Merlene Davis: Lowe's volunteers, parents give new life to baseball field at Constitution Park

Herald-Leader columnistOctober 16, 2013 

At one point during this past season at Constitution Park, officials with the Northern Babe Ruth baseball league used flour to mark the baselines.

"Then they found out that a boy who played here was allergic to flour," said Steve Cummins, a parent and assistant coach. The league had no money to purchase chalk, he said.

The lack of money also showed in the disrepair of the ball field, the dugouts, the rotting timbers in the batting cage, and from the overall disrespect the league had earned from parents, players and even high school programs using the field.

Cummins was in that group, and he would have taken his son, Aaron, to another league had Aaron not pricked his conscience.

"Aaron said if we leave, it will be over," Cummins recalled.

And it would have been. As it was, Babe Ruth officials were on the verge of pulling the league's license and there were insurance premiums and umpire wages that hadn't been paid.

Plus, rumors circulated that some wanted to turn the area into a softball complex, leaving no team for boys, ages 13-18, on the north side of Lexington, Cummins said.

Jerry Hancock, Director of Parks & Recreation at Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, said the leagues are responsible for the upkeep of the facilities and fields where they play in exchange for a $1 annual fee and semi-exclusive use of the fields.

"What happened over the last couple of years was a result of declining participation," he said. "The league declined to the point where in the middle of the year, it folded. No one was there to collect any money."

Cummins, and fellow parent Brian Kelly decided something had to be done to save the league.

They met with Babe Ruth officials and were able to keep the franchise. They and other parents changed the name of the league to North Lexington Babe Ruth Baseball, came up with new league colors and paid off the debts.

"It is a brand new league," said Cummins who donated $1,200. "It has nothing to do with the past."

But once the dust settled, there were still serious structural and safety problems that needed to be addressed.

"We didn't have the upfront capital to make it appealing and safe," said Cummins. "Players don't want to come to some place that looks like a homeless shelter to play baseball."

Kelly, who was named league president, and Cummins, the vice president, began soliciting businesses for help.

Kelly stopped in the Lowe's store in Hamburg and discussed the need with the store manager, who referred the request to Michelle Dunn, the human resources manager.

She thought the project would qualify for the Lowe's Heroes Program, which encourages employees to adopt a project in their community and volunteer to make a difference for individuals or groups. Usually, Dunn said, the projects have been home repairs, but she thought the baseball facility would have a wider impact in the community.

"I'm not a baseball fan, but I love kids," Dunn said.

Because the project was a large one, James L. Johnson, human resources manager at the Lowe's on Richmond Road, agreed to help out.

"I love baseball," Johnson said. "When I went to the field, it looked really bad."

For the heroes program, each Lowe's store had $1,200 to purchase necessary supplies at cost.

So together, the stores had a pool of $2,400 which they quickly ignored.

"We kept adding things," Dunn said. "We don't have a final number."

"We did go way over budget with the blessings of both our store managers," Johnson said. "We came back in and asked for more."

About 20 Lowe's employees from both stores worked over three days in September painting, removing rotten wood from the batting cage, attaching protective tubing to the top of the chain-link fence that enclosed the field, building an enclosed scorer's booth and refreshing the dugouts.

Johnson played baseball all his life until he enlisted in the military, he said. "It gave me a place to go and it kept me out of trouble," he said. "That's the reason why I most definitely wanted them to have a beautiful park. I would go play there."

Since they completed the repairs, Dunn and Johnson and Lowe's volunteers have also been recognized by the mayor and the Urban County Council.

"This is crazy," Dunn said. "I didn't do it for the attention. The kids deserve it. They really do. I hope we can do more in the future."

A season of fall ball is being played at the ball field now. Cummins said Dunn and Johnson need to flip a coin to see who throws out the first pitch next season.

"It was such a good project and the kids on this side of town really needed something positive to look forward to," Cummins said.

Kelly agreed. He said many of the players had been driving across town to other leagues because the facilities were so bad. They won't have to do that any more. North Lexington's league will run more professionally.

Though the ball field is far improved from where it was, there's still a list of needs for just about everything, he said. The league — which estimates it has donated $8,000-$10,000 in labor and financial assistance — could use an infield grooming machine, drags, equipment, and a lot of sponsors who want their banners hanging on the fence around the field.

Kelly and Cummins are also open to naming the field after a corporation, business or individual.

My son played on that field years ago when it was still in good shape. I did not know it had fallen into disrepair. It looks as good now as it did back then.

It took a lot of work, a few dedicated parents, and about 20 Lowe's employees who didn't let time or a budget stand in the way of giving young ball players on the north side something to take pride in again. Thank goodness.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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