'Diamond days'

Published: Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Diamond Days
America's favorite past-time plays out at Middlefield Ball Park

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again." - James Earl Jones as Terrence Mann, "Field of Dreams"

Photographs by Norbert von der Groeben, text by Cross Missakian

It's a hot afternoon, and the Palo Alto Little League season is winding down. For PA Partners, this has been a tough year, but they can still sneak into the playoffs by upsetting undefeated Hengehold.

Alas, clutch hitting and a disputed call at home plate fuel a big two-out rally, and Hengehold takes command. Nobody is working the scoreboard today, but the consensus in the stands is "about eight to nothing."

Meanwhile, young Laurel Fisher seems more interested in staining her face red with a snow cone than watching her 10-year-old brother Graham play first base. Alex Zeglin, a freshman at Gunn, watches his brother Jon pitch for his former team and waits for the chance to say hello to his old coach, Dave Siegel, who has managed Hengehold for 20 years.

A shaggy mutt laps up water from the old Red Vines tub that is set out before each game. And a couple dozen parents, grandparents, siblings and friends chat and relax as they take in the game and cheer the ballplayers.

So it has gone here since 1952, when the sunken diamond at Middlefield Ball Park was dedicated, establishing a place where generations of Little Leaguers, and anyone else who cares to drop by, can claim their slice of Americana.

Tim Sandborn runs the concessions stand, which has been a family business for decades. A plaque above the snack bar honors his father George, "coach, concessionaire, and good friend," who passed away last year. On this day, Tim's own son, home for the summer from Humboldt State, works alongside his grandmother Pat, at George's widow.

Tim Sr. points with pride to the scoreboard beyond right-center. "No corporate sponsors," he says. "Never will be."

Two members of the Palo Alto Fire Department stroll up, and one mentions that Ty Cobb threw out the field's ceremonial first pitch. His partner is not impressed. "If Mr. Cobb had his way, we wouldn't have seen the likes of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays," he says, referencing Cobb's notorious racism.

Seventy-seven-year-old Virgil Vesey likes to walk over and catch a few innings once or twice a week. Seated on a folding chair and shaded by a blue mesh hat, he sips coffee and looks at out the same field where his son played in the 1960s. He still thinks like a coach.

"What he did there . . . he jerked his head and tried to throw it too hard," he says.

Vesey recalls that the fences behind home plate were once lower, and lacked the angled overhang. "There used to be a lot of foul balls back here, and a lot of dented cars."

Rod Verhulp keeps score and watches his son Jake, who is playing second base for PA Partners. A member of the league board, Verhulp talks excitedly about the new positive coaching alliance program, which, he says, challenged the coaches to "have the courage to lose." But he pauses to encourage the players by name after every pitch.

Later, the team's faithful have reason to cheer when Jenner Fox gets a hit to right and comes around to score after two bloop singles. Excitement builds in the dugout, but Travis Bowers gets two quick outs to end the threat, and probably the season for PA Partners.

That's OK, though, because there is always next year. There is always next year.





Palo Alto Online
© 2000 Palo Alto Online.