In the summer of 2021, when youth sports leagues returned after COVID-19 shutdowns, they were able to do so because of parents and volunteers who kept the facilities up and running.
And the Long Beach PONY youth baseball league at Whaley Park, in particular, got right back to hosting tournaments thanks in part to groundskeeper Tom Grant.
Grant, 64, is a homeless Long Beach native who went to Wilson High School and has been volunteering at Whaley since 2008. He and his sidekick dog Buddy, a 6-year-old rescue doodle, maintain the grounds where they stay and are local celebrities.
“This is what we live for,” Grant said. “I’m giving back to baseball what baseball gave to me.”
This year, that community is giving back to Grant and helping him in his time of need.
Grant and Buddy were separated a few months ago when someone picked up Buddy thinking he was lost and took him to an animal shelter. Long Beach PONY president Ken Jakemer and volunteer coach Brent Hess, who is a veterinarian, worked to get Buddy and Grant reunited.
“I went to the field to pick up Tom, took one look at him, and basically shoved him into my truck and drove him to St. Mary’s hospital,” Hess said. “When I saw him, I thought he was going to die.”
Jakemer said Grant had been depressed after losing Buddy, and the cold rainy weather took its toll on him while he neglected his health. He’s now getting the medical care he needs because of the PONY baseball league.
“He’s got a long road ahead of him,” Hess said. “It’s been a community effort to help Tom out.”
“I had a team parent meeting three days after (taking Grant to the hospital) and I closed with Tom’s story,” Jakemer said. “I had five or six people come up to me after the meeting volunteering their money or help or whatever. It was just magic.”
Parent volunteer Rachel Lane and Heather Searles helped set up an online fundraiser for Grant, and the almost $6,000 raised is being held to help Grant get back on his feet.
“It’s heartwarming to know that we have been able to contribute to the point we have in saving this man’s life,” Jakemer said. “It’s amazing the support and care and love that people have for that man. He deserves it. He’s been phenomenal here for 15+ years. It’s fun to be a part of this kind of community. That’s why I’m still here. I can’t leave. We’ve got a lot of angels out here.”
Hess has been coaching at PONY since his sons played there seven years ago. He was Grant’s casual acquaintance, and now he’s Grant’s emergency contact. Hess helped find Buddy with Long Beach Animal Care Services, worked with hospital administrators on Grant’s medical paperwork, moved him to a skilled nursing facility and visits him all the time.
“I told him, ‘You can stop and just die. Or you can move on with your life,’ so I’m trying to make sure he has the tools he needs to help himself succeed here in the not too distant future,” Hess said. “He’s on seven-to-10 different pills once or twice a day, and he’s had difficulty. Some days he was brighter, and some days he was completely done and ready to call it quits. We kind of turned that around with a lot of baseball analogies. He had to get to first base before he could get home.”
Hess added that he’s become fast friends with Grant during their recent visits.
“I’m really impressed with Tom,” he said. “He’s a really smart guy who fell on hard times at some point and that can happen to anybody. He’s starting to realize that these people he’s said hello to at the ball field, just casual acquaintances, have actually developed a loving relationship with him, and really care what happens to him in the future.”