Funny the things that can happen when bank accounts and reciprocation demands are stripped away.
Red Mountain’s baseball field hadn’t seen any significant updates or improvements in a decade. The field was shoddy, maintenance to make it playable was a grueling undertaking for years (not unlike most high school fields these days) and the Mesa Unified School District has been pretty barren in funds.
The district helped financially this year, but Lions coach Jason Grantham created a booster club when he took over the program two years ago. Some of it was for money, but unlike most of the Valley’s private schools, there isn’t exactly a cash overflow in Mesa.
It did, however, bring out those who couldn’t just break out a checkbook.
Matt Ruckle works for the City of Scottsdale. He played college baseball at Glendale Community College and NAU until the Lumberjacks lost their program.
He has a 16-year-old son, Matthias, a 6-foot-5 sophomore and right-handed pitcher who’s worked meticulously with his dad and outside instructional coaches to improve. In a rarity these days, dad wouldn’t let Matthias learn how to throw a curveball until he was 16.
Matthias is a basketball player first, currently playing on the Lions’ JV team. Baseball starts practice in a couple weeks, but he’ll try out for the Lions’ JV baseball team when the basketball season ends in mid-February. It’ll be the first time Grantham sees Matthias on a diamond.
Matt Ruckle put in nearly 600 volunteer hours of labor to renovate Shepherd Junior High’s fields, and has already put in 200 hours at Red Mountain, including some help to the softball field. He’s also helped out at other city and high school fields around the East Valley.
“My wife is ready to divorce me,” Ruckle joked.
He’s been out there after work and most weekends for the past few months jackhammering a new pitchers mound, replacing grass with dirt on the basepaths, cutting grass and reconstructing the rest with clay. Other parents have brought their own lawnmowers out when the school’s wouldn’t work, or helped put in palm trees. Next year’s undertaking will involve reducing the amount of water required for upkeep.
Red Mountain approached him about helping renovate the fields, not vice versa. He doesn’t get paid, doesn’t want to get paid and won’t accept any of Grantham’s offers to buy him a beer.
“They asked me if I wanted to help, and that’s the key,” Ruckle said. “I didn’t come to them with some ulterior motive to boost my kid’s chances.”
All of this was made clear by Ruckle in his first conversation with Grantham months ago. For Ruckle, it was the no-brainer right thing to do from the onset, but it also put the kibosh on any possible perceptions just in case his son eventually does make the team. It’s also why he’s not an active part of the booster club.
“My son’s first love is basketball but I said right off the bat I’m not doing this to enhance anything other than baseball fields,” Ruckle said. “If (Matthias) makes it, it’s based on ability and attitude.
“I think he can contribute based on how hard he’s worked outside basketball. His ability and Grantham will determine that, not me. I expect nothing in return.”
It’s the antithesis of the mess at Gilbert Christian involving former basketball coach Steve Currier, administration and wealthy donors. The school won’t comment on his abrupt firing during a season in which the Knights are ranked No. 1 in Class 1A and coming off a state championship and headed for another. But Currier said it came about because a wealthy donor and other parents were unhappy with his methods.
Money talks, and with potentially millions of dollars (and others) opposite Currier, administration can feel cornered, no matter which side it is sympathetic toward.
Until it was brought up, Ruckle sounded like someone for whom this “give-and-take” theory never remotely occurred to him. A big fan of Grantham, Ruckle knows the Lions coach won’t give Matthias any freebies, even though dad put in hundreds of his own hours on the side.