High Island baseball returns to the field

HIGH ISLAND, Texas -- It was a couple of hours before the Class A High Island Cardinals' postponed baseball home opener was scheduled to begin against West Hardin (Saratoga, Texas) on March 20. Athletic director Paul Colton yelled to baseball coach Lynn Hancock, "Can you get a ladder?"

He pointed to part of the backstop fencing that sagged toward home plate. That will happen when there is no longer a cross-member pipe across the top connecting two support poles.

Hancock squinted into the bright sunshine and stiff gulf breeze, saw how high the offending portion of backstop was and declared, "Might need two ladders."

They managed to secure the fencing with some sturdy zip ties. The rebuilding of High Island's baseball field was done. At least enough to finally host a game.

There's still no rof on the home dugout on the third-base side. When Hurricane Ike barreled ashore last September -- the school is located less than a mile from the Gulf of Mexico just northeast of Galveston -- the metal dugout roof and the entire outfield fence were sent flying. Much of the top of the backstop also flew away. Next door, some of the football field's lights were easily knocked to the ground and the top of the press box was damaged.

But the area immediately around the school was actually a haven to many of the 500 or so people who call High Island home and to folks who live down U.S. 87 on the Bolivar Peninsula. High Island isn't an island, though it was surrounded by water for three days after the storm hit. Local homes were destroyed, and lives were changed forever.

High Island's name comes from the fact that the town rests on a salt dome, putting it about 30 feet above sea level. Plenty of residents of peninsula towns like Gilchrist and Crystal Beach, whose students attend High Island schools, left their cars and boats at the school to escape the storm's fury before evacuating.

The football field became the logical landing pad for evacuation helicopters. Junior Holden Sievers, a pitcher and third baseman, was among the copter passengers.

"It took three tries to get the helicopter up," Sievers said. "The cops said we had two hours to get out." Thirty minutes later, the main road north out of town over the Intercoastal Waterway was impassable.

Area cows and other farm animals were let loose to decrease the chance of them drowning, and the football and baseball fields were turned into makeshift pastures.

Senior catcher Tiner George recalls when he saw the baseball field for the first time after returning.

"Didn't look like a baseball field," he said.

George was one of the lucky ones. He was able to return home after living with relatives in nearby Louisiana. Sophomore first baseman Hunter Blake returned to a house knocked off its foundation and covered in mud.

"All the stuff was outside of my house," Blake said. "It wasn't livable at all. They bulldozed it."

Blake was one of seven students who moved in with Colton and track coach Justin Charrier when classes resumed in October after 17 lost days. Most of those students have since returned to their families; some are in their original houses and others have relocated. Blake and one other student will finish out the school year with the coaches.

"We have to do chores like washing the dishes, taking out the trash, cleaning our room," Blake said. "The coaches do the big stuff like lawn mowing and cooking."

Blake will soon rejoin his mother and brother in the nearby town of Winnie, about 20 miles inland. That's where they will probably stay until he graduates. They have no plans to rebuild in High Island.

Residents only recently were told they would no longer have to boil water, but some aspects of normal life will take much longer to restore. Spring break usually finds a rush of visitors who pass through High Island and its one convenience store as a gateway to the peninsula. But there are no rental houses left in Crystal Beach, just a lot of steam shovels and dump trucks. Last Friday, the beach was occupied by an occasional fisherman and a few sunbathers.

About 85 percent of the students who attend school in High Island were displaced for at least some time. Colton said enrollment at the high school has dropped from 105 to 70, and it's anybody's guess when and if enrollment will return to the pre-hurricane total.

FEMA just put up 51 trailers behind the baseball field for homeless families to live in for up to two years. When the baseball field was rebuilt, the right-field fence had to be moved in 10 feet to accommodate the new village.

"Those people are going to be pretty upset when they get a ball through the window," senior left fielder Donald Hooks said before Friday's game. Sievers considered how long of a home run it would take to do that and said dryly, "Gotta be a man."

The trailers weren't threatened in the March 20 game. The Cardinals struck for six runs in the bottom of the first inning and won 11-1 in five innings. Sievers pitched all five innings and struck out seven.

Afterward, he had the honor for the first time this season of raking the mound. George did the same around the plate.

The Cardinals wore new uniforms, their previous ones were well-worn anyway and then pretty much made unusable by water damage and mildew. Houston Chronicle sports columnist Jerome Solomon wrote about High Island's uniform plight in early March. Enough donations followed (with a subsequent assist from Nike) to pay for new baseball and softball uniforms, with money left over to help other areas of an athletic budget in need.

After all this, the March 20 game was still endangered when West Hardin had a hard time fielding a full team. One of the players was sick. This can be a game-breaker in Class A baseball.

"I got a call at 8:30 in the morning," Colton said. "The coach said he saw the player and his mother pulling up to the school."

And if that hadn't happened? Colton said, "I think he would have pulled somebody out of the hallway."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.