“After the Vikings pulled training camp out of Mankato, I didn’t want to see something else pulled out of Mankato, and I was willing to throw some dollars at something I believed in,” Surprenant said. “We just wanted to do it a little differently than it’s been done before.”
A historic ballpark got a significant makeover in 2018, thanks to the Macon Bacon‘s (summer collegiate; Coastal Plain League) arrival to Luther Williams Field. Among the changes to the ballpark included a refurbished bowl, new concessions, new cabana suites and a new party deck.
The University of Virginia took an already solid facility and improved it with their expansion of Davenport Field at Disharoon Park. Highlighting the expansion was a new rightfield entrance, along with new sections of seating down the rightfield line, a field-level club area, and upgraded player facilities.
Past Ballpark Digest Renovation of the Year winners:
2017 Best Ballpark Renovation (MiLB): Flour Field
2016 Renovation of the Year: The Outfield Apartments, Lansing Lugnuts
2015 Best Major Ballpark Renovation: CenturyLink Sports Complex/Hammond Stadium
2015 Best Ballpark Renovation Award (Over $6M/Under $20M): AutoZone Park
2015 Best Ballpark Renovation Award (Under $6M): Dr Pepper Ballpark
2014 Best Ballpark Renovation Over $2M: Durham Bulls Athletic Park
2014 Best Ballpark Renovation Under $2M: Simmons Field
2013 Best Ballpark Renovation Under $1M: Centennial Field, Modern Woodmen Park
2013 Best Ballpark Renovation Over $1M LECOM Park (McKechnie Field)
2012 Ballpark Renovation of the Year: Four Winds Field (Coveleski Stadium)
2011 Ballpark Renovation of the Year (Over $10M): Cheney Stadium
2011 Ballpark Renovation of the Year (Under $10M): Warner Park
2010 Ballpark Renovation of the Year: Metro Bank Park
2018 Ballpark Digest Award Winners
Organization of the Year: Elmore Sports Group
Best Ballpark Improvement Under $1M: Round Rock Express
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