SOUTH BEND — Growing up in Naselle, South Bend School District Superintendent Jon Tienhaara says baseball was an important part of his childhood.
“I always loved playing baseball when I was a kid. (It) has always been important to me,” he said last week.
So when a community group petitioned the district in the spring of 2016 to bring back baseball and add fast pitch softball for the first time, Tienhaara was excited for the possibility.
“I take community input very seriously, and view a big part of my job as responding to community/parent/student requests with fidelity,” he said.
So after getting the thumbs up from the school board later that summer, the two teams made their debut last spring, while planning continued for the construction of an all-weather field that could be used by both. Now, with the new field completed, the South Bend High School baseball and softball teams are ready to open their new field at Cheney Park this spring.
The biggest obstacle for the two sports was the lack of a suitable playing field.
“I knew that in order to make a baseball/softball program sustainable, we would need a field that could handle bad weather,” Tienhaara said. “In deciding to bring baseball back and adding softball, we knew we couldn’t change the weather. Having quality, playable facilities for various weather conditions was going to be our ticket.”
Poor weather and the effect it had on the school’s poor game facilities are what led to discontinuing baseball in 1986, despite a history of success in the sport — South Bend was the league champ in 1974, ’80, ’82 and ’86, and district champ in ’74 and ’82.
So after having soil tests, elevation surveys and the drainage of Cheney Park examined, the school began to look for ways of funding the construction of a synthetic turf field. Tienhaara knew right where to look.
“I contacted the Ben B. Cheney Foundation and informed them of our plans. Before long, (they) contacted me and generously gave us start up money to purchase uniforms and equipment,” he said.
The district has a longstanding relationship with the foundation and the Cheney family, dating back to when its namesake, Ben Cheney, attended South Bend High in the early 1900s.
Tienhaara found another ally in the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. Named for the former Major League Baseball player and manager, the foundation has provided funds for and built more than 60 all-weather fields throughout the U.S. — South Bend being their first rural project.
In fact, thanks to nearly a half million dollars received from the foundations, grants and private donations, the district has had to spend very little money to add the two teams and build the field.
“We did put up some batting cages, purchased a scoreboard, purchased synthetic turf maintenance equipment, and paid a small project management fee to help us with field construction, but everything else was grant funded,” Tienhaara said.
The project received $275,000 from the Ben B. Cheney Foundation; $75,000 from Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation; $48,000 from the Baseball Tomorrow Fund (a philanthropic arm of Major League Baseball); $10,000 from the Washington Forest Foundation; $15,000 from local business, and various amounts from individual donors. They also received upward of $7,000 from Bud’s Lumber in South Bend for materials and supplies in order for the high school’s construction class to build the dugouts.
Field construction was done by Sports Fields Inc., a company used by the Ripken Foundation for all their field construction projects. They began in early October and had the work completed by Halloween.
“What a whirlwind,” said Tienhaara, “They got things done fast.”
Phase two of the project will feature field lighting and improved parking, something Tienhaara is currently working to find funding for.
The South Bend High baseball and softball teams played their inaugural season last spring without a home field, and therefore played all their games on the road. The softball team went 2-11, while baseball went 5-8. Playing the season without a home field was a challenge, according to baseball coach Jim Bleeker.
“It was extremely challenging for a first year program to play all of their games on the road at someone else’s ball field,” he said Monday morning.
Bleeker noted that actually playing the games was the easy part, but the travel and logistics were difficult. And like all other local spring teams, the weather didn’t do them any favors either.
“There was a stretch of 31 straight days that we did not play any games, and were forced to practice in our gymnasium,” he explained.
Because of this, all of their non-league games were cancelled, with the exception of the last game of the year against Naselle.
But that was lat year, and Bleeker said his team is very excited for their upcoming season.
“The excitement level is very high, both within our program and especially within the community,” he said, adding, “The players in both of the programs are the ones who are the most excited and the ones who can’t wait to get on the field.”
Bleker said that practicing and playing on a new turf field, should be an advantage for the South Bend teams.
“Our kids, hopefully, will know where to play certain batters to and what to expect on most ground balls,” he said. “Mostly, we will have the advantage of being able to practice on a field and put into use all of the experience that that offers.”
As currently scheduled, the home opener for baseball will be March 13 when they host local rival Raymond, while softball will host their first game on March 27, a doubleheader with Ilwaco.