Fewer than 1% of all Little Leaguers will ever play in a major league ballpark. That means that millions of kids who dream of making it to the Show will never set foot on a perfectly manicured bermuda grass field, or take the mound in a real stadium, or know the rush that comes with hitting a home run under the floodlights.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are trying to help remedy that. Through contributions from their players, local communities and a sponsor company, the team has constructed 17 top-of-the-line youth ballparks throughout the state, each a scaled-down replica of Arizona's Bank One Ballpark and named after a Diamondback. "As a player you want to leave behind a legacy," says former All-Star third baseman Matt Williams, the first Diamondback to have a field dedicated in his name, in Phoenix in 2000. "This is a great way to do something like that while providing an opportunity for kids to play."
Team president Rich Dozer says Arizona got the idea from the Colorado Rockies, who launched a similar initiative in 1995. The Diamondbacks have distanced themselves from their National League West rivals of late, churning out three parks a year since 2003 to the Rockies' one. The $150,000 construction cost for each stadium is split evenly between the Diamondbacks Foundation, the sponsor (Arizona Public Services, the state's primary electricity supplier) and the Diamondbacks player whose name will go on the ballpark. Area contractors donate most of the materials, and with volunteer labor a park can be ready in as little as six weeks.
Each is virtually a carbon copy of the stadium known as BOB, right down to the dirt path that connects the mound to home plate. Like Bank One, the replica parks feature yellow tubing atop the outfield fences and bullpens on the first and third base sides. A full set of lights (the priciest amenity) allow for evening play to escape the summer heat. The only things missing, it seems, are the swimming pool, the retractable roof and central air. "From a Little Leaguer's standpoint, it's got everything they could possibly want," says Williams, who retired in 2003 and is now a TV and radio broadcaster for the team. "It's a lot better than anything I played on growing up."
The players have proved to be enthusiastic donors--perhaps none more so than third baseman Troy Glaus, who wrote his $50,000 check the day after signing a four-year, $45 million contract with the team as a free agent last December. Though the fields look the same across the board, some Diamondbacks insist on comparing theirs with their teammates'. First baseman turned television analyst Mark Grace, whose stadium is in Flagstaff, is quick to settle the debate on whose is best: "That conversation is a monologue, not a dialogue. It's mine and, like, a 10-way tie for second."
The parks, most of which are clustered in and around Phoenix, are placed in school districts where at least 50% of the students receive subsidized lunches. "We don't put them in rich areas like Scottsdale or Paradise Valley," Dozer says. The fields promote the sport and the Diamondbacks, and address the area's shortage of ball fields. "There are a lot of people who want to start teams and even more players who want to play," says Williams, who has seen the demand for fields in Arizona firsthand as the father of a 14-year-old ballplayer. "But getting a field is always an issue."
Soon after construction on a replica field is complete, its gates are opened to wide-eyed kids, their parents and civic leaders for a dedication ceremony, which can be emotional. Two years ago then Arizona closer Matt Mantei offered heartwarming testimony about growing up playing baseball in Michigan, bringing the crowd to tears.
One never knows when a Diamondback will drop by unannounced. Before he was traded to the New York Yankees, pitcher Randy Johnson made his mini-BOB in Phoenix a regular stop en route to the real BOB. Grace, meanwhile, says he plans on putting in some quality time in the bleacher seats at his park once the Diamondbacks' season is over. As he watches the fall tournaments there, he might want to keep an eye out for prospects. Says Glaus, "One of the kids playing on that field might be the next big leaguer."
The Grass Is Greener
Arizona isn't the only major league team to support a youth ballpark program. Here are four others that are helping out.
TEAM: COLORADO ROCKIES ¬†¬†¬†¬†YEAR STARTED: 1995
Ninety-six fields at 56 complexes have been funded, including one in Lakewood, Colo., that is a minireplica of Coors Field.
TEAM: SAN DIEGO PADRES ¬†¬†¬†¬†YEAR STARTED: 1996
The team is nearly halfway to its goal of building 60 fields to celebrate 60 years of Padres ball in San Diego.
TEAM: ST. LOUIS CARDINALS ¬†¬†¬†¬†YEAR STARTED: 2000
Along with constructing 12 ballparks, the team has outfitted some 2,000 kids with bats, gloves and uniforms.
TEAM: HOUSTON ASTROS ¬†¬†¬†YEAR STARTED: 2002
With backing from park sponsor Minute Maid, the Astros will refurbish a field a year for the next 25 years.