‘Rock garden’ no more
Truckee High baseball players once called their field the “rock garden.”
The all-dirt infield was about as smooth as a pebble-strewn beach, a place where ground balls and their unpredictable hops were feared, as likely to find an eye as an open glove.
Late Truckee baseball coach Mike Ellis went to work for the next nine years in a tireless effort to improve the field. He got sod donated for the infield, spruced up the dugouts and retired the jersey numbers of past Truckee greats, among many other improvements.
Still, Truckee’s baseball field was hurting for a makeover. The irrigation system remained shabby, the infield was yellow with dandelions, the scoreboard was inoperable.
In June 2013, four days before his high school graduation, No. 18 on the Truckee baseball team, Andrew Metlenko, was killed in a single-vehicle rollover.
The Metlenko family was devastated, but also motivated. Spearheaded by Andrew’s mother Laura and his grandmother Nina, they decided they wanted to turn the tragedy into a positive for the community.
“We wanted to give back to the community in some way after they gave so much to us in our time of need. So initially we were going to buy a new scoreboard for the baseball field,” said Laura Metlenko, who along with her mother began fundraising around town, placing donation jars at businesses and planning fundraising events such as a home run derby.
They called the project the Forever 18 Field of Dreams, in honor of Andrew.
About a month later, Larry Harper — the former director of scouting for the San Francisco Giants and founder of the Good Tidings Foundation, whose primary focus is rebuilding athletic fields in areas of need — happened upon the Truckee field.
“My family and I bought a cabin up in Tahoe Donner, and one day my son and I wandered down to the field to play catch and I noticed that it was in pretty rough shape,” Harper said. “There were some players in the batting cage, so I handed them my card. I thought maybe I could help out. I had no idea the story about Andrew.
The two sides connected, and Laura told Harper about her family’s plans for the new scoreboard.
“They already had a decent amount of money raised, so I said, ‘Why don’t we do something more significant than a scoreboard,’” Harper said, referring to a complete overhaul of the field.
With Harper’s foundation on board, the Metlenkos continued their fundraising efforts for the next year.
During that time, former Major League Baseball star Eric Byrnes, who owns a home in the Truckee area, saw the donation jars around town and offered to help.
“Eric right away stepped up and wanted to be involved,” Harper said, adding the former Oakland Athletic donated a significant amount of money to the project.
In addition to Byrnes, the Oakland A’s donated money, as did a number of people both locally and from out of the area. In all, Harper said, the project raised roughly $50,000 for the field.
It didn’t take much convincing for Laura and Nina, who along with Andrew were close friends with Ellis, to get the Truckee coach on board as well.
“Elly was just so stoked,” Laura said, explaining how thrilled Ellis — aka Elly — was to talk with Byrnes and Harper about the project on a conference call.
The ball was officially rolling, and on Sept. 8, 2014, Robert A. Bothman Inc. — “the best of the best in Northern California,” Harper said — began construction on the field.
They tore up the infield and replaced the outdated sprinkler system. They placed new sod and a new high-dollar, professional-quality infield dirt mixture. They replaced the mound and all the bases, painted the dugouts and foul poles, and replaced the outfield fencing.
They still plan to perform work on the backstop. Replacing the scoreboard remains a work in progress. Laura and Nina said the school district promised to help purchase that.
Harper said Good Tidings will send its full-time turf manager up on Friday to mow the field for the first time. He also plans to work with Truckee’s new head coach, JR Murphy, on how to properly maintain the infield, which essentially is on par with the Giants’ AT&T Park, Harper said.
“Hopefully when everything melts in the spring, it will be one of the best fields around,” Harper said.
Ellis would be proud. The longtime Truckee coach died of a heart condition in April. He was 46.
He poured his heart and soul into every aspect of the school’s baseball program. He labored over the field for countless hours, bad hip and all, and took players like Andrew under his wing and coached them up about baseball and life.
“I think Elly would be overjoyed,” said Laura, who also expressed her gratitude toward everyone who helped make the Forever 18 Field of Dreams a reality, namely the Good Tidings Foundation.
“Elly was so devoted to Truckee baseball, and he and Andrew were like two peas in a pod. Both of them are an instrumental piece of why this got done.”