FACETIME- Ground ball: Darrell Gardner keeps the grass green
For almost as long as there's been youth baseball in Charlottesville, Darrell Gardner has been there to lend a hand. For nearly 50 years, those hands have hardened from cutting the grass, raking the pitcher's mound, grilling the hot dogs, and performing nearly every other task to keep the Lane Leagues running. And even at age 73, Gardner says he has no intention of taking himself out of the game.
"This is home," he says of the field that was named in his honor in 2001. "I keep coming back because it's exciting to see a kid start out at something and see how much he improves. It makes me proud to be a small part of that."
Since first moving to Charlottesville in 1960, Gardner has tried to instill his love of baseball in the thousands of youngsters who have played on his field. That love, he says, began as a boy in southern Illinois rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals.
"My brothers and I would hitchhike or take the bus 185 miles to Sportsman's Park for a weekend doubleheader," he says. "I've always had that green grass and manicured infield in mind when I'm working on the field here."
Caring for the field is what the veteran groundskeeper can be found doing most days. Why spend so much of his time perfecting the turf? "For 95 percent of them, this is the nicest field they'll ever play on. We owe it to these kids," he says.
Indeed, Gardner has been part of Lane League long enough to see "these kids" sign up kids of their own to play ball.
"It's so gratifying for me to see that," Gardner says. "I guess it means I haven't screwed anything up yet."
Gardner's dedication is something former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher and current baseball instructor Larry Mitchell sees all the time. "He and that field are one," says the former Lane Leaguer, now co-owner of the Total Performance training facility. "He'll call me up and ask about the height and slope of the mound, what kind of materials they mix in with the mound. He's always thinking about ways to make it better."
Though Gardner has never received a dime for his work on the field, he says the work has rewards that are far more valuable than money.
"To see the kids having fun," he says, "is what it's all about for me."