Guy Lemmon created the Ryan Lemmon Foundation 16 years ago to "enhance" high school baseball. Now, he's trying to save it.
Lemmon, an Irvine resident, believes high school baseball and other high school sports face being eliminated because of a lack of funds, and his foundation is doing everything it can to prevent that from happening.
The State of California's budget crisis has impacted public schools, but a recent ALCU ruling is threatening the very existence of many high school sports, according to Lemmon.
That ACLU ruling, which resulted from a recent lawsuit, prohibits public schools from requiring students to pay any fees related to playing high school sports, and the trickle down effect on high school programs is only beginning to manifest itself.
"Some schools and some districts don't charge very much and some charge quite a bit," Lemmon said. "But because of this ruling you can't do that anymore. If you decide to run a program, you must offer it for free. If you can't offer it for free, then don't offer it.
"Now the schools cannot ask for that money from the parents. The only thing the school can do is suggest a donation. What coaches are seeing happen is people are just not giving money anymore."
Lemmon said one Orange County athletic director told him his football program typically received $35,000-$40,000 from the players' parents to fund the program, but when the ACLU ruling required that the school's letter to parents at the start of the season include wording that emphasized any donations were voluntary, the school received just $5,000, threatening the future of the program.
"Some sports at some schools had gotten too expensive, so they rifle-shot this idea, 'Oh, we'll eliminate these fees,' but the unwitting result is that because no one is obligated to pay, the parents say, 'I won't pay, the schools will figure it out.' The near-term result is athletic programs are immediately being impacted."
Lemmon is passionate about his mission now, but it's not what he envisioned when he started the foundation in 1996, named for his son Ryan, who was killed in a car accident two years earlier in 1994.
Ryan Lemmon had been a standout baseball player at Woodbridge High, graduating in 1993, and had finished his first year at Pepperdine before the accident.
"I had been involved in youth baseball and high school baseball with my son since he was 6 years old," Lemmon said. "I had started a league as a private individual. Following his accident, through the help of a lot of people, I founded the foundation in my son's name, to give back to high school baseball, to create the experience my son got to enjoy and perhaps let the dream live on in absence of my son's dreams that are not getting fulfilled."
The foundation has developed a number of programs, including a college seminar to help parents and student-athletes prepare for dealing with the transition to college, and a Sophomore Showcase, in which the 40 top sophomore baseball players in the county are selected to receive advice on dealing with college recruiters and pro scouts.
The foundation also provides scholarships to help a select group of high school players with college tuition fees — one player each from eight Orange County Leagues: Pacific Coast, South Coast, Freeway, Sea View, Sunset, Century, Trinity and Empire.
Lemmon said these players are selected by the league's coaches, based not only on their baseball abilities, but also integrity, sportsmanship and academics. "Players you'd want to start your program with," Lemmon said.
The foundation's big events are the annual benefit dinner and the "South Orange County Showcase," four games with eight teams featuring seniors from the same eight O.C. leagues. Coaches from each league select 20 players from their league to form their own all-star team.
The baseball games will be played June 8 and 9 at Ryan Lemmon Stadium at Windrow Park in Irvine.
The benefit dinner was held Wednesday at Strawberry Farms Golf Club in Irvine, hosting 250 people including former Angels Bobby Grich, Doug DeCinces and current Angel Mark Trumbo.
Lemmon is beginning to add up the contributions, and is pleased that his foundation seems to be reaching its goals, in large part because of the contribution of Newport Beach's David Pyle, who donated $80,000.
Pyle also said if the foundation could raise another $80,000, he'd match it with an additional $80,000, giving the foundation $240,000.
"Make no mistake about it, we're reaching our goals because of the unbelievable generosity of Dave Pyle," Lemmon said. "He believes in education-based high school athletics, and promoting the merits of the teacher-student relationship on the field.
"Dave Pyle believes as I do, that athletics done the right way at the high school level teach kids a good skill set, teach them to dream, to adjust their dreams, to compete, if they don't work hard they can fail, if they do work hard they can succeed, all those things."
Money raised by Lemmon's foundation will help fund those high school sports programs in jeopardy, but he's still imploring parents to continue what they had been doing — pay to play.
"Don't get me wrong, people need to pay," he said. "We're not trying to create a free experience, just aid and assist the good effort of coaches. Coaches don't need the money, the programs need the money. The coaches aren't asking to be paid more. They virtually work for free and dedicate their lives to helping these young men. It's an honorable commitment on their part."