It’s a helpless feeling to watch an old friend suffer through a slow, painful decline.
But that is the case with Engel Stadium, which was boarded up last month.
Whether one of Chattanooga’s most recognized monuments will soon become a mere memory remains to be seen. City and county officials are continuing the long process to transfer ownership to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which says it wants to work with the Engel Foundation and make the stadium usable again.
Meanwhile, it continues to deteriorate. Already it poses too much of a safety risk to be used by Tennessee Temple University and some local high school teams that have played there in recent years.
Serious money is needed for major repairs. Otherwise Engel Stadium may never host another baseball game.
Read that last sentence again and let it sink in.
For those of us lucky enough to have lived in the Chattanooga area all our lives, certain identifiable landmarks and trademarks are uniquely ours.
Watching a game at Engel Stadium was as much a part of being a proud Chattanoogan as washing down a MoonPie with an ice cold Coca-Cola as you drive past the Choo Choo on your way to Lookout Mountain to see Rock City.
The list of legends who played in the old ballpark — Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Harmon Killebrew, to name a few — reminds us of how it earned the name “Historic” Engel Stadium. Even Michael Jordan played there while wearing a Birmingham Barons uniform.
But more than the laundry list of great players, the memories I will cherish most from the beloved stadium were the times I paid more attention to the people sitting around me than who was on the field.
It was where my youth league team went for a postseason party to watch the Famous Chicken’s shenanigans and eat hot dogs and cotton candy until we all had stomachaches. And it was where, years later, I took my son to his first baseball game when he was around 5 years old. We sat a few rows behind home plate, and with the sun on our shoulders I taught him how to shell peanuts and yell at the umpires after each perceived blown call. He was more excited to see the mechanical train roll out beyond the left-field wall after a Lookouts’ home run.
Engel was the crown jewel of the Spring Fling baseball tournament for years, and some of my favorite work-related memories were sitting on the roof just outside the press box with friends from other newspapers, an evening breeze blowing as we kept score and wondered aloud how anyone could make a living doing anything else.
New Tennessee Temple University coach Greg Bartley played for the Lookouts in 1984, ’85 and ’87, and his first date with his wife was a trip to Engel. He summed it up best after clearing out Temple’s equipment to allow city workers to padlock the gates.
“I’ve got a lot of good memories of that place,” Bartley said. “It’s a shame to see what happened to a place that is really special to a lot of people in Chattanooga. Nobody took care of it, and it kind of makes me mad that nobody decided to actually do anything about it and just let it go to waste.”
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 23 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including nine in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation at the Associated ...