Yellowknife's Tommy Forrest ballpark goes green

Yellowknife's Tommy Forrest ballpark has stood the test of time, sitting in the heart of the capital for over 50 years. Next weekend, though, it will be sodded for the first time.

Committee, city council, and community all instrumental in Yellowknife diamond’s makeover

After 50 years of playing in the sand, Yellowknife fastball players will soon have grass on Tommy Forrest ballpark following a City grant and community fundraising initiative. 1:45

Soon, outfielders can feel a little safer making a diving catch at Tommy Forrest Ball Park in Yellowknife.

The Yellowknife Fastball League is laying sod in the outfield of the historic park after many years of playing in the sand. The park was established in Yellowknife in 1961, but has never had grass before.

The project came to fruition after city council approved $60,000 for the funding of the park and immediate surrounding area. A committee struck by the Yellowknife Fastball League took the initiative and raised some money of its own, selling raffle tickets for the chance to win a car donated by Yellowknife Motors.
The committee's plan for Tommy Forrest ball park includes upgrades to the field and surrounding infrastructure, including a community park and walkways. (Submitted by Yellowknife Fastball Association)

"It was a case of right council, right time," said Drew Williams, the fundraising coordinator for the committee. He says many of the council members were well aware of the history of the diamond, and added that Mayor Mark Heyck is a Boston Red Sox fan.

It seems like a funny coincidence that the designs for Tommy Forrest has a "Green Monster," a ballpark feature that is unique to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. The Green Monster is a wall at the end of the ballpark that is higher than other parts of the fence, to prevent home runs from being hit with ease.

However, Williams says Heyck's baseball affiliation wasn't the reason for including the feature, and points out one key difference: the projected Green Monster at Tommy Forrest is on the right side, and the Green Monster in Fenway Park is on the left side.

After the ballpark upgrades are complete, the team plans to completely renovate the area surrounding Tommy Forrest, replacing it with a general use park.

Yellowknifers used to the rocks

Other teams have ventured up to Yellowknife for ball tournaments in the past, and when they set foot on the Tommy Forrest Ball Park, they were surprised at the lack of green on the field, according to long-time fastball player Rob Johnson.

"We had westerns here a bunch of years ago. They were appalled — they had never played on anything like this before," said Johnson, who is also involved with the fundraising committee.
Local fastball player Rob Johnson says Tommy Forrest has served as a deterrent to out-of-town teams who have come through Yellowknife: 'They had a lot of fun in town, they loved the city, they loved the north, but they said: 'we're not going to come back until you fix this field.' (CBC)

"They had a lot of fun in town, they loved the city, they loved the North, but they said: 'we're not going to come back until you fix this field.'"

The amount of shale, rocks, and gravel in the outfield was too much for some teams down south, but for teams in the North, especially in Yellowknife, it was all they had.

Save for new dugouts and bleachers, the diamond hasn't changed much since its inception over half a century ago.

Yellowknife full of fastball history

"Some teams thought [the park] was bush league," said Rod Stirling, who played on the 1974 Yellowknife Junior Merchants. The Merchants won the city a national championship — the territory's first in any sport.

"I spent a lot of years here. I know right from '74 until '92 I played. I spent my whole summer here. We could play late into the night, and it was very a competitive league," he said.

Stirling remembers the 1974 team being virtually unknown to their opponents. He also remembers the team's jerseys coming in: They were children's size, meaning they had to borrow uniforms for the national championships.
Stirling was a member of the 1974 Junior Merchants, a 'Bad News Bears' team that went on to win the Northwest Territories' first national championship in any sport. (Green Diamond Project)

"We were kind of like the Bad News Bears that showed up in Ottawa for a tournament with no uniforms," Stirling said.

Once they started playing, though, they showed they could compete.

"It was a team that peaked at the right time," he said.

After the Merchants' 1974 win, participation in the capital skyrocketed, and fastball was one of the most popular sports in Yellowknife. Forty years later, the number of participants has waned, but the community remains strong and committed to the future of the sport — and the field — in the city.

"People have a lot of memories tied with this," said Williams. "And I think that's the important part, is to be able to have more memories. Whatever those memories are going to be, you have to have the infrastructure in place."