published Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

Deering: CSAS senior Wright making Engel pitch

Commentary by Ray Deering

rpd272@gmail.com

It usually takes the welcome anticipation of opening day each April to ignite the passion for baseball hibernating deep within my soul during another wet and wearisome winter.

As a kid at Engel Stadium, I would hear the smack of horsehide colliding with leather and smell the familiar aroma of freshly trimmed grass, and I would know that another baseball season was about to begin. All was then well with my world, as it is today.

Now I want to introduce you to a remarkable young man in whose belly a vibrant passion for baseball burns brightly throughout the year.

Brian Wright is a senior at Arts & Sciences, which requires every student to complete a senior project during his or her final semester. Each submits a proposal, conducts extensive research, writes a 10-page paper, makes two presentations -- one in school and another at an outside venue -- and creates a "product."

One day last summer Wright and a friend walked into Engel Stadium for the first time. There was no game going on, but something about that revered edifice struck an emotional chord.

"The stadium had a magical feeling about it," Wright said. "It seemed like what a baseball stadium is supposed to be like. I saw the shape it was in and thought that surely there could be something to do to fix it up."

On that Sunday afternoon the seed was planted in Wright's mind to make the restoration of Engel Stadium the subject of his senior project.

He began to do his research before the subject was approved by his teachers at CSAS. He read about the history of the stadium and the Lookouts. He began to study baseball parks in general, paying attention to personal accounts of people who loved certain parks all over the country.

He learned all he could about Rickwood Field in Birmingham and Tiger Stadium in Detroit -- beloved parks with opposite outcomes. Rickwood was rescued by the Friends of Rickwood, but Tiger Stadium was demolished despite an attempt to save it.

I met Wright last fall during the mini-camps the Engel Foundation sponsored at Engel Stadium. I had been working with the fledgling organization as we were embarking on our journey to reposition the structure as a vital landmark for our city.

Wright told Janna Jahn, the foundation's executive director, and me about his project, and we enthusiastically welcomed him to our team. He has been invited to attend all board and committee meetings, and he has done even more research and helped establish the foundation's Web site, which will be accessible later this month.

"Personally, I have never been to a baseball game at Engel Stadium," Wright said. "I have no reason to feel a connection to the park, but I do. A dream built this park, and memories will bring it back to life. Like baseball itself, Engel Stadium is a call to the past. But it also can be a place future generations can call home."

Wright has produced a color brochure describing the Engel Stadium story, and he is giving his required presentation to invited guests there today. Suggesting what a renovated stadium will look like, he will describe a venue teeming with activity, a place where fathers and sons, mothers and daughters can bring a picnic lunch and toss a ball around or just run the bases.

He envisions a museum dedicated to Joe Engel and the history of minor league baseball -- and a continuing home for amateur tournaments for kids and adults. He will talk about a place for soccer and lacrosse games. He will describe an Engel Stadium alive and well.

"He comes in every day talking about the people he as met and the meetings he has attended," said Mark Dragoo, Wright's senior project teacher. "He has really demonstrated that he enjoys learning for learning's sake."

Wright will do a summer internship with Merrill Eckstein at Finley Stadium and will begin his freshman year at UTC in August, majoring in sports management.

I was honored to be his mentor for his project, and I probably learned more about passion from watching this assiduous young man do his research than from anything else in a long time.

I hope the fever burns forever.

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