A LOT OF TLC
By Dan Jones
For The Observer
You see them in the dugout at Optimist Field. You hear them coaching and sometimes cheering in the stands.
You may even work with one. They are secretly working to ensure you and your kids have a great summer.
Unofficially, these mystery men are known as The Grounds Crew.
Most don't see the dirty work these willing citizens do to maintain the baseball field.
"You water it, rake it, mow it, you roll it. You name it and we do it," said "crew member" and local coach Mark Lanman.
"All this is volunteer work. Basically if you want it done, you do it yourself," he said.
Lanman's daughter was a softball player at La Grande High School, and his son plays, too. The dad said he's played since he was eight.
Guys like Lanman, Pete Caldwell, Dennis Young and Eric Stark could live with or without recognition.
They are caretakers for a diamond that has brought them joy and satisfaction. These men are the laborers of a lifelong passion.
Naturally, they do this work without pay. Lanman said he spent many hours a day on and around the field one season. He picks up garbage, paints bases and the pitcher's mound, and waters, to name a few tasks on a long list.
The field is constantly used by infielders and abused by the elements, but gets TLC from lovers of the game.
"We tell the kids you take care of the equipment and it will take care of you. The field is the same way,"said Eric Stark, a former Oregon State University baseball player and current American Legion head coach.
When summer is here, Optimist is pounded by the players and the heat. Lanman said during games, outfielders can unintentionally (and sometimes otherwise) grind their cleats into the grass, causing unsafe and unsightly turf.
When the sun is out, the field gets dry, which can make for unplayable conditions if not treated. The baseball diamond is watered to keep dust down, prevent excess compaction and ultimately to create a level playing field.
Careless fans can also make Lanman have to work extra hard.
Lanman said fans let their hot dog and candy bar wrappers fly.
Occasionally, energetic fans also use the field when games are not being played. "You come back and have to fix things when people in the community come out and play on it sometimes," Stark said.
The Grounds Crew always has their work cut out for them.
An assistant coach at Eastern Oregon University, Stark functions as bullpen maintainer, weed remover, dirt waterer ... he has whatever handle is needed at the time.
In college Stark was known as center fielder, but his main duty now is on the pitcher's mound.
"Cleats dig holes deep into landing areas, and when the dirt is too hard or too soft, injuries can occur," Stark says. "I try to get a perfect firmness where kids aren't slipping, but doesn't feel like they are pitching on concrete."
Optimist is La Grande's premier field because of its exceptional quality. Its surrounding fence is lined with advertisements, and Lanman said Babe Ruth, high school, and American Legion teams keep the field occupied.
Attendance numbers have been superb, and Stark said the stands and open ground are capable of accommodating a few hundred fans.
Stark, Lanman and the rest earned the grounds crew title during a large tournament hosted at Optimist.
The men took on leadership roles for seven days by dedicating extra time to the field. Stark said they gave themselves the name and it soon caught on.
"The crew joke started last year when myself, Mr. Lanman, Pete Caldwell and Dave Mellinger ran a 13-year-old state tournament here," Stark says. "We were out at 6:30 in the morning working on the field because we had 9 o'clock games. Now we laugh because other people started hearing about it, and it just grew from there."
The crew is not alone though. Stark said other coaches and teams also take great care of Optimist when using it. The only problem is, they never seem to do it quite the right way.
"We get so used to fixing the field in a certain way that when other teams or other players get out there, we sometimes end up re-doing things," Stark said jokingly.
The sport, the games and the kids are what brings these workers back when there is no longer a grounder to chase down or a score to keep.
"We try to make sure they have the best facilities and the best opportunities possible," Stark said.