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SIGNS OF THE TIMES : Some Teams Double as Field Crews

Times Staff Writer

Once a week during the baseball season, Jack Hodges, Laguna Hills High School coach, divides his players into four practice groups--one for hitting, one for pitching, one for fielding, and one for mowing.

Mowing?

Yep, mowing. Each week, about 10 players bring lawn mowers to school so they can cut the outfield grass. They cut the infield grass twice a week.

Hodges planted new turf this year that is supposed to be trimmed two inches from the ground--no lower. He said the Saddleback Valley Unified School District doesn’t have mowers to cut at that height, so he and the players do it.

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And they don’t seem to mind.

“Everyone pitches in and it goes by fast,” said Wayne Helm, Laguna Hills pitcher. “Working on the field is like a part of practice. It’s like habit.”

It has become a habit for more than one Orange County team.

You’ll rarely see a high school football coach or his players watering the field or cutting the grass. Basketball coaches and players are not asked to strip and varnish the gym floors. And swimmers don’t have to clean the pools.

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But every day, and sometimes on weekends, baseball players are raking and dragging and watering their infields, cutting and edging the grass, cleaning out the dugouts.

“If you ask any coach how his field got the way it is, most will tell you they did it themselves,” said Bill Ross, Santa Ana coach.

At El Dorado High, Coach Steve Gullotti and his players drag, rake and water the infield before every practice. Every year before the season, the Golden Hawks have a weekend work party, during which players paint the dugouts, the wood around the backstop, and any other areas that need it.

Bob Zamora, Capistrano Valley coach, designates two players each week to work on the field for an hour after practice, raking and watering the mound, dragging the infield, pulling weeds in the infield and retrieving papers around the park.

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Zamora also has a fining system in which a player who misses a sign or makes a mental base-running mistake is sentenced to pull weeds in the outfield for an hour.

Valencia Coach Kevin McConnell spends two or three hours each Saturday and Sunday working on the Tigers’ field. During the week, infielders and pitchers are responsible for the infield and mound upkeep. Other players sweep the dugouts and, before home games, everyone helps clear trash around the field and bleachers.

Each weekend, Mission Viejo Coach Ron Drake and his assistant, Dave Clark, cut the grass on the infield, in foul territory and around the bleachers. The Diablos also have work parties once or twice before the season to improve the field’s condition.

At Santa Ana, Ross and his players erect a portable outfield fence on game days and take it down after each game. They also do maintenance work on the field before and after each practice.

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School districts usually provide a groundskeeper to prepare the fields for games, but the players and coaches must prepare the field for practices.

“In baseball, the field is so critical to the success of a team, not only for games but for practice,” Gullotti said. “We need a well-manicured infield. We don’t want bad hops and we don’t want infielders flinching on ground balls. A good field helps their confidence.”

Coaches and players don’t seem to mind the extra work. In many cases, they have raised the funds and provided the labor to build their facilities, so they take pride in maintaining them.

Hodges, for instance, has raised enough funds in seven years to build dugouts, restraining fences (down the first- and third-base lines), batting cages and a storage shed. This year, the Hawks installed new turf and a sprinkling system.

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“I think (the work) builds camaraderie and responsibility,” Hodges said. “The players know they have certain things to do before and after practice every day and sometimes on Saturday. I think they take a lot of pride in working on their field.”

Said Zamora: “When kids take pride in their field, they tend to play better baseball, and if you have a nice field, other kids want to play on it. You don’t want your park to be looked on as the worst in the league.”

Helm even went as far as calling the labor “fun.”

“Each year, the field progresses and looks better,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind coming down next year (after he graduates) and putting some work into it. I don’t think there’s a guy on our team who doesn’t like to work on the field.”

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Laguna Hills and Capistrano Valley have two of south Orange County’s best fields. In the North County, El Dorado, Esperanza and Valencia are considered the best high school fields. Tustin has one of the county’s best.

McConnell, the Valencia coach, said the improvement of his facility has made it easier to schedule nonleague opponents because they know they’ll be playing on a nice field.

For the past three years, Dave Demarest, La Quinta coach, has scheduled a doubleheader against Long Beach Wilson at Blair Field in Long Beach.

“We play them because of the field,” Demarest said. “It’s nice for the kids to play there, because, outside of Anaheim Stadium, it’s the finest field in the area.”

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There are many benefits to having a good baseball field, just like there are several drawbacks to playing on a poor field.

“You get down when you have to play on an atrocious field,” said Jeff Petredes, El Dorado pitcher. “The drive is not there to play on those fields because there are potholes in the infield.”

Petredes, considered one of the county’s best pitchers, does his part to make sure El Dorado doesn’t have those problems. Every day, he drives the tractor that pulls the drag around the Golden Hawks’ infield, removing any potholes, divots, or potential bad hops.

He’s become rather skilled at his job, which also may benefit him in the future.

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“Hey, if I don’t make it in baseball, I can always be a groundskeeper,” he said.


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