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Grassroots Baseball: Route 66 project visits RRHS baseball stadium

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — It’s too bad Route 66 only goes through eight states, not nine.

Because nine chapters would be ideal for a new book about baseball along Route 66, from Chicago to Santa Monica Pier.

Nonetheless, “Grassroots Baseball,” the new Route 66 edition, is expected to be published sometime in 2021.

In mid-November, acclaimed baseball photographer Jean Fruth and Jeff Idelson, now retired but formerly an executive at the National Baseball Hall of Famer for 25 years, the last 11 as its president, made their way from Los Angeles to Chicago, with several stops in New Mexico. The duo had also been in New Mexico in the summer of 2019.

“Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin” was Fruth’s first such book. From there, she developed the concept of Grassroots Baseball as a non-profit and asked Idelson to join her.  Idelson and she co-founded Grassroots Baseball and are developing a follow-up book about amateur baseball along Route 66.

Among their stops was the Rio Rancho High School baseball stadium. Yes, the traveling duo knew Rio Rancho isn’t anywhere near “The Mother Road,” although an original portion of the national highway passed through Sandoval County (now NM 313) and south on Fourth Street into downtown Albuquerque, and from there south to Los Lunas, and then west on what is now NM 6.

But Fruth and Idelson had heard a lot about the RRHS facility and the coach of the team that plays its home games there, Ron Murphy, and just had to make a stop to check it out, with Fruth quickly taking photos of non-varsity players in the batting cages and then others on the field.

Murphy was understandably proud to be their host; he’d had lunch earlier in the day with Idelson.

“It’s huge,” Murphy said. “(My son) Tyler went to Tucson yesterday to play in a tournament. I stayed (in Rio Rancho) an extra day, because that’s how great I think this is.

“I think it’s a huge honor,” Murphy continued. “Like I told Jeff, national attention for our kids, our program, our facility, our community. This is second to none. I’m really excited about this — honored that we’re one of the few chosen for them to stop at and do something about.” (After Fruth and Idelson departed, Murphy headed to Tucson.)

It seems hard to believe now, but the Rams’ home games back in the early days, such as 1998 and ’99, were played on a Little League diamond at the Rio Rancho Sports Complex (then known as Arroyo de Deportes), off High Resort Boulevard, so to say the program has come a long way is an understatement:

The Rams played their 1998 home games and their first “home” contest of the 1999 season at Arroyo de Deportes.

Their current ballpark opened in April 1999, a 5-4 loss to visiting Eldorado.

Twenty-one years later, with a shaded grandstand, the Ken Todd clubhouse for players and umpires to ready themselves for games, a concession stand, a durable turf field and, most recently, a press box, the Rams’ ballpark one of the state’s best.

“This will be the second book in the series,” Fruth said, explaining that the initial book, “Grassroots Baseball: Where Legends Begin,” was portraying the amateur game around the world and was released in June.

“We started last year; we spent five months documenting baseball all around the world, and we had a number of clinics (along the way),” Idelson said.

One of those 2019 stops was at Isotopes Park, where baseball Hall of Famer Rich “Goose” Gossage handed out baseball gloves and baseballs to all the youngsters who showed up, and then turned them loose on the field to play catch – although most of the kids were looking around to see if the Isotopes’ popular mascot, Orbit, was there. (He wasn’t.)

“We wanted to work with the youngest kids to really introduce the game,” he added, “to see if we can get some traction on the pro game.

“The Route 66 project, obviously, comes right through Albuquerque and Tucumcari and Gallup, and New Mexico is going to have its own chapter in the book. Everything we documented last year (during 10 community stops from Chicago to Santa Monica) and the stuff we’re shooting  this year and into next spring – because of COVID, there’s not a lot we can do right now — (that will be in the new book), but it’s not only about baseball, it’s ‘Americana’ that defines New Mexico.

“You can’t tell the story of the grassroots game in New Mexico without (including) baseball on the reservations. You can’t include it without high school baseball,” he said. “For each of the eight chapters, as we did in our first book, we’re going to have a legend introduce what it was like growing up in that area and playing baseball.”

No, they didn’t choose former Rio Rancho MLB reliever Brendan Donnelly, for whom Murphy is a godfather to one of his children. Idelson was informed that only 30 MLB players were born in New Mexico.

“Alex Bregman is writing the introductory chapter and he’ll represent New Mexico in the book,” he said. “Alex’s essay talks about what it was like growing up here, some of the things that were important to him as a kid.

“He’ll set the table, if you will, and it’ll be followed by pictures of the Americana that’s around here,” he said. “When you read about Alex’s story and his approach, being through strength and determination — and having Dustin Pedroia as a role model — you can see that he’s a kid that not only had the strong upbringing to give him that self-determination, and what he’d turned himself into and how he represents New Mexico is impressive.”

“We did not see much baseball on this trip because of COVID,” Idelson said. “It was more about scouting fields and meeting people so that when the game returns, we can capture the grassroots game. We did meet with (UNM baseball coach) Ray Birmingham and Ron, as you know, and also spent some time at the Albuquerque Baseball Academy. We saw fields all along Route 66, from Gallup to San Jon. We also spent time capturing the Americana of Route 66 that will go hand-in-hand with the baseball, to give a sense of place to the New Mexico chapter.”

Idelson said more photography will take place on another trip.

The Observer recommended another great New Mexico site, the Oscar Huber Memorial Ballpark in Madrid, which is about 14 miles north of I-40 (which basically took the place of Route 66).

“We’ll definitely go up there,” Idelson said.

Coincidentally, Murphy said he’s played on the Madrid diamond.

“When the Molly Muggers, (named for) that bar up in Tijeras, my dad used to coach that team when he was alive. He would talk me into playing for the bar team. We had the big game against the East Mountain Riff Raff.”

Later, Idelson and Fruth visited Amarillo’s Potter County Memorial Stadium, which has a rich history that dates back to 1949 when it opened as the home of the Class C Amarillo Gold Sox.

From 1959-82, Amarillo was the Texas League affiliate of the Orioles, Yankees, Cubs, Astros, Giants and the Padres, with future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn hitting .462 over 23 games for the Gold Sox in 1981.

To learn more about the project, visit grassrootsbaseball.com, where you’ll read, “After a successful maiden voyage in 2019 along historic Route 66, Grassroots Baseball is back on the Mother Road to highlight the amateur game where it is safely being played. Amateur baseball is played and enjoyed at many ages and levels, from Little League to American Legion; from high school and college to the minors; and from 19th century re-creations to pick-up games and Sunday adult leagues. The passion for the grassroots game is strong along The Main Street of America.”

And Rams fans and Murphy, plus Cleveland High baseball coach Shane Shallenberger and his program, know it’s pretty strong here in the City of Vision.

 

Twenty-two years ago, this is how the RRHS stadium was taking shape. (Photo courtesy of Ken Todd)

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