James Burns: Atwater's Leafy Beast giveth, taketh away

April 15, 2009 

Burns, James

James Burns, sports editor

ATWATER -- Outfielders wearing red hats, blue hats, black hats and white have tried, only to throw up their arms in disgust and frustration.

Umpires have poked their head into the twine and found nothing but damp and darkness.

They've always emerged with an official ruling, and always will because it's their job, but...

Everyone knows they're guessing, if only a little, because there's no certainties in that part of the yard where natures runs wild.

Yes, the ivy at Memorial Ballpark answers to no one.

Not even its caretaker.

Manuel Duran has been grooming the natural Green Monster for six years now.

He must have drawn the short straw in the Public Works cafeteria.

Duran works for the city of Atwater, and with a truck, a few extra bodies and some heavy machinery, he gives the ivy a trim every December. Sometimes in the rain and cold.

"Funny story about the ivy? I can't think of any," Duran said standing near the gates of Memorial, where the ivy starts and stops.

"I run a crew of five guys with a trash truck. We take away a good load of ivy each year."

There's nothing funny about taming the 10-foot Leafy Beast, which dwarfs even the tallest outfielder and circles the field as if it's going to swallow it whole one day.

Until then, it snacks on loose change, cups, sunflower seed bags and baseballs. Lots and lots of baseballs.

Duran says he's pulled out roughly 60 baseballs over the years, many of which were waterlogged and moldy from years of imprisonment.

R.J. Heller, a senior on the Atwater, found one the other day with roots growing on it.

"It was a part of the field," Heller said wide-eyed.

"In high school, you're so used to playing on an open field or one with a fence," said Los Banos' Dustin Caropreso. "But seeing the ivy...

"The ivy was so thick, it was intimidating."

Caropreso knows. He's tangled with the Tangle.

In fact, the ivy made him look silly one afternoon during an American Legion game in the early 1990s.

A ball was smashed out to left field, where Caropreso was chasing butterflies and pop flies for the Atwater-Livingston Yams.

The ball disappeared into the bush, landing somewhere near or on top.

A home run it was not.

Caropreso was sure of it.

So with teenaged bravado, he bellied up to the Beast.

"At that point," he said, "I wasn't thinking about anything else except for finding that ball and getting it back in."

Caropreso won the battle, but paid for it in laughs.

He scaled the ivy, straddled it like a bull and began shimmying about.

With each frantic stab, the ivy shook -- as if it were taunting the outfielder.

"It was definitely beyond the call of duty," said Matt Winton, the Yams coach at the time. "It was an unusual sight, seeing a player straddling the ivy, scooting around the way he was.

"But he found the ball and saved us a run or two."

The ivy isn't all beast.

There's a touch of beauty to it, too.

The green foliage hides two secret entrances to the park -- holes cut into the cyclone fence, just big enough for kids to squeeze through.

Dead and burnt patches give frugal baseball fans horrible streetside sightlines, but free sightlines nonetheless.

And during a recent Atwater practice, the ivy granted four-year player Colton Beatty a rare treat.

A boomerang -- probably blown out of the bush by the wind.

"It takes some skill to throw that thing," Heller said. "Colton got pretty good at it. He'd throw it level and it would loop back around.

"He took it home, of course. Probably plays with it every day."

Like many of the world's monsters, real or otherwise, the ivy wields the power to giveth and taketh away.

Mostly, though, it just takes.

Your ball.

And, sometimes, your dignity, too.

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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