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Plunge at stadium exposes problems

City Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton breaks his foot when a concrete slab collapses at Jack Russell Stadium. Thursday night's game is canceled.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 1, 2001


City Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton breaks his foot when a concrete slab collapses at Jack Russell Stadium. Thursday night's game is canceled.

CLEARWATER -- The yellow caution tape caught City Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton's eye when he arrived at Jack Russell Stadium on Wednesday night to pick up his son after a Clearwater Phillies game.

So Hamilton decided to see what was beyond the tape for himself: a 2-inch-wide crack in the concrete between Sections 1 and 2, near first base.

But as he stepped by the tape, a 15-by 4-foot slab of concrete under him suddenly collapsed. Hamilton fell 9 feet to the ground, breaking his left foot.

"I guess it's called taking one for the team or something," Hamilton said Thursday.

The structural problems with the city's 55-year-old stadium prompted Phillies officials to cancel Thursday night's game and close the facility. They rescheduled the minor-league baseball game against the Vero Beach Dodgers to tonight at 6 p.m., when it will open a double-header.

"We're probably erring on the side of caution, but we felt that was the prudent and right thing to do," said John Timberlake, the Phillies' director of Florida operations.

City engineers spent Thursday inspecting the stadium in North Greenwood. They think the damage to the aging concrete structure is limited to the single section with fewer than 100 seats. But a city engineering consultant will do a more thorough review of the stadium today.

Interim City Manager Bill Horne said that the city has no cost estimates yet for repairs that will have to be done to ensure the stadium is safe for the public.

The city already is planning to build a stadium for the Philadelphia Phillies on another site closer to U.S. 19 and Drew Street by early 2003.

Hamilton, a booster of the new stadium and a sports agent for some minor league players, said his accident shows again why the Phillies need a new place to play.

"It is strictly coincidental," Hamilton said. "But I'll tell you what: You can't ever tell me now that old stadium doesn't need some work. I'm fortunate I wasn't hurt worse than I was."

The concrete slab that fell Wednesday appeared to have slipped when a supporting wall pulled away from it, several city officials said. What caused the support to move wasn't determined.

"The preliminary assessment was that it's a 55-year-old stadium and you will at times have these kinds of problems," said Kevin Dunbar, the city's parks and recreation administrator.

Several other concrete slabs holding seats and a stairway in Section 1 also appeared ready to fall like dominoes if any weight were placed on them.

"You wouldn't want to stand there, or there, or there," said Dunbar, who was at Jack Russell Thursday assessing the damaged area. "It gives you new respect for caution tape."

Charles Hammonds, a contractor who cleans the stadium for the Phillies, first noticed the structural cracking in the area Tuesday night, said Timberlake. The Phillies then had the section roped off from the public Wednesday.

Hamilton said his "escapade" began when he arrived pick up his son, a bat boy for the Phillies. He entered the roped-off area and crashed through the concrete, grabbing futilely at nearby railings as he fell to the dirt below the concrete bleachers.

"My biggest fear was there was more concrete coming down on top of me," which could have caused severe injuries, Hamilton said.

Hamilton climbed up part of the fallen concrete slab and poked his head out of a hole that had been created in the landing where he had seconds before been standing. Members of the Phillies grounds crew grabbed Hamilton's arms and pulled him out of the hole.

He spent until 2:30 a.m. that night in an emergency room having his badly swollen foot put in a temporary cast. Hamilton said he'll be on crutches for 10 days to two weeks.

The first-of-its-kind situation sparked a few chuckles at City Hall.

Horne found out about the accident when he met Hamilton for breakfast Thursday morning, the city manager said. Hamilton tried to break the news to Horne gently, Horne said with a laugh he could not suppress.

Before breaking the news, Horne recalled, Hamilton asked the city manager, "Are you having a good day?"

Horne said the city has to review some liability issues now, since Hamilton may be eligible for city benefits as a result of his injuries. However, Horne noted, Hamilton was treading where he was not supposed to tread when accident happened.

"It's a different situation for us," Horne said. "We've never had a commissioner get hurt like this."

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