June 07, 2001 11:00 pm
HELPING OUT: Mark Lanman, right, and Pete Caldwell both had daughters on La Grande High School's softball team and have been involved with the GRAY Group for the past year. (The Observer/PAT PERKINS).
HELPING OUT: Mark Lanman, right, and Pete Caldwell both had daughters on La Grande High School's softball team and have been involved with the GRAY Group for the past year. (The Observer/PAT PERKINS).

By Pat Perkins

Observer Staff Writer

A large effort to build and improve baseball and soccer fields in the Grande Ronde Valley started with a hole in the ground.

Jonel Ricker of La Grande had one of his children trip and injure an ankle in a hole on a local field. That, and Rickers experience using the fields as a Little League coach, prompted him to help organize a multi-sport group last year.

Ive been coaching Little League for seven years now and I didnt sign on to become a paramedic. Ive had two serious injuries in T-ball and coach-pitch from field conditions, Ricker said.

That meeting a year ago, which drew between 40 to 50 people, developed into the GRAY Group the Grande Ronde Association for Youth.

It was once said five years ago that baseball and softball and soccer could not get together and get anything done, said Pete Caldwell, the groups chairman. The same thing about La Grande and the county. (But) we formed the group and started working on a priority list.

Safety tops the list, and that means maintenance. GRAY Group members rebuilt the softball field across from Greenwood School and are working on fields at Willow and behind La Grande High School.

Ricker was born and raised in Enterprise and moved to La Grande in 1988. I was absolutely appalled at the condition of our sports facilities here compared to a town the size of 2,000, Ricker said.

We have accepted a tremendous amount of maintenance on fields in Union County with no money, he added. Just look at what we could do if we had money.

The first step toward raising money is a raffle for a four-wheeler donated by Bronson-Polaris. Four-thousand tickets, at $5 each, will be sold, with up to $6,000 of the proceeds being donated to the construction of new fields at La Grandes Pioneer Park.

The addition of the Pioneer SK8 Park is the first phase of a master plan to build baseball and softball diamonds and soccer fields at Pioneer. GRAY Group members have already removed trees and brush from the area between Optimist Fields right field and the railroad tracks, and the grounds have been cleared.

The GRAY Group avoided going public until recently because it did not want to be a flash-in-the-pan organization, according to Caldwell and Ricker.

The group meets the third Wednesday every month and recently elected officers. Plans include setting itself up as a non-profit organization so donations can be tax-deductible.

But the group already has some impressive accomplishments.

The fields at Greenwood, Willow and the high school are among them. Group members have contributed to the maintenance of a softball field in Imbler and helped with the drainage of the softball field at the Bobcat Athletic Complex in Union.

Greenwoods field was terrible, at best, Caldwell said.

Once we were able to gain access to Greenwood and showed (the school district) what we could do with the proper equipment, we were given access to Willow, Ricker said.

With a zero budget, we completely redid two fields in La Grande, Caldwell said.

The Greenwood and Willow fields now drain so well, they can be played on in the rain.

Man, theyve got a lot of expertise, said Gary Howland, the school districts plant operations director. Some of those guys work for the county and the state and theyre operating engineers for the equipment.

Its been wonderful. Its something we wouldnt be able to accomplish with a three-man grounds crew covering 55 acres of property.

The high schools new field, informally called the Pumphouse Field, was built for the freshman baseball team. The varsity team uses Optimist Field and the JV squad plays at Lions Field, both at Pioneer Park.

We had no baseball field that our kids were utilizing, Howland said. Freshmen dont drive. They were piling in the back of pickups. Thats just not safe.

Fields are in demand throughout the county. Of the cities outside La Grande, Elgin is set up best with a four-field complex on Boise Cascade land at the citys south end. The Bobcat Athletic Complex in Union has a baseball and softball field, but some teams still play on the Livestock Show field, which needs improvements. One Little League field in Cove shares outfield space with play equipment.

The plans at Pioneer Park call for two more ballfields sandwiched between a regulation-sized soccer field and a smaller soccer field. The regulation soccer field would be north of the skate park, with the ballfields situated beyond Optimist Fields right and center fields. The smaller soccer field would replace an informal field beyond Optimists left field.

The cornerstone of the Pioneer Park expansion would be a grant similar to one that got the skate park built. The project, as proposed, will cost $225,000, and the City of La Grande has applied for a $75,501 grant from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, the same source of half of the skate parks funding.

The state may not want to give again to the city so soon after the skate park grant, but what the city has going for it is the size of the communitys contributions.

Where we do really well is that $60,000 is from the city of La Grande and $75,000 is from the state, but the biggest contributor is volunteers, said Ron Perkins, assistant to the city manager.

The city has received pledges worth more than $89,000 in cash and in-kind donations, $18,000 of which has already been received.

They like that, Perkins said of the state parks department. They like to see the community behind these things.

The Union County Youth Soccer Association already has given the city $4,000 toward the project and has pledged to provide a set of goalposts at $1,545 a pair, according to Paul Sieders, the associations field manager and vice-chairman for GRAY Group.

The soccer group already has received a $15,000 grant for 10 sets of goalposts, which arrive Tuesday, Sieders said. At least one set of goalposts will go to fields in La Grande, Elgin, Imbler, Cove and Union.

Credit GRAY Group with getting the soccer group and other organizations to come together with a common goal.

Theyve been very instrumental in helping us raise funding and getting out to the other organizations and saying, Here is something for everyone, not just soccer, not just baseball, Perkins said.

The city will find out in a month or two if it gets the state grant. In the meantime, GRAY Group will continue its plan of maintenance and improvement, one field at a time.

La Grande Little League is hosting district softball tournaments next month at Pioneer Park and one of the requirements is dugouts at the fields. Between Little League, the city and GRAY Group, those covered dugouts are being built.

GRAYs eventual goal is to have a complex similar to ones in Baker City, Ontario and Vale. That requires volunteers, something the GRAY Group is seeking.

Hopefully we can get enough people involved to get that project done, said Mark Lanman, GRAYs secretary.

So far, enough people have been involved to keep GRAY going beyond the traditional boundaries between baseball and soccer, and between the county and the city.

Weve lasted a year now, and people said we wouldnt last six months, Caldwell said.