By Kyle LoJacono
When fans of the Gaither High baseball team pack their home stadium this season, they will be watching the Cowboys play on the No. 1 high school field in America.
Gaither’s field earned the Turface Field Maintenance Award as the No. 1 playing surface by the American Baseball Coaches Association. Cowboys’ 26-year coach Frank Permuy received the award in January, an honor he and the team relish.
“We pride ourselves on our playing surface,” said Permuy, the only baseball coach in Gaither’s history. “I got the call and they said to me I should come to the award ceremony because we won. It was a surprise because we know our field is good, but this means we’re the best. The kids really take pride in the field.”
Current Gaither principal Marie Whelan is a Cowboys graduate and remembers watching games on the newly awarded top field.
“I remember watching those games all the time and it was always great to sit in the bleachers,” Whelan said. “It’s a real honor to be named the best field in America. It shows the work they put into it. Coach P makes sure they know how important it is to work on the field before and after every game and practice.”
Permuy said the coaching staff puts an emphasis on keeping the field up to the best standards.
“It’s like a part of our practice to keep the field looking good,” said junior starting pitcher Alex Milne.
The award did not come as a shock to senior right fielder and pitcher Zach Jackson.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Jackson said. “I look around and see everything we’ve done to make this field the best. We take a lot of pride in having a great place to play baseball.”
Sophomore shortstop Oscar Mercado was born in Columbia and is happy to be playing on the well-kept field in northern Hillsborough County.
“I come from a country where we have bad turf,” said Mercado, who moved to this country at age 8. “This is great. There aren’t any bad hops.”
The award comes with one ton of playing Turface, the material that helps dry the infield, and $400 to help with maintenance costs.
The field was also recently honored as the third best overall high school stadium by the Baseball Coaches Association.
“And we think we can get better,” Permuy said. “We’ll be doing some work on the field in the next few years. We’ll be replacing the wood poles with metal or concrete ones in 2012 and we’re doing some other things to make it better.”
Permuy said drainage in right field has been a problem for years and they are looking into ways to make that better.
Gaither’s baseball field has always been in the same place, right by the northwest side of the football stadium. It is 360 feet to center field and 340 and 330 to the left and right field lines respectively.
On the eight-foot high outfield wall are the program’s retired numbers. Chad Zerbe and Kevin Cash each wore No. 12. Zerbe was a relief pitcher in MLB, while Cash is still a catcher in the professional ranks. The two 12s flank Permuy’s own No. 7, which was retired in 2009.
“I love everything about coaching here,” Permuy said. “We’ve got a great field, the best field, and we’ll keep it the best for our fans to come watch us each year.”
Gaither’s first home game is part of the Saladino Pre-Season Tournament on Tuesday, Feb. 8 against Wharton at 4 p.m. The first home district contest is against Hillsborough High on Tuesday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m.