By Bill Paterson
When construction equipment that partially covered the baseball field at San Juan High School was finally removed in mid-January, coaches and players couldn't believe their eyes.
Their once quaint field was a nightmare.
Weeds were three feet high, fencing was down, the infield grass was dead from a lack of watering and vandals had partially burned down the third base dugout and storage shed and stolen equipment, including a ride mower.
"We were living through hell," said San Juan High School coach Dave Watson.
Watson and his coaches had done their best to maintain the old facility. But when school-wide construction forced the closure of the baseball diamond, the usual maintenance of the field stopped.
"We weren't sure what we were going to do," Watson said.
Then he heard that Sutter Health's Fit-for-Life Field Makeover Program, sponsored in conjunction with the Sacramento River Cats, was looking at San Juan as one of a half dozen candidates for its annual field makeover.
In past years, the River Cats and Sutter Health have helped refurbish diamonds at Hiram Johnson, Encina and Grant high schools.
"When I heard the River Cats were considering us for this, I told them, 'If you get us out of this mess, I can tell you five years from now it's still going to look good because we're a baseball program,'" Watson said. "When they came out and looked at it initially, they saw arguably one of the worst baseball fields in the section."
It didn't hurt that San Juan vice principal Steve Hunt had worked with River Cats and Sutter Health as an Encina administrator, when that school became the second to undergo a makeover in 2008.
Hunt says the cost of labor and materials for the project probably is worth about $25,000.
Now the San Juan players pitch in to help maintain the field and they were among the nearly 300 volunteers who showed up on March 13 to nail, saw, paint, pour concrete, weed and put the final touches on the new digs, including a laser-cut infield.
"I was surprised by how many people were out here," said senior pitcher-third baseman Scott Gray, who helped paint the snack bar and pick up trash. "It was nice seeing everyone working together.
"We loved getting the new field. When you get bad hops for three years, you kind of get tired of it. Now this infield is fun."