By Herb Benham
For most of the year, Memorial Stadium is lonelier than a hitchhiker on Route 66.
So my recent visit to the looming 58-year-old focal point of the Bakersfield College campus counted as a population boom. In attendance, besides yours truly, were BC head football coach Jeff Chudy, athletic director Ryan Beckwith and BC supporters and former Renegade players Jim Starkey and Ed Davis.
The topic of conversation?
The field is dying.
"Since the field was put in 1957, it has never been properly cared for," said Davis, an agronomist, who attended BC in '70 and '71.
"It's been sanded and compacted so many times (sand added to smooth and level the grass) that air cannot penetrate the soil, which is vital to plant production."
Put in athletic terms, the field has gone anaerobic. Or in the words of Frank, an old neighbor of mine, "It can't get no air."
Go 8 inches deep and you might as well be trying to breathe at the bottom of the ocean.
Now if you haven't been to Memorial Stadium since Hula-Hoops were the rage, you may wonder why you should care. Starkey offers this compelling argument:
"Memorial Stadium is a community treasure. If you wanted to build another 20,000-seat stadium, it would cost you more than $60 million. We have to take care of this asset."
What that means is that Davis, Chudy, Beckwith, Starkey and new BC president Sonya Christian (who adds an undeniable shot of prestige and authority to the undertaking) want to tear out the grass and put in turf.
And while they're on the subject, they'd like the community to know the track has seen better days. In fact it hasn't been updated since it was put in in 1971, and tracks typically last only 10 years, according to Beckwith. They want to replace it with the same springy all-weather rubber track used at Stanford, Berkeley, University of Oregon and USC, making it a legitimate competitive venue for high school, college and Olympic-style track meets.
How bad is the track? The stadium hosts as few as three meets a year because the Tartan material is like running on cement.
Did you know that besides football practice and a couple of high school games, Memorial Stadium only gets used for about eight home games a year?
Enter Beckwith, the athletic director, who is so enthusiastic, so visionary and so pumped up that you wonder if a major university will wave some crispies at him and woo him away. He's like Alan Tandy with a snappier haircut.
Beckwith starts his pitch with Bakersfield's geography, its central location.
"If we put in turf and redo the track, we can have the LA Galaxy play Mexico's national team," Beckwith said. "The Pac 10 will hold track meets here. We can have women's lacrosse, CSUB soccer games, high school football games and state championships, concerts and we can bring back the July 4th celebration. Do you realize how much money would pour into the community coffers if we had 50 events here a year?"
Beckwith had me so fired up that I nearly wrote him a check for $1 million (the only thing stopping me being the cashability index of the check).
"If we raise $1 million, the Kern Community College District will match it," Davis said.
Put 2 million bucks in a football field in a time when they can't afford chalk in the classrooms? This may not be a matter of going deep but going off the deep end.
"Can you imagine 16,000 people in this stadium for an (major league soccer) game," Beckwith said. "Think about the ticket sales, the meals and the hotel rooms. This would be a tremendous boon for Bakersfield, and BC besides. The return would be monumental."
OK, I'm pulling on my gym socks. But one thing bothers me: Tradition. You boys and girls are talking about replacing old-fashioned cool green grass with turf. Is that like Astroturf? Isn't that hot, and don't people get hurt on it?
"FieldTurf is 37 percent safer for athletes," said Davis of the synthetic grass. "It's faster, softer and has better traction. Plus there is the wow factor when fans look at it."
FieldTurf has one more thing going for it. It's cheaper to maintain. Park the mower. Turn off the pumps. Abandon the herbicides and pesticides. Turf costs about $10,000 to maintain as opposed to about $70,000 for grass, Davis said.
If the BC alumni group has its fundraising way, Memorial Stadium will have turf, the lights will flicker on more than a few times a year and this community treasure will be restored to greatness.
It made me want to run a fly pattern and do a victory dance in the end zone. A football field will do that to you.
BC's ad campaign is reminiscent of John F. Kennedy's famous line "Ich bin ein Berliner."
"I'm a Renegade."
For about $500,000, naming rights are possible for the field or the track. For information call Bakersfield College Athletics at 395-4266 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
These are Herb Benham's opinions, and not necessarily The Californian's. His column appears Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Call him at 395-7279 or write email@example.com.