From site of severe flood, baseball field reemerges
Tropical Storm Debby deluged home of Phillies' Class A affiliate with heavy rain
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Right around 3 p.m. ET, Threshers field supervisor Opie Cheek hooked up the hose and began watering down the infield dirt at Bright House Field. It was an utterly unremarkable act, standard operating procedure, part of prepping the field for Thursday night's Class A Florida State League game against the Lakeland Flying Tigers.
Except for the fact that he was sprinkling the same field that was under several feet of water less than 96 hours earlier.
Tropical Storm Debby, stalled in the Gulf of Mexico, created torrential downpours that slammed the coast.
"By the end of the day Sunday, or early Monday morning, the rain totals were between 12 and 15 inches within a 24-hour period," said Minor League operations director Lee McDaniel, "which, in talking to City of Clearwater officials, was beyond a hundred-year storm event."
So severe was the flooding, and so dire the forecast for the next several days, that the Phillies decided against having All-Star first baseman Ryan Howard begin his rehab assignment in Clearwater. Instead, he took the next step in his recovery from surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon Thursday night for Class A Lakewood.
It was amazing, then, that when the Threshers went through their pregame routines Thursday afternoon, coming off a road trip to Daytona, there were no indications that just days before, the playing surface had been a small pond, with water up to the first row of seats and near the top of the dugouts.
"It was really a credit to the Phillies' staff and the City of Clearwater on how everybody responded to a really severe, historic storm event," McDaniel said. "A lot of people were working really hard all week to get it back in shape."
Behind the scenes, it was obvious how severe the situation had been.
All the carpeting on the ground floor has been ripped out. In the clubhouse, area rugs have been strategically placed. Elsewhere, the hallways are bare concrete. The drywall has been cut away some four feet up from the floor. Fans hum to battle any lingering moisture, and the pungent smell of sanitizer permeates the air.
Cheek came out during the storm Sunday night just to see the extent of the damage and was overwhelmed by what he saw. He and his crew showed up first thing Monday morning and went to work.
"The field had drained well, but there were some pads that had floated off and that kind of stuff. We just started right away. There was some clay that had moved around, coming onto the grass. We just had to get the top dressing back where it belonged. The dugouts were still full. That was a little slow process. There were benches and a bat rack that had floated down to the other end that weren't supposed to be there. We put in a full day just getting things back in order," he said.
"I've been here 25 years. Never seen anything like that in my life."
John Timberlake is the Phillies' director of Florida operations and the Threshers' general manager. He was out of town over the weekend, but when he began receiving the pictures that were e-mailed to him, he didn't think there was any way Thursday night's game would be played.
"I'm very surprised," he said. "This is my 26th year, and I've seen a lot of water. But I've never seen anything like that. And I hope to never see it again."
It's worth mentioning that the flood was not the result of any failure with the drainage system, which can handle up to 10 inches of rain an hour. But everything else around the park simply backed up, and there was nowhere else for the water to go.
At Bright House, as well as the four fields at the adjoining Carpenter Complex, the grass was littered with bark, mulch and assorted debris after the waters receded. All things considered, though, it could have been much worse. There was more rain, including another 1 1/4 inches on Wednesday. But calls for further precipitation didn't materialize.
"As the storm tracked across the state of Florida, the bands kept hitting us," McDaniel said. "But by then, the water tables had receded. There was no more flooding in the building or the field at that point. So we were fortunate, because it was supposed to rain for two or three straight days.
"Had that happened, we probably would have seen damage inside the Carpenter Complex building. As it was, it came inches from the Carpenter Complex building itself. We didn't have any damage in the complex. Now the forecast is for dryer air the next few days, so we're keeping our fingers crossed."
Cheek was wary during the clean-up ... and not just for the obvious reasons.
"I didn't know where the alligator was," he said with a laugh. "There's a 10-footer around here who hangs out at Buffalo Wild Wings [next door]. With this water all connected, I didn't know where he was, and I wasn't going in that water."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.