LORDSTOWN - Tucked in a corner behind the Lordstown schools complex is a sandy little baseball field.
It doesn't look like much hidden beside the back of the elementary school, but its humble confines embraces a high school team that plays with a little more love for the game of baseball than most of its competitors.
Due to decreasing numbers, the field sat lonely for two years, but not this spring. Now, the weeds have been cleared, the dugouts have been painted, and the Lordstown Red Devils are back in action.
Tribune Chronicle /?Vince Taddei
Lordstown baseball is back this season, thanks in part to the efforts of players Jake Jones (15) and Zack Wells (14) and coach Mitch Blake.
"I've been playing this game my whole life, so it was hard to be without it for two years," senior Zack Wells said.
"You never really know how much you miss something until it's gone, so this whole experience has really given us all a unique perspective on playing baseball - we don't have anything to lose, so we're just going out there and playing ball."
It wasn't as easy as getting nine players together, grabbing some bats and balls, and walking onto the field. Last year, it looked like the program was going to get back on its feet, but it just couldn't get off the ground. This year was different - as coach Mitch Blake knew it would be.
"Well, we went to go last year and couldn't get it," Blake said. "I was actually going to be hired last year, but it was kind of late notice, and didn't have enough time to get it together, so we didn't get enough kids to sign up, so I said 'Don't you worry about it - we'll get it next year.' Jake Jones - my shortstop, second baseman, utility man - he went around and was helping get players signed up. Now, it's like a heartbeat - it goes up and down and back up again, but we're playing ball."
Getting the numbers back up was not easy, so the team had to think of a creative way to drive players to the diamond.
"We're not blessed with numbers, so we have a very fine track team and a tennis team, too, and they are very successful. There wasn't enough kids to go around, so we actually - for the first time - implemented a two-sport rule, so you can have a primary sport and a secondary sport," Blake said.
"So they picked a primary and a secondary, and then I went around and kept asking kids and finally got enough kids to get the program started again."
It didn't take the swing of a bat to get that ball rolling, but rather the stroke of a pen, and a little selflessness.
"I wrote a letter to for principal to get the whole two-sport thing going, and they ended up deciding to use the spring sport session as a trial to see how it would work, so that's how we were able to get enough guys to play two sports to get a baseball team," Jones said. "A bunch of our seniors wanted to play, so I figured I'd play to try and give them their senior year."
Blake was just the man to re-mold the team from the shards of the past.
"I also coached the golf team and junior high basketball, so I know all of these kids, and some of them were on my golf team, so we already had that family bond already that you kind of need in sports, so it's just worked out real well," Blake said.
There may've been some familiarity with the players, but there was still that matter of building a team that never really played together as a complete unit.
Blake's solution to that challenge was to take the players back to the roots of baseball.
"I want kids excited about baseball. I think baseball has an inner-feeling that you ever lose - and I don't want to lose baseball, because that's America," he said.
To keep that element of their DNA strong, Blake uses his knowledge of the game's history to provide a little perspective.
"I tell them that I want them watching a little bit on TV, and every sport I coach, it's all about history. Every sport I coach, I'll bring something up when we're practicing like we had a guy come in with high spikes, and I asked him if he knew who Ty Cobb was," he said. "You get a sense of everything they went through. I just talked about Jackie Robinson, because one player wasn't happy with his glove, and told him that there was a time when Jackie Robinson didn't even play with a glove."
The results have shown signs of success at these formative stages of Lordstown's rebirth. The Red Devils fell to 0-5 after taking a 23-0 loss to Grand Valley, but they've had chances to win games, too.
"We're (0-5), and we lost two in extra innings, but our goal was to get a team and then to compete," Blake said. "We've done both of those, and now we're looking at winning."
If the players' willingness to follow him is any indication of the future, success may not be far away for the Red Devils.
"Coach has a great way of relating to the players," Wells said. "His perspective works, and I think it's going to go a long way in building a successful baseball program at Lordstown."