- Rick McCrabb Staff Writer
There are five piles of dirt higher than a pitcher’s mound, weeds taller than your knees, and the Pepsi scoreboard in centerfield is nearly covered by overgrown trees.
The abandoned baseball field is a too common sight across our country, where America’s pastime has been pushed aside by soccer fields, video games and social media.
But thanks to the efforts of two men, the financial support of the City of Middletown, and generous contributions from the business community, Middletown is taking a Babe Ruth swing toward revitalizing its once proud baseball history.
There was a time, not long ago, when Smith Park, the city’s largest park, was the home to numerous baseball diamonds, and Rathman Ballfield No. 8 — the one that sat in the southeast corner — was the showcase because of its towering lights.
Playing under the Rathman lights was a special time for youth baseball players.
The Smith Park baseball fields, all except Rathman because that land was donated to the city, eventually were bulldozed and replaced by well manicured soccer fields as far as the eye can see.
Now because of the leadership of Chris Urso, a Middletown school board member, and the donated talents of Walter Dappert, a brick mason, Rathman Ballfield may return to its former glory. And they’re hoping that once Rathman is renovated, it will serve as an example that will spur other community members to board the baseball bandwagon.
“Crossing my fingers and hoping,” Urso said.
When completed, Rathman Ballfield will have two brick and block dugouts with storage facilities, a decorated brick wall behind home plate, turf that will reduce the possibility of rainouts, large netting that will protect fans from foul balls, and a homerun fence.
It will be Middletown’s version of Camden Yards in Baltimore: A new field built to look vintage.
Urso, whose 11-year-old son plays baseball, said his father, Joe Urso, built a field and baseball program at Monroe High School. Urso hopes to “live off his model.”
The City of Middletown donated $25,000 to the project, money that was “stretched pretty thin,” he said. Most of that money was spent purchasing the chain linked fence from Simpson Fence. The bricks were donated from Division 4 Inc. in Cincinnati, the infield dirt came from the Cincinnati Reds Community Fund, and the sand and gravel from Watson’s. Urso hopes to purchase used infield turf for $5,000 and spend another $3,000 to $4,000 having it shipped.
He said the nearby restrooms and concession stand can be used and the trees beyond the home run fence provide the perfect backdrop.
When the project is completed, Urso said it will “lend itself to a really good experience.”
He said Middletown High School’s baseball team, which competes in the baseball rich Greater Miami Conference, must improve its facilities and feeder program. He mentioned Hamilton, Mason, Lakota East and Lakota West as examples of schools that produce “a steady stream” of baseball players.
“We have talent here,” said Urso, mentioning Middletown product and Chicago Cub Kyle Schwarber as an example.
While Urso has been selling the project to the business community, Dappert, 70, of Middletown, has been laying the foundation one brick at a time. He can’t count the number of hours he has donated. Nor does he worry about working for free.
“I’m doing it because I care,” Dappert said. “I’ve been blessed.”
Urso called Dappert a skilled mason with “a generous heart” and said the ballfield will be “a legacy piece for him.”
Dappert hopes his 12-year-old grandson, and future generations of young players, enjoy Rathman Ballfield.
You like talking to people like Dappert. He doesn’t mind saying what he thinks. He believes the City of Middletown, because of budget cuts, has reduced the number of activities for young people. That may be one reason for the increase in youth crime, he said.
“Nobody has ever made an effort to bring anything back,” he said. “I’m actually doing it for my kids. I’m talking about kids of the city. I love kids.”
He paused, looked out at the project, then added: “There are a lot of people who say they do, but when you ask them if they want to come out here, nobody wants to help.”
The conversation was over.
There were weeds to knock down, dirt to move.
They won’t come unless it’s built.