Kerry Benefield: Elsie Allen baseball and the discomforts of home

By KERRY BENEFIELD
PRESS DEMOCRAT SPORTS COLUMNIST

“Have you seen ‘Pirates of the Caribbean?’’ Matt Kasch, first-year baseball coach at Elsie Allen, asks me.

He was trying to convey just how bad the wind screens attached to the Lobos’ outfield fences look.

“It’s like the sails on the Black Pearl.”

True to his word, the threadbare screens, riven and translucent with age and damage, flapped in the breeze during a recent practice.

The center field fence is broken from its moors and leans precariously into the field.

But all that isn’t what bothers Kasch most.

What bothers him most is the infield. The infield of Lobo field is an undulating patch of grass with deep divots and wide dead spots where no grass grows. The base paths are bordered less by tight, groomed grass than patches of dirt where even weeds refuse to thrive.

“The varsity field is almost not even presentable,” Kasch said. “It’s embarrassing.”

Now it’s just to note that baseball coaches are notorious for wanting their fields looking and playing just so, but a meander across the Lobos’ infield proves Kasch has a point.

This is not a showplace. The players say a routine grounder to shortstop can suddenly find itself on its way to right field.

“Here you have to worry about getting hit in the face, getting hit in other places,” senior Caleb Romero said. “It happens a lot.”

“A lot of schools, field-wise, are a lot better than this,” he said. “Our field is known for bad hops. Home field advantage is not home field advantage.”

Aside from the hops, coaches will admit it — the look of the field is a pride thing. Maybe even a vanity thing.
But they work for it.

More than one coach I talked to said that being a baseball skipper means being a part time landscaper. And while baseball is a spring sport, landscaping is a year-round gig.

As if on cue, when I wandered unannounced onto Montgomery High’s field Sunday, I found three men and two teens on bended knee laying PVC pipe between second and third bases. On the Vikings’ home field, where the grass meets the infield dirt was sharp and tight and the guys working Sunday had the tans on the back of their necks to prove it.

Across town, Piner High’s field is gorgeous. The infield grass looks like it’s been looked after with more care than the greens at St. Andrews. The windscreens are maroon and the protective bumpers that line the top of the outfield fence are gold — Prospector colors.

Kasch, who played his prep baseball at Casa Grande High School and who last year was an assistant coach at Piner, said he’s wrestled with unforeseen problems on Elsie’s field since he was hired in late August.

Without a coach’s oversight, the field was not receiving care over the summer and drought-inspired policies likely left it without water, he said. When he got the job, Kasch got to work with a watering schedule and fertilizer. He made some headway.

Then a pipe just behind the pitcher’s mound broke, flooding a good section of the infield for weeks. The damage is still visible, can still be felt underfoot.

“Our infield is almost completely unplayable because there are so many different holes. It becomes a liability,” he said. “My main concern is getting the infield safe.”

The first year coach wants to work on fundamentals, but spends a lot of his time fretting over the field and facilities.

Kasch admits he likes caring for the home field grass, but says he was taken aback by the hole he had to climb out of before even conducting his first day of practice with the Lobos.

And what he wants to do — what the field needs to be playable — takes money.

The team held a chocolate sale before the season but had to borrow money from the cross country team for the down payment on the candy. Maintenance crews from Santa Rosa City Schools cut the outfield grass, but the infield is serious business that coaches typically like to handle themselves. Kasch mows Elsie’s grass with his dad’s lawnmower.

When the task at hand proved too much to be handled by profits from a candy sale, Kasch turned to social media.

In early January, Kasch posted a plea on gofundme, a public fundraising site. The goal? $5,000. The amount donated so far? $890.

And momentum has seemingly dried up — the last donation was given nearly three weeks ago.

In his pitch, he outlined the field woes, the team’s equipment needs and Elsie Allen’s position on the socioeconomic spectrum among Santa Rosa City School’s five high schools.

Nearly eight out of 10 students at Elsie Allen qualify for a free or reduced price lunch, the highest rate among the district’s high schools and double the district average.

Even if the school community were to provide copious amounts of aid, donations fall under increasingly strict state mandates.

Under a state law that went into effect in 2013, public schools cannot demand supplies or charge fees for most equipment and activities. Under the new rules, a parent of a student on a team can give a donation, but it cannot be earmarked for their student-athlete. And players cannot be barred from participation based on fees or donations.

It all leaves schools with a higher rate of poverty typically with a lesser supply of gear, equipment, and in this case, green grass.

Kasch knows he’s playing catch up. The Lobos’ first game is Friday.

The baselines still look ragged. The divots behind the mound are still deep.

But not too deep that Kasch hopes he and his Lobos can’t climb out of them.

Elsie Allen  coach Matt Kasch, center, player Vinny Chavez, left, and other members of the baseball team work on field maintenance after practice. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Elsie Allen coach Matt Kasch, center, player Vinny Chavez, left, and other members of the baseball team work on field maintenance after practice. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)