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SIGNS OF THE TIMES : Fence Ads Mean Money, Memories

Times Staff Writer

Success can be arbitrary.

The Tustin High School baseball team is 10-1 this season, ranked eighth in Orange County and has one of Orange County’s best pitchers, Steve Surico.

The Tillers are the talk of Orange County coaching circles, yet many times it has nothing to do with their on-field performance.

The talk centers on Tustin’s baseball field, described as Shangri-La, Bali Ha’i, Brigadoon. . . . You get the idea.

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“Tustin has the nicest field in Orange County,” said Bob Ickes, Mater Dei coach.

The newly landscaped field is surrounded by a new chain link fence. The new home-team dugout lies between the new equipment storage bin and the new batting cage--with two new pitching machines--and below the new electric scoreboard.

“Everyone keeps asking me when I’m going to build a dome,” said Vince Brown, Tustin coach, joking.

Most of the additions were made possible by the field’s most striking feature--the outfield fence.

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Almost completely covered by colorful sponsorship signs, the fence, like a wedding gown during a dollar dance, collects money.

The count was $23,000 this year--$23,000 for 121, 4-foot by 8-foot spaces, sold for $150 each.

Of course, if four by eight isn’t enough for your company, Brown, 25, is more than happy to accommodate you. Telxon, an Akron-based computer manufacturer, bought the left-field fence (160 feet) for $3,000.

Besides the usual sporting good stores and pizza places, there are three computer-related businesses advertising on the fence. Others include Merrill Lynch investments, an advertising agency, and Beatrice.

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“I think it’s great, it really adds to the atmosphere of the ballpark,” said Dave Ochoa, Villa Park coach. “It gives you the feeling you’re in an old minor league park. There aren’t too many old things left anymore. We have smaller fields and aluminum bats, but you walk into that park and get a little nostalgic.”

Between the advertising and donations, Tustin has raised $47,000 for its baseball team this year. The fence not only has supplied a large amount of that cash, but has raised community awareness.

“We have people who just wanted to donate to the program and didn’t know they could until they saw the signs,” Brown said.

It also has piqued the interest of other county coaches, whose school budgets barely cover the cost of baseballs. The coaches are looking to alternative methods of raising funds, and they are looking to Tustin.

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Brown, in his first season at Tustin, received about $1,000 from the school to run his program, so he aggressively sought money. But he didn’t exactly go where no coach has gone before.

Bob Zamora of Capistrano Valley and Jack Hodges of Laguna Hills were the county’s sign pioneers.

Hodges, whose program receives $800 a year from the school, currently has 24 signs on his outfield fence and plans to sell more space for signs. He raises about $8,000 a year through the school’s booster club, his baseball program and a marathon game.

But Brown has taken everything a step further.

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“Vince Brown has really pushed fund-raising to another level,” Zamora said. “It’s affecting the way all of us look and act within our programs.”

Ickes, who receives about $2,000 from Mater Dei, followed Brown’s lead. He has installed outfield signs to complement his other fund-raising efforts, which totaled about $14,000 this year.

“It’s a sign of the times,” said Dean Crowly, Southern Section administrator. “Coaches are being forced to do a lot more to raise money.”

When it comes to high school’s three major sports--football, basketball and baseball--baseball is a poor cousin. Most games are played during the day, making it difficult for working parents to attend. Crowds are small, and teams don’t charge admission. Players must maintain their fields.

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Coaches--in the wake of the passage of the state budget-cutting Proposition 13 in 1978--have seen their duties grow from teacher to groundskeeper, fund-raiser and politician.

“It would be great to work with a guy and teach him how to field a ground ball,” Zamora said. “But now, those kids get lost in the shuffle.

“You’re doing so much, you just don’t coach. You’re too busy trying to raise the money and support to maintain a program. Sometimes, I think it would be nice to become a JV coach and not worry about all of it.”

When Tustin went looking for a coach after the resignation of Dan Sheehy last season, it went looking for a little more than a guy who knew baseball.

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“I was most impressed with Vince’s high energy, his enthusiasm,” said Peggy Lynch, Tustin principal. “He’s a dynamo. I think you need someone like that.

“The state isn’t especially generous with money unless it directly relates to academics. If you’re going to be involved in extracurricular activity, like baseball, you need that energy. They have to do a lot on their own.”

Once Brown had the job, he immediately made contact with boosters. The most profitable contact was with Richard Knopf, president of an Irvine consulting firm.

Knopf has been a Tustin booster for several years. Brown told him what he wanted to do--signs and such--and Knopf went from there.

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“I just started getting in contact with old friends and business acquaintances,” Knopf said. “I didn’t really have to sell anybody on the idea. Most we’re happy to help. I think all of us remember wanting to be Mickey Mantle, we’re all still little kids.”

Like the little, 12-year-old kid Knopf was in Mamaroneck, N.Y., he and his friends couldn’t afford baseball equipment. But a kindly old gentleman named William Gunn Sr. helped them out.

“He owned the local oil heating company and he would come out and give us bats and mitts and balls,” Knopf said. “He’d pitch to us until his arm fell off. I think all of us have had someone like that in our lives. It really affects us. Part of what I’m doing at Tustin is in memory of Mr. Gunn.”

So, he’s gone to men such as Ray Mayo, Telxon president, whom he talked to during a Jan. 28 sales meeting.

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“He asked me if the company would want to contribute something,” Mayo said. “I was more than willing. We like to have a good name, be a good neighbor.”

Good neighbor Mayo has never actually seen his sign.

“It’s not for me that the sign went up, it’s for the kids,” Mayo said. “People have this idea that corporate executives are cold-blooded and heartless. But we’re just people. People who care about what’s going on in the community, and with the kids.”

Though Brown has set a trend, not everyone is eager to fall in line.

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Ochoa, the Villa Park coach, erected advertising signs on his outfield fence in 1982 but was told by the Orange Unified School District to take them down in 1983.

“It was the feeling that open advertising was not appropriate for a publicly-funded school,” said Mel Grable, district administrator of school-community services. “Donations are accepted, but we felt advertising would involve bidding, and that could involve a potential conflict of interest.”

Ochoa, however, was allowed to keep one sign--listing all of his sponsors--on his backstop, so he did not lose any revenue.

Lynch and Knopf said they have no specific guidelines in choosing advertisers.

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“I leave that up to Vince,” Lynch said. “We trust his judgment. He’s not going to do anything to jeopardize the team or the school.”

Knopf said: “We just exercise common sense. I think the people who don’t like it are either afraid or envious.”

And Brown? Well, he spends his days coaching, hustling and wistfully looking toward the apartment building that lies beyond center field.

“Yeah, I think someday I’ll buy that building,” Brown joked. “That way I can supervise the building of the dome.”

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Contributing to this story was Times Staff Writer Mike DiGiovanna


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