When the Tulsa Drillers squared off against the visiting Northwest Arkansas Naturals on Labor Day, it was an event that was supposed to signal the end of one era and mark the beginning of another for minor-league baseball in this city.
Barring any unforeseen developments, that will be the case. But that doesn't mean there isn't a little hedging of bets going on.
The Drillers are scheduled to move from midtown at Drillers Stadium to downtown's ONEOK Field in April 2010. The new ballpark is rapidly taking shape at the northeast corner of downtown, and the work remains on schedule and on budget, according to project manager Bob Jack of Manhattan Construction, the general contractor.
In fact, Jack said, crews are scheduled to begin laying sod for the field sometime in the next week, a process that should take 30 days to complete.
But there remains at least a slight possibility that foul weather or some other negative development could delay progress on the new ballpark to the point that it won't be ready on time next spring. That has led team management to explore the possibility of extending its lease at Drillers Stadium, the club's home since 1981.
Tulsa County Commissioner Fred Perry said last week that Drillers management is seeking permission from the Fair Board, the organization that controls Fairgrounds facilities, to extend its deadline for renewing its annual lease on the ballpark by 60 days. The team's current contract with the Fair Board, which runs through the end of the calendar year, specifies that if the Drillers wished to renew the contract for next year, they must do so 120 days before the end of the pact. If the team's request is granted, it would give the team additional time to determine if it needs to secure Drillers Stadium as a backup location for its games next season.
Perry said he and Expo Park president and CEO Mark Andrus were in agreement that the team's request should be granted, but he said the decision ultimately would be made by the Fair Board at its Sept. 15 meeting.
"I'm more than confident it will be approved," he said.
Perry stressed that the move is strictly a precautionary one from the Drillers' standpoint, giving the club a fall-back option in case the opening of ONEOK Field is delayed.
"They have until the end of October (if the extension is approved)," he said. "But they think they'll know in 30 days."
The team also has asked to keep leasing its office space at Drillers Stadium through the end of January 2010, Perry said. The club's offices at ONEOK Field are not scheduled to be ready until Feb. 1, so the Drillers staff will continue to operate from the Fairgrounds until that point.
"That's not because they're late, that's part of the plan," Perry said.
As for the fate of the ballpark the Drillers are leaving behind, Perry said that is still being decided. The commissioner serves as chairman of a committee charged with exploring uses for the facility and making a recommendation to the Fair Board.
The committee, which originally consisted of 11 members, has now grown to 20, Perry said, with representatives coming from across the county.
"We've tried very hard to get all the demographic areas represented and most of the suburban areas represented," he said, explaining that the committee includes members from Broken Arrow, Sand Springs and other communities, as well as Tulsa.
Perry said the committee has been meeting every two weeks since its formation this summer and will continue to do so until it is ready to make a recommendation.
"There's not any big urgency yet," he said, adding that the committee hopes to conclude its work by the end of the year.
Perry has said the committee is considering ideas that include maintaining the ballpark in its current state, modifying it or tearing it down. If the 60-day delay is granted to the team, Perry said that will necessarily slow down the committee's work, but he doesn't intend to drag the process out any longer than necessary.
"We don't want the stadium to sit there and go to waste," he said. "We won't know about the Drillers until possibly the end of October, so there's no rush to make a decision on it until then. But that's not likely (that the team will return to the ballpark next season)."
If Jack is worried about the possibility of the new ballpark's tenant being bumped, he doesn't sound like it. He said in addition to the sod work that will be done by contractor Riverview Sod Ranch located in Leonard, just outside Bixby, crews will be working this fall on completing the exterior of the structure before cold weather sets in. The metal siding should be on in the next 30 days he said, then the glass will go in. That will allow crews to work on the interior finishes without having to contend with poor weather, he said.
Work recently began on the concessions building located in the outfield, and paving of the stadium concourse also has begun. Sometime in the next 60 days, Jack said, the final scoreboard foundations will be poured, with the scoreboard itself being assembled in January.
Jack said he is pleased with progress at the park, though he noted that's not to say everything has gone flawlessly.
"No, there have been minor issues here and there," he said. "But if there were no problems, I wouldn't have a job."
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