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Paradise in a pasture

David L'Heureux
Shane Macomber/Vail Daily
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GYPSUM ” The horses running around the Whitehead Ranch in Gypsum are unlike ones on neighboring ranches. They only have two legs.

That’s because Steve Whitehead, who owns the property at 915 Mayne St. in the Horse Pasture subdivision, is not a horse guy. He is a baseball guy; and the “horses” on his ranch are up-and-coming players from Eagle and Gypsum.

This spring, Whitehead, his son Nick, and players from the local Triple Crown baseball club put the finishing touches on a regulation baseball diamond in the yard behind his house.

“It was just a hayfield when we bought it,” says Whitehead of the 4-acre property he has owned since 1998. “We mowed it down, and started watering it, and it turned into grass.”

The perfectly manicured field ” complete with a real pitching mound, and a batting cage in the adjacent barn ” is a young athlete’s dream come true.

Players call the place “The Ranch.” The smell of fresh cut grass lingers heavily there. Hillsides and brown wooden fences surrounding the field contrast with the green grass and brick-red buildings on the property.

The field and batting cages are used for scheduled practices, but the players know they can come by any time to work on their swings, practice fielding or just hang out.

The motivation for building this local field of dreams was a practical one. Whitehead, and his fellow little league and rec district coaches saw a need.

“This spring, a bunch of the younger guys were playing junior varsity, and they didn’t get a lot of games in,” says Whitehead, of the 15- and 16-year-olds on his team. “We decided we wanted a place where they could get more practice.”

The players have learned the game over the years from coaches such as Robert Ellsworth, Stan McClintock, Ed Coulter, Kevin Brubeck, Glen Padgett, Rick Huffman and others, notes Whitehead.

“A lot of these players have been together since tee ball,” says Whitehead. “These coaches are a big reason why the kids are good ballplayers now.”

Coulter throws that praise right back at Whitehead.”Steve is at the forefront of trying to bring a state championship-caliber baseball team to the area,” says Coulter. “He spent a lot of money making a top-flight practice facility for these kids, and the ones coming up after them.”

All told, Whitehead says he spent about $15,000 on the equipment for the ranch.

Micah Bernhardt, a 2002 graduate of Eagle Valley High School who coaches players at the ranch, says Steve’s investment is paying off every day.

“We had to do whatever we could when we were kids, because there was nothing like this,” says Bernhardt, who plays college baseball at Eastern New Mexico University. “It’s giving them a lot more practice. They have a lot of really good talent out here.”

Big changes in the players’ swings aren’t needed, says Bernhardt. He says most of them just need a tip or two.

“He helped me get my step down with my front foot,” says Nick Whitehead, a center fielder who will be a sophomore next year. “Since then I have hit two home runs.”

Pointing to Paul Suther ” one of the team’s biggest guys ” Bernhardt says, “he was taking one hand off the bat. He’s a big kid. If he keeps both hands on the bat, he can generate more power.”

The extra work at the ranch with Bernhardt has shown up on the field for the rest of the team, too. The western Eagle County rec disrict’s Senior All-Stars won their recent district tournament, running their record to 11 – 1 in the post season. They’ve scored 113 runs, and outscored opponents by 71 runs.

“These guys kind of idolized Micah, and his teammates when they played for Eagle Valley,” says Steve Whitehead. “He is only a few years older than them, and he can relate better to them. So when he is here, I just leave them alone.”

The baseball diamond and batting cage are the highlight of the ranch; but not the only highlight. There’s also a tennis court, a pool, a volleyball net, a sand trap for golf and an indoor basketball court.

“This place is awesome,” says Dan McKiernan, a 15-year old who plays on the team. “When I first came here I was, like, ‘wow.'”

Whitehead emphasizes that this playground is not for him. It was built by the kids, and for the kids. “I had something like this when I was growing up,” says Whitehead. “(This) group of athletes needed a place to hang, and I just love watching them play.”

Steve adds that he wants this place to be around for the next crew of Little Leaguers. As far as he’s concerned “it will be there as long as people want to be a part of it.”

“There’s another good group of players coming up,” says the coach. “They need somewhere to train too.”

Working out at Whitehead’s this summer is bringing the team closer together, says team-member Alex Dorothy.

“It makes us more of a family,” he says. “Everyone is here, and joking around when we aren’t hitting. We play basketball on the short hoop. The other night Nick had a party at the pool. It’s just fun.”

The Ranch is also a place where parents can drop their kids and know they are safe. “(The parents) love having us out here hitting and hanging with friends,” says Dorothy. “And they know we aren’t getting into any trouble.”

About playing sports all the time, Dorothy adds: “We play sports, it’s what we do.”

According to mom at the Ranch ” Steve’s wife Sally ” having a bunch of extra guys around is no trouble at all.

“It has been awesome,” says Sally. “The cool thing is that all the moms work together to support the guys. We bring them food and drinks to games, we have barbecues together. It’s like having a big family.”

Last weekend, the rec district All-Stars piled in to the team bus (Whitehead owns a large RV that doubles as the tour bus) and headed down to Castle Rock for the Little League State Championship.

They won both of their games over the weekend and will play Colorado Springs in the state final. They also played in the Triple Crown World Series in Grand Junction last weekend.

In the mean time, expect to find the team out at the ranch practicing. The pitching machine doesn’t get a lot of rest; neither does the basketball court or baseball field for that matter.

The young horses out at the Whitehead Ranch need room to run, and seem to have found it there.

Vail, Colorado


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