A renewed Ford Field baseball diamond opened for the 2014 Alpine-West Menlo Little League season on Saturday, March 15, with motivational remarks, and the first pitch, from Eric Byrnes, whose 11 seasons in the big leagues included the Oakland A's and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
It was a homecoming for Byrnes, who starred on the local Morey's Little League team from 1985 to 1988. Byrnes grew up in Woodside,
The field at 3329 Alpine Road in Portola Valley has had extensive work done to it, including regrading, new sod in the infield and outfield, a new irrigation system, new dugouts, new bleachers, a new backstop and new fencing around the field. A new batting cage is in the plans.
The project came in just under the budget of $409,000, Public Works Director Howard Young told the Almanac. Funding included $232,000 in state grants plus local donations.
The Alpine-West Menlo Little League provided at least $100,000, and the Sand Hill Foundation, led by Susan Ford Dorsey, agreed to match up to $100,000 in donations. Members of the public also contributed.
On opening day, the crowd of several hundred included the two Little league teams scheduled to play the first of three games on the field that day.
After a ribbon-cutting ceremony and expressions of thanks to Ms. Ford-Dorsey, Alpine-West Menlo league President Tim Goode gave baseball jackets to Young and to Lindsey Bowen and Jon Myers of the Portola Valley Parks and Recreation Committee.
Next up was Byrnes, who was used to being behind a microphone, having made a second career of talking about baseball on the radio. He spoke for about 15 minutes, often to the Little Leaguers in the crowd about having big dreams and not giving up on them.
"I just continued playing and continued trying to persevere," Byrnes said.
His professional career included five seasons with Oakland, four with Arizona and stays with the Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies and Seattle Mariners, according to MLB.com. It was tough going. At one point, he said he was living with his mother. "I was probably the first big leaguer in history to ever live at home," he said.
His mother played a crucial role. At games, she would park her station wagon just outside the left field fence. "This is where you're supposed to hit the ball," she would say, pointing to the car. He started trying at 9 and finally made it at 11, in his last game that year, when he broke his mother's windshield.
Batting practice may have helped. His mother would drive him to Malibu Grand Prix to hit against a pitching machine that threw balls at speeds of up to 90 mph. His mother was apparently somewhat critical of his performance there, so one day he handed the bat to her, he said. "Whap, whap, whap ... a bunch of swings and misses and she finally understood," he said. "It's a game of failure."
There were doubters. Byrnes said he was once assigned to write an essay about what he wanted to do when he grew up. His ambitions, he wrote, were to play professional baseball and talk about baseball on the radio. His teacher told him those goals were unrealistic and to rewrite the essay. He informed his mother, who replied: "You will not rewrite this."
"There's a lot of frustration you're going to have to deal with people who doubt you," Byrnes said. "You gotta have discipline, you gotta work and you gotta believe."