Community support, steady progress are key to city's new ball fields
JANESVILLE The dugouts and diamonds are built, yards and yards of concrete poured and 200 trees planted.
A drainage area is engineered. Bleachers shimmer in the sun. Signs and scoreboards are erected and irrigation and batting cages installed.
After hosting ball at what was literally a construction site for a year, the Janesville Youth Baseball & Softball Association facility is mostly finished.
The group recently sold its former property on Woodman Road and used the proceeds to pay off its construction loan and finish its site work.
The complex includes 10 fields on 40 acres, two concession stands and two restrooms.
On any night, 500 people are easily at the facility. The association has 700 members, including hundreds of volunteer coaches and 54 boys and girls youth teams. Varsity and junior varsity softball teams also use the fields.
At least eight fields are usually in use—on some nights all 10—with two games played nightly on each field, volunteer Dave Ellis said. Tournaments are held most weekends.
Leagues run from May through October, with two state tournaments thrown in.
"We certainly have reached the point where we want to say thanks to everybody in the community for all the support we've gotten," said Duffy Dillon of the association when he announced Wednesday's open house. "We want people to see what their generosity has allowed us to do."
The decision to move to the Youth Sports Complex grew out of a perfect storm that included the largess of a fundraising group and, well, a storm.
The city had approached the association in the 1990s with a standing offer: It would cover the infrastructure—such as utilities, rough grading, bathroom facilities and security lighting—if the group chose to move to the Youth Sports Complex.
The group had operated its four fields on about 10 acres on Woodman Road for decades.
In the late 1990s, the Phil McQuade Memorial Group approached the association.
Family and friends had raised about $100,000 in his memory and wanted to donate it to light a field, but zoning on Woodman Road precluded lights.
So the association worked with the group to build two fields at the sports complex with the intention to eventually have lights on at least one.
But that meant the organization was operating two facilities, putting a strain on the volunteer organization.
"It was a struggle, but it got us experience at the sports complex," Dillon said.
Then, in 2007, torrential rains hammered the Woodman Road fields just before it was to host a state tournament. The fields did not drain, and the games were moved out of Janesville.
Costs to improve the Woodman Road fields were estimated at $300,000. The group considered the facts that the site was landlocked and would never have lights.
"I don't think that anybody realized at the time, but the donation that the Phil McQuade Memorial Group made was huge," Dillon said. "They're the ones who gently pushed us, through their donations, to go build fields at the sports complex. They're sort of unsung heroes."
The announcement that the group would raise money to build at the Youth Sports Complex ran in the local paper next to the announcement that GM was closing its plant in Janesville, volunteer GR Lyons recalled.
"The community went into a panic, and rightly so," Lyons said. "We just kept our head down and kept digging, plodding along and, finally, three years later, there's light at the end of the tunnel."
"We were just doing things as we could afford them," said Steve Ellis, a longtime volunteer. "We're not complaining. In the economy we were in, we were fortunate to get anything."
Last year, players and families used portable bathrooms and hauled lawn chairs. Dave Ellis—Steve's brother—ran the concession stand with a generator and coolers under a tent, tearing it down each night and hauling the goods back and forth to his garage until the group bought a storage pod.
Today, two concession stands serve fare such as hot dogs, nachos, pretzels and ice cream. For tournaments, the group grills food.
"This is a small business, believe me," Dave Ellis said.
Dillon estimates the group raised more than $1.2 million when in-kind donations are included. The city chipped in $1.5 million.
Every decision was made with the goal to build a facility that would last 100 years or more.
"We can't express in words how thankful we are for the city's partnership in this and for the taxpayer support of this development," Dillon said.
Earlier in the season, it rained more than an hour but only resulted in a small delay.
"Those diamonds drain incredible," Dave Ellis said.
Lyons said he is gratified when he drives by on weekends to see 15 teams from other communities here instead of Janesville families spending money in other communities.
"It's helping our community, and it makes it more affordable for our kids to play," Lyons said. "It's 100 percent the result of parents and a lot of other people being involved."
Meanwhile, fundraising continues.
The group's goal is to keep costs for families down, and the fee is $110 per family, Dave Ellis said. That brings in $80,000, not even a third of the operating budget.
Besides continued upkeep, future dream projects include a playground, running electricity and water to a storage barn and an indoor practice facility.
But first, the lights.
Lights could cost as much as $330,000 for eight fields.
Now, coaches and parents struggle to get to the fields for the first game scheduled at 4:30 p.m. Lights would allow the games to be pushed back an hour.
"Plus, it's really cool for kids to play under lights," Lyons said. "When you're that age, it's a big deal, like being a major league ball club."
Meanwhile, the McQuade foundation continues to raise money for the group and Thursday hosted its 14th annual golf outing.
The association has renamed its newest, biggest competition field the Phil McQuade Memorial Field.
That will be the first field to get lights, Dillon said.
Lights at sports complex will shine on memories of Phil McQuade
Phil McQuade loved to play baseball under the lights at Riverside Park, recalled his friend, GR Lyons.
After McQuade died in 1998, his friends formed the Phil McQuade Memorial Group. The group has raised more than $100,000, and in 2002, the Janesville Youth Baseball & Softball Association used some of that money to build the Phil McQuade Memorial Field at the Youth Sports Complex.
The group continues to work toward its goal of lighting a field in McQuade's memory. Its efforts have played a large part in the new, 10-field complex on Wuthering Hills Drive.
"I never knew him," said Duffy Dillon of the Janesville Youth Baseball and Softball Association.
"In the time I've come to know the story, I've come to basically conclude he must have been one hell of a guy."
Friends remember McQuade as a tremendous athlete, a hard worker and a great person.
"He would be a great role model for today's youth," Dan Clark said.
McQuade graduated from Craig in 1983, playing on the state championship team that year. He continued to play baseball through college and after he married and had a daughter.
After McQuade died of colon cancer at age 33, the Land of Lakes Baseball League in Pewaukee retired his number.
Mark Groshan, 46, grew up with McQuade. They lived about a half block apart and were the best of friends since age 4.
"Phil was the best person I knew," Groshan said simply.
Baseball was a huge part of McQuade's life, and Groshan remembers his friend gathering 10 to 15 kids from the neighborhood in the summer to play ball in the street or behind a friend's house in "Pete's Lot."
"As we got bigger, we had to move from Pete's Lot to O'Brien's Field," Groshan recalled.
"We always referred to him as the all-American boy," friend Jeff Hansen said.
McQuade fought his disease with courage and grace.
Groshan remembers visiting McQuade while he was going through chemotherapy but still playing baseball.
"I remember him just crushing a home run, so high up in the pine trees, it was amazing," he said.
Clark visited his friend in the hospital. McQuade told Clark he didn't ask "Why me?"
"He said, ‘I'm glad that I have this disease instead of my friends, or my family, or my daughter.'
"He was very caring."
Lyons and McQuade played ball together for years.
"Phil was honestly one of the best guys," the prototype of what high school athletes should be, Lyons said.
"Whenever I think of him, I think of a huge smile on his face," Lyons said. "He was always having fun."
The group, which continues raising money with its annual golf outings, is close to fulfilling its dream of seeing a field lighted in McQuade's honor.
"It was always a real special deal if we were playing a game at night," Lyons said.