McRae-Ireland renovation fundraising nearing end

Years after the original stands at McRae-Ireland Field were torn down, Blue Mountain Babe Ruth looks to build bigger, better ones.

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The old wooden grandstands at McRae-Ireland Field were condemned and torn down in 2009.

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A computer-generated image of the proposed Blue Mountain Babe Ruth grandstands.

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A computer-generated overhead view of what McRae-Ireland field might ultimately look like once renovated.

MILTON-FREEWATER - The Blue Mountain Babe Ruth (BMBR) league, and the City of Milton-Freewater and the Milton-Freewater School District, are inching closer to raising the funds needed to construct a new grandstand at the McRae-Ireland baseball field, located near the Mac-Hi football field in Milton-Freewater.

Blue Mountain Babe Ruth treasurer Bruce Mason and BMBR project coordinator Stan Croghan originally planned to totally remake the field, grandstand, dugouts and fencing, but the estimated $550,000 needed to complete the renovation would have been difficult to fund. The duo instead limited their scope to the grandstand alone, which is estimated to cost approximately $350,000 when completed.

The new grandstand will include bathrooms, a press box, an umpire's dressing room, a team room/community meeting room and will seat up to 220 fans. Both Mason and Croghan said the ultimate goal of the project, other than to provide seating for baseball fans, is to revitalize waning interest in baseball in the Milton-Freewater area.

The previous grandstand, built out of wood and demolished in 2009, was in poor condition and needed to go, Mason said.

"The old facility was a joke," Mason said. "I've been here for 35 years, and it was ready to be demolished 30 years ago. We can do a lot locally and regionally with the (new) facility. It will be the class of the region. I'm hoping to see baseball get back to where it was for years and years in the area."

Fundraising for the project is nearing completion, with $254,000 having already been raised, however BMBR is still seeking about $38,000 to complete a $48,000 matching grant and fully fund the project.

The list of donors so far includes, but is not limited to, The Donald and Virginia Sherwood Trust, the Wildhorse Foundation, the Eurus Trust, the Milton-Freewater Area Foundation, The Ford Family Foundation, the Blue Mountain Community Foundation, the Yancy Winan's Trust, the Welch Trust and other local clubs, businesses and individuals.

The matching grant benefactor has a deadline of November for the grant to be fulfilled, and although the funds have yet to be raised, BMBR will move forward with the intitial stages of the project (securing materials, commissioning a final blue print for the project, etc.) prior to the deadine to ensure that construction begins shortly thereafter. Mason said the goal was to complete the initial stages of construction before winter weather could delay the project, and to finish construction prior to the beginning of Mac-Hi baseball in March.

Although Croghan and Mason plan on continuing the renovation of McRae-Ireland Field next year - starting with new dugouts, most likely - Mason said they were only focusing on one step at a time and are not planning the next stages yet.

Once completed, Croghan said the grandstand will rival Murr Field in Walla Walla in quality, if not size, and hopes the new facilities - along with the present lighting and baseball-friendly weather in Milton-Freewater - will make the complex a destination for larger regional tournaments.

Another major goal of the project is to reinvigorate baseball in general in Milton-Freewater. The city has a strong history of baseball, and the field's namesakes, George McRae and Bob Ireland, played a large role in that history. In its glory days in the 1960s, Milton-Freewater was home to both a semi-pro team, the Twins of the Oregon-Washington League, and then the Western Baseball Association and an American Legion team. After the Philadelphia Phillies established a farm club in Walla Walla, the Twins folded and the Legion team inherited both the team's names and uniforms.

The Twins soldiered on through the decades, but eventually Walla Walla got an American Legion team as well, and with many athletes moving to the Walla Walla program, interest in Milton-Freewater baseball fell off.

It culminated in 2009 with the condemnation and destruction of the previous stands, which had been built with largely volunteer labor and supplies salvaged from the demolished Prospect Point school, and the end of the Milton-Free water American Legion program before that.

The Blue Mountain Babe Ruth program, which had been using a field next to Mac-Hi and was looking for a new field, used funds saved up for the construction of a field to replace the chickenwire backstop at the field, and the city donated the aluminum stands currently in use.

Croghan, who coached his children through T-ball, Little League, and ultimately Babe Ruth baseball, said BMBR will most likely try to form a board among the city, the school district and BMBR to coordinate maintenance and usage of the facilities.

The largest donors to the grandstands are The Donald and Virginia Sherwood Trust and The Ford Family Foundation. Croghan and Mason first applied for a grant to the Sherwood Trust. However, they retracted that application when the Trust advised them that they needed more local funding before they could be considered for a grant.

BMBR applied for smaller grants from the Wildhorse Foundation and the Milton-Freewater Area Foundation, which allowed it to move forward with the Sherwood Trust and subsequently the Ford Family Foundation.

BMBR was helped with its application by Sherwood Trust board member Jock Edwards, who helped guide Croghan and Mason through the grant writing process, which can be somewhat arduous, Croghan said.

"Jock (Edwards) was a great resource. Without him and the Sherwood Trust, none of this would be happening," Mason said. "I can't say enough about Jock and the Sherwood Trust. He's a mentor of the first order and he's really helped us a lot."

Although Milton-Freewater will not be contributing funds to the project, the city will provide labor and supplies, and the field is on city property.

Mason, a general contractor by profession, will serve as the contractor for the project.

As a thank you for larger donations, the BMBR will post metal plaques to recognize donors. The highest level, gold level, requires a sponsorship of $1,000 or more. The lowest, bronze level, will be for donations of more than $250.

For information on how to donate to BMBR, contact Bruce Mason at 541-938-6338 or Stan Croghan at 541-938-3141.

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