LITTLE ROCK — Inside the pill bottle returned by the Colorado Rockies, black flecks date the dirt from Sept. 25, 2013.
That day Todd Helton, a 17-year veteran with the Rockies, played his final home game. Just turned 40, Helton went out in style with his 369th homer.
The flecks were part of Helton’s No. 17 painted on the pitcher’s mound to glorify his last go-around at Coors Field.
This bit of history is an introduction to one of the most creative home plates ever available at the Home Plate Heroes auction sponsored by the Jim Elder Good Sport Fund. Told about the handiwork of two friends who are co-workers at a Little Rock advertising firm, I wanted to see for myself.
It is both clever and poignant.
Chip Culpepper and Mark Hinson came up with the idea to celebrate the unsung members of the ground crews who work long hours in all sorts of weather to prepare an immaculate platform for players in the major leagues. They sent an empty pill bottle and a prepaid return envelope to the head groundskeepers at all 30 MLB parks, asking them to return a scoop of dirt or top dressing from the mound or home plate.
They explained that the finished product would be auctioned for charity, noting that RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) and The Miracle League are among the beneficiaries.
The letter said the games could not be played safely, and in many cases not at all, without the efforts of the groundskeepers. “This is our simple way of paying tribute to the hardest working men and women in the game,” the letter said.
There was an initial response to the mailing and a follow-up postcard resulted in another flurry of activity.
All told, 16 pill bottles adorn the home plate, neatly arranged around the business end of a teeth-up rake. Each of the bottles has the team’s insignia on top of the cap and an identifying label wrapped around the bottle like a prescription. Some labels are signed.
Used to groom Lamar Porter Field — where Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson honed his craft and thousands of kids spent countless hours playing ball — the rake was retired after the handle snapped. What’s left of the handle is capped by a Rawlings baseball with the word: “Grounders” and a salute to ballfield groomers.
The home plate is “decorated” with sealed mud — significant because “a muddy field is where the grounds crews make a real difference” — from Little Rock Junior Deputy Youth Baseball’s “Bill & Skeeter Dickey Field.”
The winning bidder also gets a mesh bag with pill bottles labeled for the 14 teams that failed to respond and a letter suggesting that filling the empties would be a terrific excuse for a road trip.
Genesis for collection of the dirt began a year ago when Culpepper got four blank home plates from Susan Elder, Jim’s daughter, to make some baseball-bat hangers for his son and three of his senior teammates at Episcopal Collegiate. Along the way, he collected dirt from each field the boys played on during their senior year.
Culpepper owed Susan a home plate and, while talking to Hinson about ideas, the dirt for his son came up.
Other home plates are available at the live auction tonight at the Thea Foundation in downtown North Little Rock, including a copper one called “Cooperstown Arkansas” with “Population: 7.”
The Arkansas natives in the Hall of Fame are identified — Lou Brock, Dizzy Dean, Bill Dickey, “Arky” Vaughn, Travis Jackson, George Kell, and Robinson — and there are baseball cards about each with a complimentary quote from a teammate or a competitor.
Money from the winning bid on that piece will go to Lamar Porter Field and will be matched by Philadelphia pitcher Cliff Lee of Benton.
The sixth and last reception/auction begins at 6:30 p.m. The Good Sport Fund has done more than $1 million worth of positive in the last 15 years. I am proud to have had a small role.
Interested bidders who aren’t able to attend can contact Susan at email@example.com and she will assign a proxy bidder for them.
Harry King is a sports columnist. His email is HLeonK42@gmail.com.