Sacramento baseball great Leon Lee talks about saving landmark Renfree Field
Leon Lee remembers pulling into a parking space at Renfree Field that first night in June 1969. He was a confident and talented baseball player out of Grant High School, but something about the scene froze him solid.
This was the center of amateur baseball in Sacramento. The lights were on, and some of the best players in town were on the field. And Lee, at the age of 16, was about to join them.
“I was scared to death,” Lee said last week, standing on that field again.
Lee hit a home run over the center-field wall that first night and he kept hitting through 17 years of professional ball. These days he has a new mission: restoring Renfree to its old glory.
The ballfield in Del Paso Regional Park, off Auburn Boulevard in North Sac, is a mess. The field is brown and filled with garbage. The press box was gutted by arson a few years ago. Thieves ripped all the copper wiring out of the electrical system. In 2011, City Hall gave up trying to run the facility and shut it down.
Then, about two years ago, Councilman Allen Warren called Lee. Warren also played ball at Renfree while at Grant High, followed by a stint in the New York Yankees’ minor-league system. Warren wanted to work with Lee to help fix the old yard.
As early as this week, Lee and an investment partner will submit construction plans to the city for an ambitious remake of Renfree. They want to spend up to $4 million over the next couple of years to construct 3,000 seats, a rebuilt ticket booth and offices, a training facility and a rehabbed field surface. Lee is also talking about installing a local baseball hall of fame at the park with monuments honoring the region’s best players.
Lee is hopeful that enough work will be finished in time to open a summer league at the field in June.
His partnership, the Sacramento International Baseball Association, would operate the field. His partner is Vuja Jovic, a former pro basketball player from Serbia and local developer who last month bought the Mercedes-Benz building on Howe Avenue.
“This is a great mix where you can do something special for the community and make it profitable,” Jovic said. “This area has a lot to offer. Right now, there’s just blight.”
It’s no way to treat a place that could mean so much to so many. While many suburban schools have top-flight baseball facilities, lots of city schools don’t. “Baseball is getting exclusionary,” Lee said.
It’s also the field where some of the region’s best ballplayers have played. Guys such as Greg Vaughn, Steve Sax, Jerry and Danny Royster, Nick Johnson, Jerry Manuel, Dusty Baker and Larry Bowa. The list also includes Lee’s kid, Derrek, who played 15 years in the major leagues.
Lee was standing in the outfield Thursday morning, talking about what he sees when he dreams about the new Renfree. He swore there were 5,000 people there one night in 1971 for an American Legion game.
“I’m not saying we can bring that feeling back,” he said, “but we’re going to try.”
At the very least, he has a wish for a 16-year-old kid somewhere out there now, waiting to arrive for his first night at Renfree.
“I want that kid to be able to get out of his car,” Lee said, “and feel like I did.”