COVESVILLE, Va. -- On a recent drizzly Saturday, players smacked baseballs in batting cages and spectators sat under colorful awnings, watching children play game after game of baseball on fields worthy of the pros.
Here, in the jagged foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains southwest of Charlottesville, a 45-year-old multimillionaire novelist has built his field of dreams: a $3.8 million, seven diamond ballpark for kids.
John Grisham, author of such best sellers as "The Firm" and "The Client," completed Cove Creek Park to accolades in 1996 and the park keeps growing. This year, he added a tee-ball field and the playground, complete with slides and swings.
Most say Grisham has done a wonderful thing for young ballplayers, some of whom travel more than an hour to participate in Cove Creek's league of 500 players and more than 40 baseball and softball teams.
"He built this for the kids," says Gwen Hairston, mother of a 10-year-old pitcher and shortstop. "He has just been so wonderful."
Cove Creek Park has two regulation-sized and four youth- and softball-sized fields, as well as the tee-ball field -- all framed by hills covered with trees. A sculpture of a stick-figure player, reaching out with a glove to catch a line drive, stands atop a boulder on a nearby hill.
And the grass is green, deep green.
Every fall, after a long season, Sandy Tucker, 62, and other groundskeepers plant rye grass, which grows and flourishes by early spring. Once a week, Tucker cuts the grass to 1 1/4 inches.
By June and July, Tucker will cut the grass twice a week, dropping the blades to three-quartersof an inch and loading the ground with nitrogen-rich fertilizer. It kills the rye and allows Bermuda grass to thrive.
On the basepaths, Tucker and others drive small tractors trailing raking devices to smooth out the dirt, sand and silt mix trucked in from a local quarry. After so much attention, it's difficult to find rocks or stones.
"It takes a lot of work to keep it all smooth and level," Tucker says. "You'll have to search really hard to even find a pebble on our fields."
Underneath it all: a maze of subterranean drains, similar to those in major league parks such as Camden Yards, which siphon off water after a downpour.
To prevent a national organization such as the Little League from interfering with his creation, Grisham has kept the league private, under his control.
Not everyone thinks that was a great idea. Some complain that Cove Creek is so spectacular that it has hurt other area youth leagues by luring away their players and making it difficult to keep those leagues going. One league has lost 100 players to Cove Creek.
"Sometimes, I ask myself why didn't he build several parks," says Robert Collins, a commissioner of a local youth league. "Our program could be just as good if we had millions to spend. I can't imagine what he could do for some of us around here. I'd be happy for just a little donation."
Grisham seeks little publicity for his park.
He initially agreed to an interview with The Sun, then abruptly canceled it after the reporter asked a park employee how much the facility cost.
On this Saturday afternoon, which is opening day, Grisham arrives and welcomes players sitting on the outfield grass of field No. 3 and their parents standing outside the fence. Heavy gray clouds smother the surrounding hills and trees. Grisham cracks some jokes, introduces the staff and accepts a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol from Sen. Charles S. Robb of Virginia.
Afterward, Grisham, dressed in jeans, a beige jacket and a light blue hat, speaks with Jennifer Williams, the league's softball director and unofficial manager.
A half-hour later, he drives away.
Love for the game
After moving from Mississippi to a new home only minutes down the road from here, Grisham decided to build a practice field for his two children, who had to be driven 20 miles to play in the Charlottesville leagues. But the project "just ballooned from there," Williams says.
Williams doesn't know exactly why Grisham built the park. He's never told her, she says. "It was just something he was very passionate about. Growing up, he had a love for [baseball]. He never grew out of it," she says.
But what made a novelist want to build a ballpark?
In interviews, Grisham has said he always hoped to be a professional ballplayer. When his talent didn't match his ambition, he enrolled at Mississippi State University, majored in accounting and eventually earned a law degree from the same school.
"When I was a kid, somebody built ball fields for me," Grisham told the Associated Press when his park opened in 1996. "When I was a kid, somebody took time to coach me or to sponsor me. That's why I did it. I don't know who built those fields, I never thought about it. But kids aren't supposed to think about things like that. Kids are just supposed to show up and play. I just can't stand the idea of kids not having a place to play ball."
Grisham also built a practice field near his Oxford, Miss., home. In a 1994 USA Today Weekend essay, Grisham described what it was like to coach his son's youth team.
"Youth baseball nurtures an eternal optimism," he wrote. "Each spring brings the hope of a good season, with more wins than losses, with young players improving their skills and enjoying the game, with, perhaps, even a championship."
Grisham, whose son is too old to play here anymore, used to spend lots of time at the park and could often be found raking the infield dirt or taking care of other chores. As one coach says: "He was a baseball commissioner who wrote his books on the side."
But writing books takes time and the author has other commitments, although his daughter still plays softball at Cove Creek. Tucker, the groundskeeper, says he expects to see his boss more often as the season progresses.
"As soon as the season gets going, he'll be here almost every day," Tucker says.
Keeping it clean
Parents and coaches commend Grisham's vision for the park and his attention to detail: A trash can, for example, is painted to match the park's colors and is decorated by large painted baseballs.
When county officials wanted Cove Creek Park's dugouts painted an earth tone to match the surrounding landscape, Grisham objected. He wanted them painted Old Virginia White.
The dugouts are painted Old Virginia White.
Pointing to those details, some parents and spectators concede that the field seems almost too pristine for a youth baseball park, which often are blemished by gum, candy wrappers and soft drink cans.
During this year's opening ceremony, Grisham admonishes the crowd to avoid trashing the field. "Our biggest problem is litter," Grisham tells the assembled teams and parents.
"You cause it," he adds. "Help us keep the park clean."
After the ceremony, players hurry to their ball games, cleats clacking on the concrete walkways leading to the fields. Some rush to the bathrooms and others line up at the concession stand to buy burgers, nachos and soda.
As the White Sox and Cardinals begin playing on one field, parents take up the same positions as their counterparts at parks across the country. Some sit hunched-over in folding chairs, only a foot or two from the fence. Others quietly step back, under the awning, into the shadows, like grandfather Chris Mercora.
"Watching him pitch makes me a little nervous," Mercora says, when his grandson, Chris Delarato, 11, takes the mound.
Games of catch spread between the fields, with a group of kids tossing the ball high into the air and seeing who could snag it first. In a batting cage, a father lobs batting practice to his 7-year-old son, both wearing Giants jerseys.
Russ Simpson, 42, watches his son Andrew play for the White Sox against the Cardinals. Simpson, a farmer, spent six months helping Grisham build the park, blasting rock and moving boulders to level the fields. Simpson recalls that Grisham would often ride around the budding complex in a tractor, inspecting the progress, checking things out. "He was really excited about it," says Simpson.
Albemarle County park officials laud Grisham for building Cove Creek Park, especially in the southern end of the county where there are few ball fields. The county only has about 25 baseball fields, says parks director Pat Mullaney, and Grisham's park frees up space at county locations for the 10,000 kids who play sports in Albemarle.
"I hope he gets into soccer because that's our biggest problem," says Mullaney. "If he wants to build a soccer complex, he's welcome to. But I don't want to sound greedy."