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Former T-Bones employee, Fitzgerald, vital to “42”

Former T-Bones grounds keeper Joey Fitzgerald works the field in Chattanooga (Tenn.). Photo courtesy of the Chattanooga Lookouts.
04/12/2013 3:15 PM -

By MATT FULKS
tbonesbaseball.com

Joey Fitzgerald had to think about the proposition in early 2012. At least for a little while.

Sure, it sounded cool, helping construct a field for some little movie. After all, as the former head grounds keeper for the T-Bones and the current grounds keeper for the Chattanooga Lookouts, getting a field in tip-top shape shouldn’t be that big of an undertaking, especially for the 2012 Southern League Grounds Keeper of the Year.

Oh, yeah, there was that one little issue — his full-time gig with the Lookouts, the double-A affiliate for the Los Angeles Dodgers. This little movie project would overlap the 2012 season.

With some apprehension, mixed with plenty of second-guessing early in the process, Fitzgerald acquiesced.

This little movie? It turned out to be “42,” which premiered in Kansas City on Thursday night and opens nationwide today.

“When my general manager (Rich Mozingo) told me that the people making the movie wanted me to do the field,” Fitzgerald remembers, “I didn’t know anything about the film. I just thought it was some little baseball movie. And then I heard that Harrison Ford was going to be in it, so I knew it’d be big.”

Indeed. “42,” as you may have heard, focuses on Jackie Robinson breaking the Major League color barrier. Chadwick Boseman stars as Robinson. Ford is Branch Rickey, the forward-thinking Dodgers executive who picked Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs roster.

Fitzgerald had a rather unique — if not downright complicated — assignment: turn the run-down field at Chattanooga’s Engel Stadium into Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field of the 1940s.

“It was completely different for me because it was more construction than maintenance,” said Fitzgerald, who worked on the T-Bones grounds crew in 2005 and ’07, with Major League stops that included Boston and Kansas City, before becoming the head grounds keeper at CommunityAmerica Ballpark in 2008. He took the same job with Chattanooga before the 2011 season. “I’ve always worked on fields that were already established, such as there in Kansas City and here in Chattanooga.”

This would be different. Engel Stadium had fallen on hard times after a life as a wonderful, historical ballpark for the Lookouts for nearly 70 years, 1930-99. Before it was completed, the namesake, Joe Engel, used the stadium to feed Chattanooga residents affected by the Great Depression. Then, some of baseball’s best played there at some point, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Roger Hornsby, Willie Mays (for Chattanooga’s Negro Southern League team) and Harmon Killebrew. In the 1990s, Kansas City area native Travis Buckley, who went to Shawnee Mission South and was pitching for the Lookouts at the time, faced one Michael Jordan, who was “experimenting” with baseball for the Birmingham Barons.

After the Lookouts left Engel following the 1999 season, the stadium fell on hard times. That is, until writer/director Brian Helgeland and production designer Richard Hoover wanted to find a ballpark they could use at their discretion for “42,” most of which was being filmed down Interstate 24 in Atlanta. Enter the dilapidated Engel Stadium and one of the best young grounds keepers in professional baseball, Fitzgerald.

Using blueprints and drawings of Ebbets Field, Helgeland and Hoover detailed how they wanted the field to look. After several meetings, phone conferences and looking at old photographs of Ebbets, Fitzgerald went to work. That began in March 2012. It “really got going” in April. They finished construction by May. Overall, getting the field and stadium ready cost a little more than $500,000.

“It was fascinating because, even though they didn’t touch the outside of the stadium, they made sure details on the field were the same as Ebbets,” Fitzgerald said. “They ripped out the dugouts and moved them down, they built a new tunnel under ground that led to the dugout, and they ripped out the field so we could start from scratch and move home plate out 55 feet and turn it a little from where it had been originally. Evidently there was a lot more room behind home plate at Ebbets than at Engel.”

“The timing was most challenging,” Fitzgerald added. “I spent about a month of our Lookouts season working in both places.”

The funny thing, after constructing the new playing surface, making it appear more like old Ebbets required one thing Fitzgerald isn’t accustomed to giving a field: neglect.

“They didn’t want the field to look that good since playing surfaces weren’t very good back then,” he said. “Of course, not having someone maintain it like we normally do, it’s going to look bad.”

The end result is an uncanny replica, down to the tunnel leading to the dugout that’s been seen in most trailers for the film.

“It’s pretty cool because I can tell in the trailers which scenes were shot at Engel and which ones weren’t,” said Fitzgerald, who admits, because of scheduling, he saw only a couple of days of shooting.

Through digital imagery with a green screen around the interior of Engel Stadium, it served as Ebbets and doubled as Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field and St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park.

Considering “great” and lasting baseball movies are scarce — and Jackie Robinson movies are rarer still — time will tell if “42” will be regarded with such classics as “The Pride of the Yankees,” “The Natural,” “Bull Durham,” “Field of Dreams” and “The Sandlot,” plus very few others. Regardless, Fitzgerald will be able to say he worked on a major motion picture.

“Thinking back to getting involved in it, I had no idea what was going on,” he said. “It’ll be cool, though, to watch it years from now and know that I constructed that field.

“Even though I definitely could’ve turned them down, I’m glad I didn’t. This is exciting.”