One Saturday I Built a Little League Field With Ten Inmates and No One Stole Any Bases! (Summer League Part 2)

Read Part 1 Here

Somewhere along the way, little league baseball became a place where families went to watch their kids not only play baseball, but prove the superiority of their gene pool. It started in the parking lot with the type of vehicle, then made its way onto the field with expensive aluminum bats and high-end gloves, and ultimately, it came down to whose kids made the All-Stars. In a lot of cases, being chosen as an All-Star resulted in a full-on family chest-pound. In my opinion, parents who put pressure on their kids to make the All-Stars took a lot of the fun out of the game. My philosophy was and still is very simple, "Let the kids play..."

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"Let the kids play…"

Towards the end of the 2002 Summer League baseball season, one of the parents wrote a letter to the editor at The Sun Chronicle (Attleboro) and it was titled, "Summer baseball league accentuates the positive". In her letter, she thanked both me and the Norton Recreation Department for "bringing back good old-fashioned fun baseball". She praised the "Only positive comments are allowed from coaches" rule, which was part of my "Coaches Code of Ethics", and the "relaxed attitude" of the league, which closely resembled sandlot baseball. She finished her letter with, "This league is fun!" (her son played on the 8-year-old All-Star team in 2001)

There was a buzz around town about the new league during the winter while a lot of the same kids were indoors playing rec basketball. The parents were all very happy with the relaxed atmosphere of the Summer League and some even talked about not playing spring baseball and waiting for the Summer League to start up. It was never my intention to reduce the number of spring registrations and the subsequent revenue, which helped fund the All-Stars, but there were those who believed that's what I had done. If raising money and starting my own summer league for Non-All-Stars wasn't enough to put me at odds with the powers that be in the spring league, certainly the idea that parents were willing to wait until summer to let their kids play baseball, was… 

R.J. Messina believed in what we were doing and the owner let Doug use his equipment to build the baseball field at Everett Leonard Park. Messina's the same contractor that did the excavation for Rocky Marciano's statue at Brockton High School at no cost to the city. They're good people…

When I saw Doug Instasi at the baseball complex early spring I asked him if his offer to dig out an infield at Everett Leonard Park was still good and he said it was. The owner of R.J. Messina, Doug's boss at the time, generously offered us the use of one of his backhoes and a dump truck and trailer so we could build the field. We couldn't have done it without the heavy equipment. 

The Park was originally owned by Texas Instruments who used it for company outings. It already had a swimming pool, Pavillion, and a ballfield when the Town of Norton purchased the 9 acre complex along with 27 acres of conservation land through a land and conservation grant in 1979. By the time we decided to utilize the Park for the Summer League the ballfield was overgrown and the diamond was no longer visible.


The Pondville Correction Center is only a mile from MCI-Cedar Junction, which is a maximum-security prison

Paul Russell lived in town and he was a Corrections Officer at the Pondville Correction Center, a minimum-security/pre-release Massachusetts State Prison located in Norfolk, and he said he could get 8-10 inmates to help build the baseball field. All they needed was coffee and donuts in the morning, pizza for lunch, and if they all behaved and did their jobs, a recommendation letter to the Warden so each of the guys would get an additional weekend furlough to go home and be with their families. Seemed like a reasonable ask to me.

The Summer League had more than doubled in size the second year, going from 51 kids ages 9 and 10 in 2002 to 107 kids ages 9, 10, and 11 in 2003. I remained busy in the offseason, increasing the number of sponsors from 18 to 28. We had $3,000 dollars available to run the league, plenty for the infield mix and sand we needed to build the diamond.

In late spring of 2003, Doug and I finalized our plan to build a baseball field at Everett Leonard Park. First, we would cut the outline of the regulation little league diamond, then remove the sod, dig out the loam, replace it with sand for better drainage, and finish by spreading the quality infield mix on top. I secured the high-quality infield mix from a Sand & Gravel that stocked it weeks ahead of the scheduled build. I remember it was $37 a yard but it was the same quality infield mix many colleges and some minor league teams were using at the time.

I was down at the park by 6:15 on the Saturday morning of the build with coffee and donuts for the crew. Doug pulled in shortly after me with the heavy equipment. At 6:45, Paul pulled up in a plain white passenger van with state plates and insignias on the driver and passenger doors. It was filled with inmates who like all of us, were eager to get started. In addition to Doug, we had Steve Lacivita, another heavy equipment operator, and some local volunteers, then-Selectman Chuck Moitoza, Dave Cormier, and Tom Driscoll.

