To David Dunn and Steven Williams, their baseball field at Charlotte’s Randolph Middle School was nearly unrecognizable. And that was a very good thing.
As the men took a break on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, they couldn’t help but notice the differences, the taken-for-granted characteristics that define a baseball diamond that, until that point, had been missing.
“We’ve never had a pitcher’s mound or a bullpen,” said Dunn, who is the athletics director at the school. “We used to have a grass infield. It was hard to tell (the difference) between the outfield and the infield.”
Soon, Williams, who is Randolph Middle’s second-year baseball coach, would be able to unveil a bona fide diamond to his players. The pile of dirt at second base would be spread throughout the infield, complete with a pitcher’s mound. Edges were lined and fences were erected, including yellow tubing at the top – courtesy of teenaged volunteers from the Marvin Ridge and Charlotte Country Day programs.
“It’s amazing what these guys are doing,” said Williams.
“It’s unbelievable, literally. When I first met with (former Charlotte Country Day School coach) Ed (Walton), I was skeptical,” Dunn said. “Usually when someone does something for you, they want something in return. That’s not been the case. It’s a good, old pay-it-forward type of attitude.”
And for the members of Baseball For Life, that’s exactly the point.
It’s not that Baseball For Life ever really died. Instead, it just went dormant for more than a decade. Originally, way back in 1999, the concept was a way for Walton and former West Charlotte coach Mike Shildt to give back. They used the name to title a free camp for at-risk youths from across the Charlotte. But as is often the case, time and opportunity took over. Shildt, who started his coaching career at UNC Asheville after playing for the team there, moved on to the Charlotte 49ers before landing a job within the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 2004.
Walton and Shildt remained in contact throughout the years, however, and decided to meet for lunch this winter. After six-plus combined decades in the sport, baseball naturally became a topic for the self-proclaimed “baseball guys.”
“We started talking about how fortunate we both had been with baseball,” Walton recalled.
After that meeting, a confluence of events took place that dusted off the old Baseball For Life idea. For starters, the duo had been getting together with some old friends in the local high school baseball community. Coaches such as Marvin Ridge’s Mark Mennitt, Weddington’s Travis Poole, Charlotte Country Day’s Mike Hennessey, Providence’s Danny Hignight and Ardrey Kell’s Hal Bagwell had started convening on Thursday nights at Country Day for what Shildt characterized as unofficial “hot-stove” discussions. It was an avenue to stoke their fires in the cold winter months and share ideas about the usual topics: Base running, pitching, hitting. The stuff baseball guys discuss.
Around that same time, Tim Vliet, who’s the coach at Charlotte’s Crestdale Middle School, reached out to Shildt. The two had worked together at
Matthews Athletic & Recreation Association years before, and Vliet wanted to know if there was a way to help the other teams and coaches in his team’s conference, as many didn’t have equipment or experience to be successful.
“He told me to hold that thought,” Vliet said. “(Shildt) was already having the idea – he and Ed Walton – of rebuilding Baseball For Life.”
Baseball For Life was rebuilt all right, much the way the “Six Million Dollar Man” was – bigger and better.
Vliet’s call was answered in myriad ways. The program at Cornelius’ Hough High held an equipment drive to benefit various middle school programs in the area. Wilson Sporting Goods also donated equipment. The group also organized the field improvements at Randolph and Martin Luther King middle schools in Charlotte.
But it didn’t stop there. In late January, many of the coaches – guys who had won several state championships – participated in a middle school players clinic at Pineville’s On-Deck Academy training facility, free of charge. In February, they again got together to put on a free coaches clinic, which was attended by more than 150 area youth coaches at Weddington High School.
There even were offshoots. Marvin Ridge Middle School player Bryce Bilodeau, who attended the clinic, began an equipment drive of his own around his neighborhood.
Not bad for an idea that hatched just three months earlier.
“How rapidly it’s taken place has really been impressive, but I’ve not been surprised by any stretch of the imagination, because we do have a lot of quality people and a lot of quality leadership in their baseball community that individually have done amazing work for their programs,” said Shildt, who currently is in his second year as the manager for St. Louis’ Double-A affiliate, the Springfield Cardinals.
“The nice thing about Baseball For Life is we have a vehicle in place, and this is the place to go to be allowed to provide service (to the community).”
Added Walton: “It affirms what we thought we’d run into. We thought that with the tightness of the baseball community, if we offered something like this, we’d get support. It’s been overwhelming.”
Throughout the process, the organization has received involvement from Union County coaches Mennitt and Poole, Parkwood’s Andrew Starnes, and Marvin Ridge assistant coach John DeMaine. The volunteers also include Davidson College coach Dick Cooke, Pfeiffer coach Dusty Blake and Colorado Rockies scout Jay Matthews, among many others.
For Mennitt, who was involved with the organization back when it was just a one-week camp, the opportunity to resurrect the ideal of giving back to the game through community involvement was too much to pass up. He hopes it one day can help schools in Union County as well.
“We have an avenue to help with baseball,” Mennitt said.
That’s a concept his players certainly embraced.
“I feel like it’s a blessing for us to be able to spread the game of baseball,” said Mavs shortstop Derek Smith as he took a break from working on the Randolph Middle School outfield wall.
“I know the kids out here aren’t really accustomed to playing at a high level. Hopefully, if they see there are people caring for the field and working hard to let them play, it’ll make them play more.”
Added Mavs center fielder Jacob Henderson: “Whether some (players) move on or some only get to the high school level, it’s still been one of the best times of my life. To come out here with all these guys and give someone else a chance to play, it’s been really cool.”
That level of perspective, said Mennitt, isn’t easy to come by.
“Sometimes you have to stop and look at where you’re coming from,” Mennitt said. “(Our players) are fortunate enough to be able to play in a nice park with everything taken care of for them, and they’ve taken ownership of that. Now it’s about passing that on to somebody else.
“We all lose perspective from time to time. We seem to get reality checks from a higher being a lot of times that makes you realize what’s important.”