Leader Blues

Friday, May 29, 2009

TOP STORY >> In Lonoke, a lifetime of baseball

Leader senior staff writer

Roy Don Lewis has had a 40-year love affair with ball playin’. It may be in his DNA.

He played and coached into middle age. Now, he runs the program and the ballpark at Lonoke. He married a ballplayer and both of his children play ball.

And he wears his heart on his arm — an incomplete tattoo, including crossed bats, a ball and the names of his wife and children.

There was no high school team when Lewis, 46, attended Lonoke High School. But he played organized ball until he was 18 as a pitcher and catcher.

“My life is baseball and kids,” Lewis said. “Baseball and softball.”

Maybe that’s why the salaried Lonoke parks director works seven days a week, as much as 80 hours a week, scheduling games, grading seven infields, spreading quick-draining crushed red volcanic rock, pumping water off low spots in seven outfields, lining up umpires and ordering provisions for the snack bar.

The phone doesn’t stop ringing with people wanting information on this week’s tournament or next week’s event and wondering if they can still register a team for a particular tournament.

Lewis said he’s been involved as a coach since 1983. He has been director of Lonoke parks, particularly the ball fields, now for about five years.

He oversees eight fields: one for T-ball, one for Little League, two Babe Ruth fields, two softball fields and two multipurpose fields.

If those fields are being used for a baseball tournament, he has to build up the pitchers’ mounds—or grade them out for softball.

“Friday night, we’ll have five games at once, all baseball,” he said.

After recent torrential rains and some flooding, Lewis and his ground crew, plus some volunteers, turned the infields to dry them, pumped water as necessary in the outfields, cut grass and lined the bases. Even as some areas of the county were still underwater, his fields were ready to play ball.

“I got a city council and mayor (who support this program), who approve purchases of equipment and crushed red rock,” he said.

Under Lewis’ direction, the city has built new restrooms at the park, and approved the purchase of two new “grinder pumps.” It has also put in a grant to fill in a huge and potentially dangerous drainage ditch running down the left side of the park.

“We still need lights on the last two fields,” he said.

A new 480-square-foot storage shed was completed last year to keep tractors and equipment safe.

The concession stand can clear $15,000 on a busy weekend, selling hamburgers, chicken, hot dogs, nachos, soft drinks and candy.

Lonoke ball fields are reserved for tournaments nearly every weekend, he said. The city has only one open weekend between Feb. 27 and the July 15 end of season, he said.

Forty-seven teams participated in the Memorial Day tournaments.

Lonoke will host two state tournaments at the end of the season — the 18-year-old senior Babe Ruth tournament and the 11-year-old 60-foot baseline tournament.

Sometimes the fields are rented out to an organization putting on a tournament, but Lewis still has to be on hand to resolve any problems and to supervise the concession stand.

A lot of money changes hands there and even on weekends when the park is leased for a tournament, his department still oversees the concession stand and keeps the profits.

One recent weekend, he had four tournaments going on at the same time, ranging from T-ball to baseball.

The ball field hosts league play during the week for teams from Lonoke, Hazen, Carlisle, England, Brinkley, DeWitt, White Hall and Sylvan Hills.

“I think he’s done a great job managing ball fields and setting up schedules,” says Lonoke Mayor Wayne McGee, his boss.

McGee said Lewis and his two hands — Richard Johnson and Greg Lingo — “go above and beyond to keep the fields ready.

Several weekends when (other ballparks cancelled), we were still playing ball.”

McGee said the successful program at the ballpark was an economic boost for the area.

“You have a tournament with 30 to 40 teams, families, coaches and umpires,” McGee said, buying gas, staying at motels, eating at local restaurants, which brings a lot of revenue to local merchants and also additional tax revenues for the city.

He said the tournaments have brought as many as 1,200 people to town for the weekend.

More than once, the Pizza Hut has run out of dough for crusts.

“It would be hard to put a number on it,” McGee said.

McGee said that as a supervisor, Lewis doesn’t receive overtime for his 60 and 80 hour weeks, but he does receive some downtime in the winter.

In addition to the ballpark, Lewis is over the two other city parks, which must be mowed, maintained and upgraded.

The city has a penny hamburger tax with the revenues dedicated to city parks.