(Brendan Carl | The Daily World) South Bend’s Michael Oropeza tries to throw out teammate Arjay Pearson during a wiffleball game during practice on Wednesday.

Play Ball! South Bend kicks off baseball, softball programs

SOUTH BEND — For the time being, they are teams without a home field — or even a conventional practice facility.

But with a state-of-the-art field on the horizon, South Bend’s baseball and softball teams will launch their seasons with more than the customary degree of anticipation.

It is actually a revival of the South Bend baseball program. Under the coaching of Don Koplitz and Mike Morris, the Indians fielded a string of consistently competitive teams in the 1970s and ’80s.

They captured Pacific League championships in 1980 and 1986 and district titles in 1974 and 1982. But the baseball program was dropped following the 1986 season.

This will be South Bend’s first-ever fastpitch team.

Turnout numbers are relatively low — 13 for baseball and 11 for softball as of midweek. But the enthusiasm among players is high.

“What sets everything apart is that these kids are like sponges, they’re sucking everything up,” Tribe head baseball coach Jim Bleecker said. “They’re the most coachable kids I’ve seen in a while.”

“They definitely are having fun and liking it,” assistant softball coach Ron Johnson said of his charges.

Both programs came to fruition barely a year after they were formally proposed.

A delegation of boosters met with school superintendent Dr. Jon Tienhaara last March to advocate the addition of baseball and softball to the athletic program. Tienhaara was open to the suggestion, but noted a significant problem.

“We don’t have a baseball field,” he said. “So a big part of the plan was to find a solution to that problem.”

South Bend had no softball field suitable for high school competition. The nearest adequate baseball diamond was in Raymond, at the longtime home of the Willapa Harbor Babe Ruth program.

Tienhaara, however, did have a key contact in Brad Cheney, the president and executive director of the Ben B. Cheney Foundation founded by his late father.

There were ties between the Tacoma-based foundation and South Bend. The former owner of Tacoma’s Pacific Coast League baseball franchise and builder of Cheney Stadium, Ben Cheney grew up in South Bend and attended schools in that community in the 1920s.

“(Brad) was always asking me, ‘When are you going to get baseball down there?’ Tienhaara recounted. “We both agreed it would be nice if the field had artificial turf due to the weather.”

The Cheney Foundation agreed to finance a portion of field construction costs if the school district could come up with another source for some 50 to 60 percent of the bill.

Tienhaara found another partner in the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. Located in Baltimore, the foundation is named in honor of the late Orioles coach and manager, the father of Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr.

Foundation officials agreed to a grant that will cover the majority of the estimated $528,000 price tag for field construction. It will be only the third field (the others are located in Everett and Spokane) the Ripken Foundation has financed in this state and, according to Tienhaara, the first in a rural area.

The Cheney Foundation Board of Directors will vote later this month on a grant proposal that will cover the remaining $275,000.

“Without (the grants), it wouldn’t be happening,” South Bend athletic director Tom Sanchez said. “We couldn’t do it without that. The argument against (baseball and softball) is that we haven’t had a place to play. Without that, there isn’t much of an argument. That field, if and when it will be done, will be nice.”

The new field will be built, ironically, at Cheney Park, located three blocks from the high school behind the Bud’s Lumber building.

Owned by the City of South Bend, Cheney Park has been used primarily for youth soccer. The school district has worked out a long-term lease arrangement with the city.

The Ripken Foundation, according to Tienhaara, will be responsible for not only rebuilding the field but installing dugouts and a scoreboard, among other amenities. Construction is slated for mid-summer.

Much like Lacey’s Regional Athletic Complex, the new field will feature an artificial turf infield and grass outfield. A convertible pitching mound, suitable for both baseball and softball, will be installed. During the summer, it can also accommodate youth baseball and softball.

“Phase two, not currently in our budget, is field lights,” Tienhaara said.

Although the field won’t be ready for play until 2018, the South Bend School voted last summer to begin its baseball and softball programs this year.

Part of the reason, Tienhaara confirmed, was to demonstrate to potential funding sources the seriousness of the district’s intent. Even more important, he believes, the timing was right.

“The kids were excited about it, they wanted to start it now,” the South Bend superintendent said. “The community was excited and they wanted to start it now.”

The Indians were granted membership in the Pacific League but will play their entire 2017 schedule on the road.

Although the softball team often practices indoors at Koplitz Fieldhouse, both teams have conducted a portion of their workouts in a makeshift batting cage situated in a covered play area behind Chauncey Davis Elementary School. The cages are divided into three sections, allowing one group to hit off pitching machines and other groups to use tees.

“Those tees are placed so that the balls (usually wiffle balls) are being hit into the side of the cage net, but far enough back to prevent anyone from getting hit,” Bleecker said. “We can cover bunting and anything else relayed to hitting. Our small numbers allow us to get through a lot.”

Most observers believe turnout numbers will increase once the field is built.

A one-time Tribe volleyball coach (and Grays Harbor College softball coach), Bleecker has also been the head baseball coach at Elma and an assistant at Hoquiam, Blaine and Curtis of Tacoma. He and his wife, Vivian, returned to the Twin Harbors last year after teaching in Africa and South Korea for five years. Their son, Brandon, is his dad’s assistant.

Head softball coach Adrianne Lartz, a youth softball coach for more than a decade, is on maternity leave. For this season, she is leaving the daily operations to Johnson, a South Bend alum who has coached youth softball for 14 years.

Experience among the players has been harder to find.

The softball team’s roster, for example, includes one senior, one junior, two sophomores, six freshmen and an eighth-grader.

“I have seven girls who had never touched a bat or ball before,” Johnson reported.

Drew Rose, a sophomore who is expected to be the Tribe’s pitching ace, and junior Michael Oropeza have played Legion baseball in Montesano. The majority of other players, according to Bleecker, have been out of baseball for at least a couple of years.

“Our skill level is exactly where I thought it would be (but) there are more pleasant surprises than I expected,” Bleecker said. “Every day has been full of pleasant surprises.”

Like virtually all of their Twin Harbors counterparts during this wet month, the Indians have seldom ventured outdoors for practice. As of Thursday, the baseball team has spent exactly one hour outside the cage, shagging fly balls on the football practice field during a break in the rain.

But once the skies clear, the season’s first pitches will be welcomed with unusual gusto in South Bend.

Rick Anderson: (360) 537-3924; randerson@thedailyworld.com