Danny Chavez walked along the manicured infield Tuesday afternoon at Grant High School, looking for a dandelion to pull. He couldn't find one and beamed.
The Pacers' baseball coach eyed the dugouts, once an overnight shelter for transients from these hard Del Paso Heights streets, and sighed. The ballpark off Grand Avenue looks like a gem again, polished and pretty, with a team to match. The Pacers aren't just relevant. They're contending for a championship in the Delta Valley Conference, the top league in the region.
Grant (9-3) has beaten Bee No. 1-ranked Davis 3-0 and No. 2 Franklin 4-2 and lost two close games to No. 3 Elk Grove, which hosts the Pacers today. No. 4 Grant hasn’t been ranked this high since 1992, the last time the Pacers had a winning season and reached the playoffs. .
“The grass is green, 1-inch thick, looking great,” a grinning Chavez said. “We’ve got something special happening here, a baseball movement, a revival. We’re bringing life back to baseball here, and I couldn’t be more proud.”
When Chavez took over at his alma mater five years ago, job No. 1 was to clean up the baseball facility. Chavez found one dugout with smoldering remains from an overnight campfire.
“Homeless (people), looking for a place to stay, and I’d wake them up and tell them they have to get out of here, we have kids here,” Chavez said. “My first seasons here, we had kids who came to practice, wanting to play, and they had no cleats, no gloves, no idea how to play. We couldn’t compete. We didn’t know how to play. I spent a lot of long nights wondering what I got myself into, but I had a bigger vision of bringing this back to what it once was.”
Chavez was a Bee All-Metro pitcher for Grant in 1989, the ace for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I champions who set a state record for wins with 37. Grant had scores drafted by major-league teams in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, including Taylor Duncan, Leon and Leron Lee and Ricky Jordan – and regularly competed for championships. But by the end of the 1992 season, times started to change. Longtime coach Mike Alberghini stepped down to focus on Grant’s football team, which he has led to six section titles and 16 league championships.
The Del Paso Heights baseball community was then leveled by tragedy in 1993 when a longtime Grant Little League coach and mentor, Fred “Fat Rat” Lawson, was killed by a stray bullet following a practice. Without its popular youth baseball leader and without Alberghini coaching in high school, the Pacers’ feeder system was severed.
By the late 1990s, Grant endured a 1-95 win-loss stretch in the Capital Athletic League. In the 2000s, it wasn’t uncommon for Grant to forfeit games because it could field only seven players.
“When ‘Fat Rat’ was killed, baseball died here, too,” Grant athletic director Reggie Harris said. “It took someone special like Danny Chavez to come in and save this. He’s changed the culture of baseball here. It’s become a hub of the Heights again. He’s done a fabulous job.”
Chavez reconnected with Grant Little League, and he created a youth team called Star City Baseball. The Pacers have many players who have played since they were 4. They know the game and they’re confident. One of the Grant Little League coaches, Greg Marshall, is a former Pacer. Grant’s junior varsity coach, Lamar Rushton, is another former Pacers standout, as is Grant vice principal Wes Marshall. Chavez’s son, Danny Jr., is a sophomore who plays on the varsity. “Family” is the theme.
Chavez’s mother, Sandy, sat in a lawn chair late Tuesday afternoon, soaking in a game against Elk Grove, cheering on her grandson. Sandy’s daughter, Stephanie Portela, Grant’s scorekeeper, is the mother of junior third baseman Polo Portela and wife of assistant coach Polo Sr. Well-wishers stopped by, telling mother and daugther: “We had to come see. Baseball is back at Grant.”
“This is so neat to see,” Sandy said. “I have to tease my son, though: If you don’t play well, don’t come over for dinner!”
While the Pacers lost Tuesday, Chavez has eaten plenty this spring. He also salivates at the future.
“We had Opening Day for Little League here on Saturday, and there were 300 kids running around, snow cones, music, and you could see the excitement and the diamonds in the rough,” Chavez said. “We want kids to play ball here and experience this great game and this great school. I know what Grant did for me.”
Grant’s standout pitchers, Portela and Cameron Avila-Leeper, played in Chavez’s feeder program. Avila-Leeper, whose slight frame belies his fastball, signed a scholarship to play at Arizona. Slugger Chris Atteberry has played for Chavez since he was 9. He and outfielder Carl Granderson start on Grant’s football team and say they can’t get enough of this sport, either.
“Baseball takes a lot of work, but we’re doing it and enjoying it,” Portela said. “Coach Danny started it all. We started as a team, have grown into a family and we’re all brothers. And little kids in town here recognize us, ‘Hey, are you Polo from the Pacers?’ That’s neat that they look up to us.”
Opposing teams have noticed the turnabout as well.
“It’s great what’s happening at Grant,” Davis pitcher Matt Trask said. “That’s a great team now.”
Chavez said one thing hasn’t changed about Grant students.
“They want to hear it straight, no sugarcoating,” he said. “Baseball is like life. You make a mistake out here on the field, an error or wrong pitch, and you give up runs. You make a mistake or bad choices on these streets, it can be your life. You want to do something positive, play ball, go to class, hang out with positive people? Or hang out with someone who is trouble?”
Avila-Leeper agrees. “Out there,” he said, looking down Grand Avenue, “it can be life or death. This is better. This is fun here. This is what we all want to do. I love this. We all do. This is our time.”
Follow The Bee’s Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.