WEST RIDGE — Mather High School's baseball team no longer has to worry about fly balls whizzing past players' heads, thanks to an $82,400 gift from the Cubs and Chicago Park District.
Like nearby Warren Park, Mather's team won a grant from the Cubs Charities Diamond Project, which pairs with the Park District and other citywide organizations to promote baseball.
Jeff Frcka, a second-generation head coach at the school, said he applied for the grant to give his players "an overall safer and higher-quality baseball experience."
"It was really cramped and crowded, the dugouts were small, you could barely fit a whole team inside, foul balls would come flying — whizzing — past kids' heads sitting in the dugouts because they were so close to home plate," Frcka said.
With the grant, the field received major improvements: more space between the backstop and home plate, a better fence to protect against foul balls, spacious chain link fence dugouts, over 100 tons of quality baseball field soil and a proper clay brick pitcher's mound.
"When they found out they got the grant they were very excited," Frcka said. "They really appreciate it because they know what it's like."
Frcka said the improved field became especially obvious after a recent game at another school where the field was in "terrible" condition.
"When they see a field like that and what those kids are playing on, and then they come back to our field, more than one kid was like, 'Wow coach this is so nice, it makes us appreciate what we have,'" he added.
The Mather High School baseball field. [Jeff Frcka]
At 11 a.m. Saturday, Frcka will be joined by his father George, who coached at the school for 10 years, as well as Tom Ricketts, chairman of the Cubs, to cut the ribbon at the new field and honor the legacy of his dad and other coaches past.
Frcka, who followed in the footsteps of his dad by teaching physical education and coaching baseball for Chicago Public Schools, said he knows the powerful impact baseball and team sports can have on a child growing up, and hopes to pass that experience on to his players today.
"When I was younger I was definitely hanging out with his baseball teams," he said. "Some of my fondest memories would be sitting in the dugout at Wrigley Field or U.S. Cellular Field watching his teams playing in city championship games. ... I saw how much he enjoyed it and how rewarding it was for him, so it wasn't long before I realized that's what I wanted to do as well."
With a total of just 18 players at the school, Mather only has a varsity team, Frcka said, a fact he hopes will change with the field's upgrades.
Not only does he want to attract more players from the school itself, Frcka said he wants to partner with groups at Warren Park and to share the field with the community.
"We're just hoping the new field will attract more baseball players to Mather High School, and we're trying to build partnerships with some of the youth groups in the community," Frcka said. "It's more than just for Mather High School, it's for the community as a whole."
The Cubs and Wrigley Field are 95 percent owned by an entity controlled by a trust established for the benefit of the family of Joe Ricketts, owner and CEO of DNAinfo.com. Joe Ricketts has no direct involvement in the management of the iconic team.