By Valerie Franchi, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – On April 27, St. John's High School alumni, family and friends came out to attend the dedication of the newly renovated Pioneer Field and cheer on St. John's baseball team as they faced the Leominster Blue Devils.
The new baseball and soccer fields, located down the hill from the school's main campus on Main Street, was designed to improve poor drainage and field conditions, as well as enhance handicap access and player safety.
According to Alumni Director Warren Hayden, the field was leveled and covered with Kentucky bluegrass, a new irrigation well was installed, and seating for 100 spectators was added, as well as a new sound system and restrooms.
The project began in June 2013.
Once a driving range, the property was purchased by St. John's in the early “60s, explained Headmaster Michael Welch. While it is primarily for baseball and soccer, Welch noted that the space is used for other sports as well, including regional and state competitions.
“We will be host to a javelin competition in a few weeks,” he said.
Three former St. John's coaches were honored at the event for their contributions to the school and the new field. Commemorative plaques are permanently installed near the stands behind home plate and each honoree was presented with their own plaque at the ceremony.
John A. Case, an honorary alumnus, was the St. John's varsity baseball coach from 1965-1987, as well as JV baseball coach and freshman basketball coach. He was inducted into the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1989. Known as “Ace,” he was also a history and physical education teacher.
William A. White Jr. “60 was JV baseball coach from 1966 to 1979 and varsity baseball coach from 1988-2003, as well as assistant football coach from 1964-1980. He was also a history and geography teacher, academic dean and director of alumni at St. John's.
“To say it's an honor is an understatement,” White said. “I spent 30 years on this field and to have my name here, especially in the company of Ron Darling and John Case, is one of the great honors of my life.”
The Darling Family, represented by Ron Darling Sr. and his wife Mikina, was honored for more than three decades of association with St. John's baseball, beginning in 1978 when Ron Darling Jr. “78 played on the team and his father volunteered as a coach. Ron Sr. continued in that role for 13 years as his younger sons Ed “79, Brian “84, and Charlie “87 all attended St. John's and played baseball.
Ron Sr. became assistant coach in 1988 and continued in that role until his retirement in 2006. Ron Jr. went on to play 13 seasons in Major League Baseball from 1983-1995 for the New York Mets, Montreal Expos and Oakland Athletics.
Because the field dedication had been postponed a day due to rain, Ron Jr. could not attend as he was announcing the Mets game in New York. He was instrumental in getting the project off the ground, pledging $50,000 and encouraging others to donate.
“As a former student-athlete at St. John's, I am thrilled that there has been great leadership to take our athletic fields to the next level,” he said in a statement on the school's website. “The baseball field was one of my many “classrooms” for four years .”
Ron Sr. wore a jersey honoring St. John's pitcher and assistant coach Greg Montalbano, who died of cancer in 2009. Before his death, Montalbano had a promising career in baseball. He earned a selection in the fifth round of the 1999 professional baseball draft while at Northeastern University. In 2001, he was named the Red Sox Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
“There are many others who should be honored,” Darling said. “We were lucky enough to be honored for this. We coached together. We all loved the game.”
Following a blessing by Rev. John J. Foley “65, the three honorees threw out first pitches from the mound. Shrewsbury Selectmen Chair Henry Fitzgerald then read a proclamation of appreciation from the town.
“Then entire town shares in your enthusiasm,” he said.
The first game on the new field was played April 9 against St. Peter-Marian with PJ Browne, class of 2014, throwing out the first pitch.