Jomar Santiago didn't think this day would ever come.
But there he was Wednesday, under a picture-perfect sky, worn baseball glove in hand, leading the Hartford Public High Owls as they took on their cross-town rivals on their home field.
"This feels great," team co-captain Santiago said as he prepared to pitch. "I'm never going to forget this. Never."
The moment was a long time coming. For the first time in seven years, the Owls played their first home game since construction work began on a $100 million renovation of the school.
Before Wednesday's baseball game, generations of student athletes had to play their games on the road, in rival ball fields and with few, if any, family and friends to cheer them on.
The deal was that after the renovation was complete, the field that was used as a staging area for heavy equipment would be restored to its original condition. But it wasn't.
When I visited the field for the first time last year, it was unplayable. The dirt was as hard as concrete. Construction debris, patchy grass and metal rods were sticking out of the uneven ground. Overgrown brush lined the fence.
Diggs Construction initially tried to downplay the problem — all it needed was a little more grass seed, they said. School district officials distanced themselves faster than a batter trying to dodge an inside fastball. They didn't supervise the building project, they insisted. They were merely passive observers.
Not anymore. School Superintendent Steven Adamowski threw out the first pitch(es). The first was a weak-armed lob that fell short. He made up for it with a do-over that players approvingly determined packed some heat.
But then it was the heat that coach Joe Lombardo put on anyone he could — including Diggs, that finally made the field right — that made Wednesday possible. And that wasn't lost on Lombardo's players.
"He did this for us," Santiago said, looking at the field he thought he'd never play on. "He never gave up trying to get this for us, and look, we're here."
As the Owls took an early lead, bleachers filled with fans, including Joe DeSanti, program manager for Diggs. "Looks great," he said.
Students from the school's Law and Government Academy sold hot dogs.
"Get your hot dogs here!" they yelled.
And onlookers admired the new field.
"This is what baseball is supposed to be," said Javi Morales.
Players started to get a little nervous when the Bulkeley High Bulldogs pushed ahead. But even when the Owls were down seven runs at the bottom of the sixth inning, player Marcus Laureano kept the team's spirits up.
"That's not too much," he told a couple of dejected teammates sitting nearby. "We can come back. Think positive."
In the end, the Owls were outscored by the Bulkeley Bulldogs, 10-3.
Disappointing for the Owls, for sure. But then, there will be many more opportunities for the Owls to even the score with their new home advantage. Friday, the Owls play the Bulldogs again at Hartford High.
And this was never about winning or losing. It was never even about one field, one coach or even one team.
It was about doing the right thing for students who deserved nothing less.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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