During coffee, Doug and I gave an overview of the plan and told everyone what they were doing. A few of the inmates helped remove the sod and then took the good-looking sod and transplanted it in other areas that needed it. I had several inmates clearing some overgrown brush by the main road and at the entrance to the park. I gave them some rakes, a shovel,  a wheelbarrow, and a sickle… I looked over and saw one of the older inmates swinging the sickle with what appeared to be bad intention, and I worried that he could use the tool as a weapon… Paul assured me the guys allowed out on work details were the best behaved and that this was his best work crew. They did an outstanding job making the front of the park look welcoming. The sickle never became an issue… 

As Doug removed the loam, Steve took it away in the dump truck. We had regular sand delivered from a local Sand and Gravel and as quickly as it arrived Doug was laying it down for the base. At one point the local Sand and Gravel shut down for the day and we ran out of sand to replace the loam. The amount of infield mix was predictable and it was already on-site, but Doug said we needed regular sand under it so the infield would drain properly… Doug thought for a moment and said, "I'll dig in another area until I hit sand. We'll use that sand for the base and fill the hole with the loam we remove from the infield." It worked!

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"If you build it…"

I was a catcher in little league and I wanted a path from home plate to the mound and a few of the inmates dug that out by hand. I had the pizza and drinks delivered to the Park and we all stopped at noon for lunch, which we ate on picnic tables under the cover and in the shade of the Pavilion just beyond centerfield.

The Pavillion at Everett Leonard Park was a great place to get out of the sun for a while…

When people volunteer their time the mood on the job site is very different than when they're getting paid and in a hurry to finish. There was a lot of positive energy and a common goal each one of us shared; to build a baseball field for the kids. Other than my wedding day and the birth of my three boys, nothing I had done up to that point in my life came close to building this baseball field. It became a labor of love for all of us involved, it was our "Field of Dreams"

Once the base sand was spread, tamped down, and rolled, it was time to spread the infield mix. Doug filled his bucket with the infield mix and dumped piles in the infield where we all used rakes to spread it. There were no rocks, weeds, or other debris, just pure infield mix and it was a joy to spread.

People will come…

By 4:00 we had the infield mix spread and rolled. We all gathered behind the dump truck in centerfield and gazed back at the infield. It looked incredible! With the help of some generous sponsors and some hard-working volunteers, the new baseball field was built in one day. I knew the kids would be excited to play on it and their parents would want to watch the games. People would come…

I thanked Paul and his crew from Pondville Correction for their incredible effort. I let them know I would be sending a letter of recommendation to the Warden about the great job they did. Then I singled out one guy who spent most of the day transplanting good sod into areas where the grass was dead and full of weeds. When he was done with an area you couldn't tell where he had transplanted, he blended it so meticulously. I told him if we ever did something like this again I was gonna look him up. He responded with, "I have absolutely no plans for the next five years…"


The following day, Sunday, I met Chris Ruta Sr., one of the kid's fathers, at the field to locate the bases and the pitching rubber to little league specs. He was an engineer and good with measurements. First, we located home plate and then using a line level, we ran a level string from home plate to second base and we adjusted the height of the mound to 6" above home plate. Next, we located the bag at second. Then we located and squared the pitching rubber to 46' from the front edge of the rubber to the apex of home plate. We measured out the bases to 60' apart. It took some work, but after we dug and placed the drop-in bases, we measured across the diamond from first to third, which is a difficult measurement to get exact, and we surprised even ourselves when we were off by less than a quarter of an inch. It looked like we knew what we were doing…

By the start of the season, there were three former All-Stars playing in the Norton Summer League. The final kid to register that year was the oldest son of the newly-elected President of Norton Youth Baseball. The kid had incredible skills, was chosen as an All-Star for the third year in a row, had a new All-Star uniform hanging in his closet, but he didn't want to play All-Stars, and as much as his parents tried, they couldn't convince him to. After talking with me he decided to play in the Summer League and I made a promise to him that he'd have fun playing baseball again…

Because there were 107 registered participants in '03, I had to make up seven teams with equal amounts of 9, 10, and 11-years-olds and create a 10 game schedule. In order to get that done, we had to play three nights a week with some teams getting byes on certain nights, and leaving one night open for make-ups. I bought more equipment from A.D. Starr, made the schedule, scheduled umpires, and held a draft with the coaches at my house. 

