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Fields of dreams

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“I ask you as parents, stop pressuring your kids to play. ... Let them have fun,” said Darryl Strawberry, left, Saturday morning at the opening celebration of the Alpine Bank Youth Sports Complex. Strawberry later signed autographs, baseballs and 9-year-old Dexter Van Lindt’s Mets shirt. Dexter is the son of Christian and Leslie Van Lindt. At right is Cameron Quiring, 11, and his father, Daryl Quiring.

By Emery Cowan Herald staff writer

After more than two years of work, the Alpine Bank Youth Sports Complex officially completed its transformation from dirt patch to baseball fields Saturday morning with help from a special guest.

Nine-time Major League Baseball All-Star Darryl Strawberry was on hand and spoke to the dozens of Little Leaguers and their families who attended a ceremony dedicating Youth Baseball of Southwestern Colorado’s new Little League fields. The fields are on the north end of Bodo Industrial Park, just west of the Animas-La Plata Project pump station.

Strawberry, who overcame a history of drug and alcohol abuse and has become an ordained minister, touched on themes of teamwork, sportsmanship and the value of winning and losing before blessing the three fields.

“The baseball field will teach you so many things about life, but when you learn the greatest part is sportsmanship and the way you treat each other and the way you help each other, that’s when you got it,” he said.

Strawberry wished the players many great memories on the new fields.

“You guys have a baseball field sitting on top of the hills with the mountains – it doesn’t get an better than that,” he said to applause from the crowd.

The baseball star originally planned this weekend as a vacation in Durango. But as word spread about his visit, Strawberry received requests to speak today at New Hope Church and Friday at Fort Lewis College. He accepted both invitations.

Youth baseball wasn’t a part of Strawberry’s visit until New Hope congregation member Ted Rifkin was sitting behind Matt Pope, former president of Youth Baseball of Southwestern Colorado’s board of directors, on a flight from Denver to Durango. Rifkin heard Pope talking about the opening of the organization’s new baseball fields. He tapped Pope on the shoulder and found out the fields were opening the same weekend Strawberry was to visit.

Not long after, Strawberry had signed on to that event, as well.

The small-town relationships, good timing and lucky coincidences that resulted in Strawberry’s visit to the dedication ceremony are par for the course in the young history of the baseball league’s new complex.

The fields, build entirely from donated materials, money and labor, were completed for a cost of about $300,000. And while they still lack lights and a concession stand – additions that will cost about $200,000 more – they were game-ready after the ribbon was snipped Saturday.

The fields are unique in being the only ones in Durango that are completely funded and supported by donations from the private and nonprofit sectors yet open for public use.

The association’s story is one that shows that with the right mix of determination, community support and good luck, an ambitious project costing hundreds of thousands of dollars can succeed, even in an economy where foundations and donors are tightening their purse strings.

In need of turf

The need for youth baseball fields was a topic the league had discussed with the city of Durango numerous times, said Cathy Metz, director of the city’s parks and recreation department. In a 2010 planning document, the city cited the need for five more baseball fields to satisfy projected need.

Nearly 400 ballplayers participate in Youth Baseball of Southwestern Colorado’s program alone, and about 500 kids region-wide participate in local tournaments and programs. The city’s current field supply makes hosting tournaments and practicing during the regular season nearly impossible, parents and coaches said.

But at this point, baseball fields are not included in the city’s five-year budget, Metz said. A plan to build a multiuse sports complex in the Grandview area also has been pushed to the back burner, she said.

Seeing that new baseball fields weren’t in the city’s near-term plans, the baseball association decided to pursue the project on its own, said Richard “Roskow” Roskowinski, director of Youth Baseball of Southwestern Colorado.

“We said if nobody can help us, let’s do it ourselves,” Roskowinski said.

Going the private route saved the association from facing the bureaucracy that tends to come with governmental projects and allowed it to jump on the project right away, he said.

The association never approached the city for a partnership or other assistance, Metz said.

The project’s first big break came when the Animas-La Plata Water Conservancy District’s board of directors approved a 20-year, $100-per-year lease with the association. The board decided baseball fields were a good use of the 5-acre plot of land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and liked the fact that organizers already had their plans drawn up with some committed donations, said Bruce Whitehead, the district’s executive director.

It was huge to show funders that out of an estimated $1.2 million project, a lease donation worth $650,000 already was in the bag, said Beth Lamberson, owner of Lamberson Capital and a contract grant writer for Youth Baseball of Southwestern Colorado.

The fact that the association, a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit, was going at the project without government help made for an easier pitch to potential donors, Lamberson said.

“We can muster so much support as a 501(c)3,” she said. “It’s harder for parks and rec (departments) to ask for people to come out and do it for free.”

Lamberson wrote grants that netted $72,500 in donations from La Plata Electric Association’s Roundup Fund, the Daniels Fund, the Gates Family Foundation and El Pomar Foundation.

On top of that, most everything needed to build the fields was either donated or offered at a discount rate. Fencing for the T-ball field was donated for free. Cinder blocks were offered for $1 per block instead of $3 per block. Sod was delivered and laid for half the price of other companies. Construction equipment was loaned for free. Roskowinski’s list could go on and on.

A $50,000 donation from Alpine Bank last March was the most recent game changer, coming at a time when other donations had started to run dry, Roskowinski said.

The goal is to use the fields as much as possible for baseball and softball, he said.

The association already plans to use the fields to host a 30-team tournament on Memorial Day weekend.

ecowan@durangoherald.com

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