SALAMANCA — Mike Smith calls him his “partner in crime.”
As Smith aims to revitalize Salamanca’s varsity baseball program, assistant coach JC McAuley has been at his side all along the way. But McAuley doesn’t just share a spot on the dugout bench and help the Warriors practice; he helps prepare the fields they play on every day in the spring.
As a groundskeeper for the school district, McAuley and his colleague Ed Sponeybarger are responsible for getting all of the Salamanca’s athletic fields in shape through the different seasons.
McAuley said baseball can be the most challenging sport to prepare the field for.
“At game time, we prep the field, Ed Sponeybarger and I paint the field,” McAuley said. “Now that we have the turf (at the new Veteran’s Park) we're not going to do that much. But we paint the field, we mark them out, get the dimensions set up and everything. We mow 'em, make sure there's nothing like holes or anything like that where the kids can get hurt in. So we plant grass, topsoil it. Baseball fields are the worst: we've got to drag them all the time and get the weeds off them, make them all look pretty and stuff.”
The grounds crew will have less work to do on game day for baseball once Salamanca’s new fields (including for football, baseball, lacrosse and soccer) at Vet’s Park are ready, he said. But even turf requires some upkeep, and Salamanca will still use other grass and dirt fields elsewhere on school grounds.
“As of right now we still have a grass soccer field behind the school, so that has to be painted and maintained, the practice fields over behind the school are all dirt, so they have to be maintained as well,” he said. “We're keeping the baseball field, we're going to use the baseball field behind the school still. The girls' softball field over at Prospect is dirt, not turf, so we've got to maintain that. The turf here kind of takes care of itself. It needs to be cleaned every now and then, needs to be dragged, you've got to check for divots and stuff like that because the beads can get washed out. We've got to drag that stuff back in again.
“It's going to be easier for us, but it's still going to take attention. As long as we don't go to full turf everywhere, we still have to maintain and mow and fill holes, things like that.”
McAuley started his job in groundskeeping about 18 months ago after working at HoliMont as a terrain park manager for 15 years.
But he’s always had a passion for baseball, coaching at different levels through the years, from Little League and helping modified coach Brian Koscielniak until he joined Smith’s varsity staff, initially as a volunteer.
“He worked his first year on the program as an unpaid assistant and threw batting practice four out of five days a week, he threw 15 kids batting practice for free,” Smith said. “He is now a paid assistant and he's just outstanding. He's the unsung hero, above and beyond.”
Smith said his assistant, 20 years his junior, brings energy to the program.
“Oh, to be young again: I'm 64, JC's 44,” he said. “But he's into it. He's still young enough where I have days I don't want to get off the couch to go to practice and I get down there and JC's down there working with the pitchers. He'll be in the ACC (Allegany Community Center) for two hours pitching batting practice.”
Citing his age, Smith said he won’t be coaching baseball for much longer. When he retires, he wants McAuley to take his place.
“He's earned it,” Smith said. “The kids love him. The kids relate to us, we get along well with the kids.”
McAuley, of course, said his future will be up to the school district. But he wants to remain involved in baseball for as long as he works there.
“I don't know, that's up to the school,” he said. “If Smitty steps down, I want to be involved in some capacity no matter what. I've got 20-some years left here at the school, I'd like to stay involved as long as I can. If the school allows me to take over for Smitty, that'd be great, but ultimately that's up to the school's decision. There's other coaches out there that have got more experience at the high school and even collegiate level than I do.”
McAuley quoted the movie Moneyball — in which Brad Pitt played Oakland A’s executive Billy Beane — in explaining his passion for baseball: “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”
“I don't know, you've got to love it,” McAuley said. “It's just something about being at the ballpark. I love Major League Baseball, I'm a diehard Red Sox fan. Baseball is just one of those sports, there's just a passion for it. The smell of the leather glove and the fresh-cut grass. Baseball's just an exciting sport.”
(Editor’s note: this is the first in a multi-part series for the Times Herald called Unsung Service, about the assistant coaches and other support staff who keep high school sports teams running. Nominations for worthy story subjects may be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.)