Dave Kalla at A.D. Starr always treated me right…

We opened the season at the NEW Everett Leonard Baseball Field with a free clinic run by "HIT DOG", Mo Vaughn's Baseball Academy in Stoughton. Sixty-five boys attended. I also organized a league trip to Campanelli Stadium in mid-July to see the Brockton ROX play and meet Manager Ed Nottle and some of his players after the game. Fifty-five kids and some of their parents prepaid for the reduced-price tickets. And, I designed a new cap that had puff embroidery and a cool logo. There was so much to do and the games hadn't even started yet…


With the help of my friend Mark Leney, I designed a new cap for '03. It featured a bright yellow sun with a baseball rising behind it and puff embroidery in Norton purple. The kids loved it! My philosophy was, if 107 kids and all the coaches wore the same cap, they'd feel like they were all on the same team, and it might just create a little more camaraderie…

The new baseball field at Everett Leonard Park was a huge success. Playing on a field with such a nice diamond made the kids feel good about playing in the Summer League. Although my goal was to recreate the sandlot experience, I didn't want anything about the league to be B-rate, including the fields.  During the first year of the league, we played at the Lions Field and the J.C. Solmonese Elementary School, both town-owned fields that over the summer, didn't get the attention they needed. I did my best to keep the grass mowed and the trash picked up that year. The NEW Everett Leonard Field was a gem, and after spending more time improving the Lions Field, it too became a great place to play baseball, actually my favorite.

The first time I went to the Lions Field was in the spring of 1996 with my first-born son Michael, who was eight years old at the time. He had an Instructional League baseball game scheduled there. We drove up and down Dean St. looking for the field. After several unsuccessful runs, we saw cars pulling into a dirt parking lot and we decided to pull in too. Sure enough, the field was just over the hill and down in a hollow where it couldn’t be seen from the street. I immediately liked it.

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Unlike traditional little league fields where parents sat on bleachers either on the first or third base side depending on which dugout their kid was in, at the Lions Field all the parents sat together on a hill located on the third-base side, which with all the spectators seated became a grass-covered amphitheater of sorts. The field itself was unkempt, but I looked past that and saw a “diamond in the rough”, even back then. Next to the field along the first base side, behind a slightly rusted five-foot-high section of chain link fence and beyond some wild greenery and tall trees, was a sheep farm. And, not just any sheep, they were "prize sheep". The smell and the sounds at the field were similar to what you’d expect at a petting zoo. Some people were bothered by it, but not me. It added a sandlot feeling to the field and I totally enjoyed it.

The Lions Field was fenced and 180' down the left-field line, 170' down the right-field line, and 200' to straightaway center. At Everett Leonard, there's a fenced-in swimming pool at 200' in left and any shot over the fence was a home run. I offered a prize to anyone hitting a ball that landed in the pool, but no one was able to do it. In straightaway center there's a Pavillion at 230' and anything that landed on the roof or inside the Pavillion and bounced on the concrete floor was a home run. Right field had no fence but went on for 300' before there were woods. Right fielders couldn't let the ball get by them because if they did, the result could easily be an inside-the-park home run.


The '03 season-ending celebration included a home run derby, a pitching contest, swimming, barbeque, & live music. It was a great day!

Other than the problems the town had paying the umpires in a timely manner, everything worked out as planned. The kids had a great summer playing baseball and people came to watch. At the season-ending celebration that year we held a pitching contest at Everett Leonard in the morning. I purchased a glove-mounted computer that measured pitch speed and all the kids got to throw 10 pitches while an Umpire called balls and strikes. If a pitch was a strike, it counted. In order to qualify a kid had to throw at least five for strikes and the fastest five were averaged.

My son Dylan at 10 years old competing in the pitching contest at Everett Leonard Field

We also held a home run derby at the Lions Field in the afternoon. I made lines across the outfield at different depths and awarded 1-4 points depending on where the batted ball landed in the air. Doug brought his pitching machine and I recorded the points. Each kid got 10 swings and the winner was the one who totaled the most points.

In addition to the home run derby and the pitching contest, there were two seven-inning games in the morning, swimming all day, barbeque, and live music. 

The President of Norton Youth Baseball showed up with his son, walked the perimeter of the Park by himself, and watched the pitching contest in the morning. He went to the home run derby at the Lions Field in the afternoon. As the event wound down at Everett Leonard, he made his way over to me and said, "You should hand the Summer League over to Norton Youth Baseball."  When I asked him why he said, "We have more money and people and we could do a better job running it..." I responded quickly, "The Summer League is doing great and I wouldn't change a thing, this is exactly what the kids want." As he walked away it was obvious what he was after. He wanted the control of the new baseball field we built at Everett Leonard Park and all the revenue generated by the 107 kids who signed up to play Summer League…

It was during the Fall of '03, after a soccer game that my son Dylan and his teammates grabbed a Wiffle ball and bat out of one of the cars and the kids picked teams the old-fashioned way, made their own rules, and then started to play. They were having a great time and I was enjoying watching them from a distance when another father walked over and started watching with me. I asked him, "Isn't that a beautiful thing?" He agreed. Then I asked him, "You know how you ruin that?" He responded, "How?" I said, "Walk over there…"

(Let the kids play…)


To be continued…