by John Shultz
Special to The Leaven
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The Bishop Ward High School baseball program here — no slouch on the diamond, to be sure — inspires a lot of loyalty. Players return to help coach. Alums and their families follow the ups and downs of the season.
And backers turn out by the hundreds to show their support with their pocketbooks when the program is in need.
Consider: Ward’s baseball facility was in need of significant maintenance and upgrades. To help meet those needs, the high school turned to Major League Baseball and its Baseball Tomorrow Fund for assistance.
Ward leadership is thrilled and grateful for the $53,000 the fund awarded them late last fall — they’re one of only five national recipients of the grant this year.
But they’re no less proud of the additional $66,000 brought in by alumni and friends.
“It’s a humbling experience receiving one of those grants because the competition is so great,” said Mary Pat Beals, development consultant for Bishop Ward. “One of the nice things that we have going here for our school is that we could demonstrate great community support. When we sought the grant, we started trying to raise matching money right away, and over 200 people have made gifts.
“I doubt we would have been successful if we didn’t have that support.”
The Baseball Tomorrow Fund stresses the importance of community support in its awarding of grants.
“The Baseball Tomorrow Fund appreciates Bishop Ward’s commitment to youth baseball and softball in its community. We are pleased to support the continued growth of this program,” said Cathy Bradley, executive director of the Baseball Tomorrow Fund, in a statement.
The money will go to sorely needed upgrades, Ward officials said. The school’s baseball facility dates back to the 1950s, not counting some renovations that took place in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
“The last three years, age has really crept up on the field,” said Dennis Hurla, coach.
The funds — which also include a $5,000 gift from the Kansas City Royals — will go to a whole slate of physical improvements, Hurla said. On the docket: replacing fencing on the field; two new dugouts; additional seating on the first-base side; refurbished seating; new concrete around the concession area and behind and underneath the thirdbase stands; a permanent PA system; additions to the press box; a new sign honoring players; a new pitching mound and home plate (up to professional specifications); and a new irrigation system to help maintain the field.
“The kids are really excited about it,” said Hurla. “We’ve begun our pre-season conditioning and we’ve already fielded a bunch of questions [from the players]. With good weather, we hope to get most [of the improvements] done by the first game in late March. Either way, we’ll get it done soon.”
From an actual competitive playing standpoint, it will be a better field to play on, Hurla said.
“It will also be more user-friendly and more attractive. I think it will be one of the better high school fields in the KC area.”
Coach Hurla’s been at the helm of Ward’s program for 16 years. During his tenure, the team has won nine state championships.
The coach knows Ward baseball is important to families and alums, and to the larger community. Volunteer efforts, after all, help with annual maintenance of the field.
That being said, this particular outpouring of support was still fairly striking to Hurla.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “I’m very grateful. It’s very nice to know that so many people are willing to support a project like this when the majority of them won’t directly benefit.
“It was just such a good will program — people wanting to help a good program in the community and a good activity for Bishop Ward.
“It was just a gift from the heart, and it all had a bit of an effect on me.”
Beals said most of the donations came in the form of smaller gifts from individual alums and supporters.
Others made bigger contributions, like Marsha Basey who gave $6,000 in honor of her dad and brother. Many in-kind donors, like Ashgrove Cement Company, also gave generously.
Perhaps the most touching gift came from the Beggs family.
John and Tammy Beggs are both Ward alums, graduating in the late ’70s.
Their sons — Bryan, Sean, and Zach — all attended and played baseball for Hurla. John Beggs was a constant at their games, sometimes working as scorekeeper, other times standing with the other Ward dads near the third-base line.
“We both felt the same way about Bishop Ward. We made lifelong friends there,” Tammy Beggs said. “And we always felt that Coach Hurla was such a hard-working, honest person.”
About this time last year, John Beggs was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of leukemia.
He responded well to treatment at first, but showed recurrence of the cancer in June. He died July 1, 2011, at 51 years of age.
The family thought hard about the best ways to memorialize John. During the time he was sick, Tammy had been receiving some email notices about the Ward baseball fund.
“John absolutely hated flowers,” Tammy said. “So that’s kind of what started me thinking about Bishop Ward. I wondered what the boys would think about people giving memorials toward that, and they were 100 percent for it.”
The Beggs family saw a tremendous outpouring of support.
“I myself wrote about 250 thank-yous for it, and that was just the donations I received,” Tammy said. “I was very taken by those donations. Most people don’t give that much for funerals. But they knew how dear it was to us.”
Donors in Beggs’ name gave just under $5,300.
“It was very, very nice on their part, and I think the world of them,” said Hurla. “Certainly it was very tough for them to go through what they went through. This gift is very heartwarming and something I’ll never forget.”
For Tammy Beggs, the choice of recipients was obvious. “I think it’s very well-deserved,” she said, adding that Bishop Ward’s baseball program runs more on volunteer spirit than deep pockets.
“Everybody believes in it, and that’s why it works,” she added. “It has good people, and a good leader.”