Joe Iannuzzelli arrived early Thursday morning at Surf Stadium in Atlantic City.
He observed the vibrant green grass on the brand new turf, and the Babe Ruth baseball logos stenciled into both sides of the field.
Baseball has returned to Atlantic City.
Teens took to the field for opening games of the Babe Ruth 14-year-old Middle Atlantic Regional tournament. Concession stands opened to sell hot dogs and sodas and other food. Music blared through the newly installed speaker system.
“It looks absolutely beautiful,” said Iannuzzelli, manager of the Atlantic Shore Devils, the tournament’s host team.
Atlantic Shore hosts the Middle Atlantic Regional at Surf Stadium through Aug. 8. The winner will advance to the Babe Ruth World Series in Murray, Utah, from Aug. 18-25.
A trip to last year’s Babe Ruth World Series earned Atlantic Shore the chance to host the regional tournament. It will be the first series played at the stadium since the Atlantic City Surf professional team folded in 2009 and the facilities fell into disrepair.
The city is in the midst of an expansive project to bring Surf Stadium up to par to again host professional baseball. The Babe Ruth tournament is a step on that path.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity to get baseball back in the area, and to get the kids in there,” said Mike Gill, one of Atlantic Shore’s coaches. “To have the facility open for the kids is a really good way to generate interest in that building again and for the league to get some (exposure).”
The Atlantic Shore organization met with City Council in late December to plan the regional tournament. Gill said the city was ecstatic about the opportunity to host the series.
The facility is not entirely ready for the return of professional baseball. In June, a light pole collapsed, leading to an inspection of the other five surrounding the stadium. The city decided to refurbish all six, but that has not yet been done.
The inability to host night games was one reason promoters backed out of plans to host a professional baseball series at the stadium over Labor Day weekend. The Mid-Atlantic Regional will operate on a day-game schedule, so lighting will not be an issue. Also, select games will be played in Somers Point.
Paul Jerkins, the city’s director of Public Works, said refurbishments to the stadium are about 75 percent finished. Despite cancellation of the Labor Day tournament, the city is not ruling out the possibility of hosting a team at Surf Stadium in 2013.
“There’s still work that has to be done if we’re going to have any type of major league games there. … We’re continuing to do what’s necessary to be sure the entire facility will be completely usable,” he said.
Noticeable improvements and upgrades have been made. In addition to the new turf, the sprinkler system has been completely reworked and the plates for base mounds have been redone.
Off the field, concession stands are open, bathrooms are open and a state-of-the-art broadcast system has been added.
“The city did a great job getting it ready for us,” Iannuzzelli said.
Meanwhile, local baseball players are thrilled by the opportunity to play at the 5,000-plus-seat stadium. Many of them grew up attending Atlantic City Surf games and understand what it means to the area for the facilities to be open again.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing on a major league field,” said Linwood’s Kyle Gerace, the Devils second baseman and pitcher. “With this tournament, I get a chance to play on something close to that. I can’t wait.
“We’ll get a chance to get a taste of what all the MLB players get to play on in their games,” Gerace said.
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