Putting a shine on LaCrosse's baseball diamond
The LaCrosse baseball field is tucked away inconspicuously off a short road along a set of idled railroad tracks. If not for a small green and white road sign directing folks to turn left as they reach the north edge of the tiny town on US 421, first-time visitors would drive right past it. If all goes as planned for Eric Snyder, his major renovation project will turn the diamond into a destination point. "Somebody said, what are you trying to do?" the Tigers coach said. "I told them, I want to have the best field in the (Porter County Conference). South Central wants to host the sectional, my goal is to make this so nice that we want the regional." LaCrosse's coach from 2000 to 2004, Snyder led the Tigers to their last sectional title in 2002. He stepped down to follow his older kids, daughter Alex in softball and sons JT and RJ in baseball at South Central. His second go-round is an opportunity to finish what he started with the program, and the field project is at the core of it. "We put in five years of work before," Snyder said. "We added length to the dugouts, we put in two bathrooms. I had more ideas, so I felt like I didn't get to finish. Now that I'm back, we can do everything else we wanted to do. I'd rather be playing games, but the only good thing is we've been able to put in the time on the field." Snyder was hired back in the fall, a process that was a back to the future moment of sorts as he was interviewed by LaCrosse principal Brian McMahan, who played for him the first time around. "He said, are you going to be the same coach you were before?" Snyder said. "I said, absolutely. He said, welcome back. I love baseball, I love dealing with kids. I told him my son (Eli) is 10, so you've got me for eight years." While the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled Snyder's first season back, the down time has enabled him, along with a cadre of volunteers, to channel the hours into the field project. At this point, he estimates the investment to be in the range of $40,000 for work, equipment and materials but only about $4,000 of actual cost thanks to donations from businesses including North Star Stone in Valparaiso, Steindler Signs in Wanatah and A-1 Site Services in LaCrosse. "My dad (Todd), brother (Aaron) and I are all brick layers," Snyder said. "(Aaron's son) Todd plays for South Central, but he doesn't care where someone goes to school, it's for the kids. Every place I've ever coached, my dad's worked with me. With his company, we know a lot of construction companies, so everybody out there is an essential worker. Our joke is, if somebody needs something done with something, it's, I know a guy who knows a guy. You need stone? I've got you. It's nice how everybody has a different talent." The press box was re-done, the dugouts were painted and roofed with a stone exterior and a Trex decking interior. The old backstop, which Snyder believes could have been the original, was replaced with brick from dugout to dugout. Stone was put down on the exterior from one side to the other and poles erected to hang netting from 20 feet for fan safety. "If major league baseball can do it and college can do it, we can do it," Snyder said. "We be might as well be the first." The grass is already in decent shape, but Snyder has been able to re-set and automate an infield irrigation system that's sat dormant for four years. He's also received donations of fertilizer and a commercial sod cutter, and the outfield will be laser-leveled after the fall junior high season, if it is held. "It was pretty bad when I took over (originally)," Snyder said. "The grass is immaculate. It's pretty thick. A lot of fields square off first and third base rather than do an oval. Each field has its own thing. If (Washington Township coach) Randy (Roberts) has the best infield, my goal is to have a better infield. I don't want anyone to say, oh, so and so's is better. I want ours to be better than all of them. If you're going to get respect, that's how you do it." Tom Steindler, who provided the signage for the dugouts and press box, pitched the idea of an eight-foot tiger above the scoreboard and claw scratches on the outfield wind screens. "He actually approached me," Snyder said. "I'm like, if it's free, sure, that would look cool. It started out as a little and grew into a lot." The capper to the project is the addition of bleachers and the installation of a metal roof standing 16 feet high above the seats. "It'll be like a poor man's minor league park," Snyder said. "If you want a regional, you need to have bigger bleachers than 100 (people). (South Bend Clay coach) Joel Reinebold came down to the field and said, Eric, you've got a gold mine here, just wait. You haven't even played a game and you can feel the pride." Snyder estimates he's put in 400 to 500 hours on the field since getting the job, but all of the helping hands have made it a labor of love. "We've probably had 35 people out there, kids, moms, dads," he said. "It almost brings a tear to my eye, seeing so many people. One of the first things I asked was I need to know if you have supportive parents and the group coming up is one of the best there has been. The first thing I told the kids was no coach is going to outwork me. I'm going to coach year-round. If you don't, you can't have a successful program. I'm going to be deeply involved in Little League. You've got to do it by example. When the kids look at the field, they see I'm serious."
There's been no baseball at LaCrosse this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the field has been busy with activity as Tigers coach Eric Snyder has spearheaded a major renovation project, aided by considerable volunteer efforts and significant donations of materials and equipment.