To the young ballplayers sitting patiently along the third-base line Thursday, the opening ceremonies for their spiffy new ballpark were all about soft, green outfield grass devoid of holes and rocks and a neatly groomed infield promising only smooth hops.
But to the few hundred cheering West Side folks huddled in the shade and listening to dignitaries from professional baseball and the city of St. Paul, this field — named Minnesota Twins All-Star Park at Gilbert de la O Fields — was so much more.
It was pride. It was the reward of hard work. It was a sign that a tight-knit community that has been beset by poverty and problems finally can bask in the beauty of a new ball field all its own.
“It’s a great gift, especially for a community like us,” said Sunnie Valdez, a West Side mother and fifth-generation resident of this neighborhood just south of downtown. “We don’t see a lot of this happen for us.”
It seemed entirely appropriate that on a gloriously sunny and hot afternoon, a longtime champion of the West Side and the wife of a Hall of Fame ballplayer who died helping victims of disaster shared a diamond developed by the Twins and the major leagues to foster joy in the inner city. A record $8 million in legacy projects, including the West Side ball field, is part of the 2014 All-Star Game to be played next week in Minneapolis.
“We have played on rocks and with holes in the field for 44 years here,” De la O, a former star athlete and school board member, said of what was here before the lush new manicured and irrigated turf. Then he chuckled.
“I hope we don’t get soft.”
Vera Clemente, widow of Pittsburgh Pirates great Roberto Clemente and an ambassador for the game, said the West Side project would have resonated in her husband’s heart.
“When he was a young kid, he was always helping others,” she said of Roberto, who died in a plane crash Dec. 31, 1972, while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. As a boy, Clemente pulled a man to safety from a burning car.
“This is what was important to him,” she said of the new ball field, which will be followed by the development of all-purpose fields for other sports at the adjacent El Rio Vista Recreation Center. “I am honored to be here.”
Pride and honor was a common theme among those who spoke Thursday — including Twins owner Jim Pohlad, Twins great Tony Oliva and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman — and those who listened and cheered.
Dayton Massie, 13, and Ryan Prisch, 11, sat in the bleachers, a pitcher and a catcher proudly wearing their West Side Boosters baseball uniforms. They said they can’t wait to get a chance to play on their new home field.
“It looks perfect,” Massie said.
It also felt perfect to Armando Comacho, the former president of Neighborhood House who championed this project for the past six years. Neighborhood House is part of the West Side complex that includes the rec center.
“It really brings a sense of pride to a section of St. Paul that has felt neglected by our saintly city,” said Comacho, who also spent time on these fields as a boy.
Said Nancy Brady, the new president of Neighborhood House: “These are the fields that every kid deserves. That’s where they want to play. They are going to succeed on these fields.”
When the ceremonies ended, 10-year-olds representing a new generation of players warmed up. De la O was asked what it means to him to have his name on the scoreboard overlooking the diamond. He paused, choking back tears.
“I wish,” he said, “my parents were here to see this.”
James Walsh • 651-925-5041