Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

He Built It for 9 Years, Now They Come

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

He Built It for 9 Years, Now They Come

Article excerpt

Red Lyda never lost it.

There is a magic about the not-so-short green grass on the

playing fields of childhood. There is a vague, irretrievable

feel of the summer sun on the packed clay of an infield. Too

soon it leaves us, this enchantment of the ballpark.

It leaves us at some moment we do not recognize, perhaps when

our mothers stop calling us home for supper, maybe when our

meaningful life is no longer called because of darkness, perhaps

when we stop worrying about the last bus home.

Cary "Red" Lyda grew up on the playgrounds and ball fields of

Jacksonville.

They were hardscrabble lots with sand spurs in the outfield and

spike-pits in the batter's box, of portable bases tossed every

90 feet or so before game time, with dugouts where players

waited their turn at bat sitting on the roots of trees, of

barely bubbling water fountains and bathrooms a hundred yards

away at best or better yet behind a tree.

He sits still now on a dugout bench, at 78 years of age,

looking out at the quiet grass and packed clay of his ball field

stretched wide under the summer sun behind the closed Pic N'

Save off Normandy Boulevard.

The field is fallow of sport right now and bare in the early

afternoon, waiting for the shouts and laughter of hundreds of

raucous kids soon to be frolicking in the magic of what at this

season in time is tee-ball.

When the kids get there, it will be their ballpark, and rightly

so. But at this quiet moment in the early afternoon when Red

Lyda sits alone on the dugout bench in workaday clothes and an

anonymous ball cap on his head, it is his field, no matter what

it says anyplace.

And rightly so.

For almost a decade, Red Lyda has put a major chunk of his life

into improving a ball field at Lem Merrett Park at Ellis Road

and Verna Street on the Westside. This is no secret, of course,

as you do not create a ballpark by keeping the job under a

basket, and in eight or nine years Lyda has attracted a

substantial amount of money to put into the field they call the

Pride of the Westside. Lyda calls it Downing Brothers Field,

after Willie and Warren Downing, who bankrolled youth baseball

out of their own bare pockets a couple of generations ago, much

like Red Lyda now angels the Westside park.

"The Downing brothers did more for baseball than anybody else

in this town," Lyda tells you, almost conspiratorially.

Lyda toiled for the Downing nines in his youth, and for a

gaggle of other aggregations of raw-boned Southern boys for whom

hardball was a way of life. Played over much of the world in the

Navy, put in a season of minor league ball in the Cleveland

chain. Coached, played softball, etc., all his life, long as he

could, and retired from the phone company after 39 years. …

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