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Brad Rock: Salt Lake Bees ballpark set for another two decades

SALT LAKE CITY — The kid isn’t so young anymore. She’s about to leave her teens behind, having become quite the sophisticated lady.

Spring Mobile Ballpark, formerly known as Franklin Covey Field and Franklin Quest Field, began its 20th season, Thursday, with the Salt Lake Bees hosting the Tucson Padres. It was largely the kind of night the builders envisioned: warm enough for April, green enough for baseball, the mountains standing guard beyond the fence.

Isn’t this what Ernie Banks had in mind when he said, “Let’s play two”?

For that matter, why not just play 144, the length of the Pacific Coast League season?

One good baseball evening deserves another.

There was a time in the early 1990s when planners considered moving the park to make way for a new Triple-A team, the Salt Lake Buzz. But eventual team owner Larry H. Miller, who served as the stadium's project manager at the time, wasn’t playing along. He wanted the park right where it was.

“You can’t replace those mountains,” said Thomas Mabey, CEO of Sahara, Inc., the builder of the park. “There was some talk of moving it, but that was where it needed to be.”

Even though Thursday was the Bees’ season opener, it wasn’t officially a red-letter day for Spring Mobile Ballpark. That’s because the actual 20th anniversary isn’t until next year. But because the Triple-A team began playing there in 1994, after Derks Field was razed, Thursday marked the beginning of the 20th season at the site. Future superstars have played there, for sure. Just last season, Mike Trout breezed through for 20 games before being called up (forever) to the Major Leagues, where he has become, well, major league.

But mostly it has been home to families that consider the park a sort of day-spa-on-the-green; a place to relax and let the tension dissipate. For the screamers and face-painters, Spring Mobile can accommodate that, too, though that behavior is better suited for football.

In some ways, the ballpark remains a phenomenon, even two decades later. It was built on a blindingly fast track. It took just 10 months and 19 days to construct, start to finish. Some cities can’t even draft a proposal in that much time. As with the Delta Center (now EnergySolutions Arena), which rose from the rubble of the city’s then-deteriorating west side, this was a project in a hurry. That’s how Miller operated. Once he had an idea (didn’t he always?) all systems were on.

The trick wasn’t merely getting the stadium built in a single offseason. It was putting down the grass and having it ready for the next spring. Grandstands don’t mean much if the team is playing on dirt. So Miller and Mabey did the only prudent thing: They built the stadium after installing the field.

“You have to put the game board down first,” Mabey said.

Tearing down the old Derks Field actually preceded both. The crumbling concrete fortress had become dangerous enough that certain areas had to be taped off. But it held its secrets well. Mabey owns an apparently ancient, smoky bottle of unknown date or purpose that he found in the demolition process. He also acquired a baseball mitt someone had tossed behind a locker and left to the whims of time.

It wasn’t a pancake-flat, turn-of-the-century glove, but it wasn’t a color-coordinated Mizuno, either. The owner must have assumed it had been stolen.

When completed, the rebuilt stadium had a nostalgic feel, with green grandstands and open concourses so fans could watch while fetching hot dogs.

“Larry wanted a personal feel,” Mabey said.

Miller made sure of that by making himself the project manager at a cost of $1 per year. He would show up to critique such details as seat color and sightlines. Since then, there have been equally beautiful ballparks added throughout the country. Still, Spring Mobile has held up well. The feel of it hasn’t changed much in 20 years. Fans can still see the field from the Grand Slam Grill in left field or the funnel cakes stand on the first base side.

It’s a little older, but there’s still the spring air, the ballpark sounds and, of course, the mountains.

On Thursday the place seemed ready to stand as long as the mountains themselves.

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