By DAVE CAMPBELL
“I welcome all of you to the stadium Jack built.”
That was part of former Sierra High athletic director Vern Gebhardt’s speech at the dedication of Jack Thomson Stadium on Saturday, and truer words have never spoken.
When Sierra opened in 1994, Gebhardt and principal Rick Arucan were looking for what Gebhardt hoped to be “diamonds in the rough” for coaches. Thomson transferred from Manteca High and according to Gebhardt, he and Arucan had a diamond.
But their baseball field was less diamond and more rough. According to Gebhardt, “. . . In 1994 we had a bare minimum field to play on with more dirt than seeded grass, a short 5-foot fence, a small backstop allowing foul balls to go into neighboring yards, no dugouts, no bleachers, an insufficient pitching mound and a dirt infield with no grass.”
He and a group of dedicated volunteers worked tirelessly, building a base for elevated bleachers, dugouts, a fence considerably higher than 5 feet, a much improved pitching mound and donations were secured for an electronic scoreboard and public address system.
What Thomson accomplished with the field was outstanding, but what he accomplished on the field was exceptional.
A 1997 Sierra graduate, Rigo Ledezma played for Thomson and is now a coach in Southern California. Ledezma gave a poignant testimonial, referring to Thomson simply as “Coach,” and how Coach had instilled work ethic, integrity and character in all his players, and not just when it came to baseball.
Ledezma recalled how Coach showed his players by example how to be a father by the way he interacted with his sons, and how to respect women by the way he treated his wife Paula, who Ledezma said was the team’s biggest cheerleader.
Sierra Principal Steve Clark played for Thomson at Manteca High and was also a student of The Coach.
“There are days in our school’s history that are earmarked days,” Clark said. “They are days that are extremely special and this is one of those days. Naming this stadium after Jack Thomson is definitely an iconic moment in our school’s history.
“I have known him for two-thirds of my life and he is a great man, consistent and professional in everything that he does. He has been a role model and a mentor for many of us. It is very humbling to be a part of this,” Clark said.
One of those sons Ledezma referred to was former Sierra bat boy Travis. Most kids grow out of being a bat boy and move on, and the youngest of Jack and Paula’s children, Travis did move on – to eventually replace his father last year as head coach of the Sierra baseball team.
Travis delivered the best line of the day. In his inaugural season, Sierra went undefeated in the Valley Oak League and finished 21-4-1 for an 84 percent winning percentage. His father’s overall record of 355-233-5 was a very respectable 61 percent – in fact, Jack’s 607 total wins is second to none in the Southern Sac-Joaquin Section.
With a grin so reminiscent of his father’s, Travis let it be known that for the time being at least, his dad could be proud of his second-best career winning percentage in school history. That brought a loud laugh from the crowd.
When Jack finally took to the podium, there was nary a dry eye in the house. And true to his unassuming nature, one of the first things he said after giving thanks for the honor of his name on the stadium was how humbled he was by it all.
And then true to form, he went on to give thanks to those who made it all possible. From the administrators to the coaches to the volunteers to the players – and if course, his family – Jack extolled the virtues of all who helped along the way.
He said he was often asked which team was his favorite, and his response always was the one he was coaching at the time. But he let the cat out of the bag Saturday when he let it be known that it was probably the first team he coached, the 1981 Manteca High team. And as a testament to the magnetism he exudes, a contingent of that team was on hand to cheer their coach on one last time.
He may have stepped out of the limelight, but Jack Thomson’s aura will forever shine on the field that bears his name.