Sports were Adrian’s focus as a newspaper writer in Chico, Calif., for three years. He also wrote a little bit of news. Now he writes jokes, but has always appreciated a good story. Here are a few of them.

    The first time I heard Mel McLaughlin's voice was over a P.A. system during a Biggs High baseball playoff game last spring. I didn't know what the man looked liked, nor did I know anything about him, but something in his voice drew me in. It was my first visit to Biggs - a town opposite of what its name implies and I was busy taking it all in, one small block at a time.

    When I arrived at the baseball field and took a seat in the bleachers, a scratchy voice that sounded almost as if it were coming from a record player, projected over the P.A. It announced the starting lineups, then the action on the diamond. It had a certain tone and mystique that added to the small-town feel that was so prominent at the field that day.

    My first thought was that the voice epitomized the town, sports and Biggs High. It tied them all together. I heard his voice again three weeks ago when the Biggs High football team hosted East Nicolaus and couldn't help but doing a little investigating this time.

    After one phone call, I found out I was right on.

    "He's sort of an icon around here," said Winzona Rothchild, Biggs athletics director. "Basically anybody in Biggs, if you ask them about Mel, they're going to have a story to tell you about him."

    McLaughlin, 73, graduated from Chico State in 1959, where he played basketball and ran track. He moved to Biggs that year and started teaching at the high school. He taught history, biology, English and math and coached Biggs track for 34 years.

    "I think probably coaching track is where I was able to spend more time with kids that might be having social problems or whatever," McLaughlin said. "We'd just shoot the bull and try to figure out what's going on."

    He also coached basketball: Varsity boys for seven years, freshman boys for six and varsity girls for two. He played it, too, in two leagues until he was 60 years old.

    McLaughlin has been announcing football games at Biggs High for 30 years. He still teaches at the Oroville Adult School and looks forward to Friday nights.

    "Just sitting up there and watching the game and hopefully telling people how it is," he said. "So far no one's said, Hey, don't you think it's time to quit?'"

    McLaughlin goes to every football game home and away and said he gives each player a left-handed shake following warm-ups for good luck, something he's been doing for 25 years.

    His commitment to Biggs High is surpassed only by that to his wife. The couple celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary on the 18th of this month and Ann McLaughlin knows full well the impact her husband has had on the town.

    "When we go shopping at Safeway in Gridley," she said, "we're in there for hours because he's visiting with everyone."

Mel McLaughlin doesn't deny that he's a social person.

    "Someone will say, Going shopping?"' he said. "And I'll say, 'She shops and I talk then I pay.'

    "You do run into a lot of people you know. I've never met someone I didn't like."

    It seems that just about everyone knows McLaughlin. To test what Rothchild said about everyone in Biggs having a story to tell about him, I went straight to the Butte County phone book and looked up the first resident of Biggs listed alphabetically.

    Raymond Abbott.

    "Here goes nothing," I thought as I gave him a ring.

    "Yeah I know him," Abbott said. "We were together in the Lions Club for like 20 years. He's always been a great worker for the Lions Club.

    "The high school gym is named after him. A lot more people in town know a lot more about him than I do."

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. I had a soccer game to cover in an hour and since I was certain that what I'd heard about McLaughlin was true, I left it at that one call.

    The next time I hear his voice over the P.A., it will draw me in that much more.

(c) 2004 Chico Enterprise-Record. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.

Chico Enterprise-Record (Chico, CA)

June 29, 2005

Reclusive Ball Man' no mystery to Hooker Oak Park


    Anyone who's been to Doryland Field, Wildwood Park or the Chico Westside Little League fields in the past decade has seen him, but maybe not taken notice of what he does. He makes trash disapear, keeps outfields green and infields groomed. He collects balls and watches baseball.

    He also walks.

    He does the latter not by choice, but when he's at the fields, he's donating his time because he wants to.

    "(Hooker Oak) park is clean because of him," said Frank Catomerisios, Chico Area Recreation and Park District supervisor. "As a supervisor, it's a real comforting feeling knowing he's out here at night, lending a hand."

    Who is this baseball-retrieving, trash-collecting volunteer?

    Here's a hint: His brother used to own Hazelton's Roses & Ivy Elder Care in downtown Chico. Another: His first name is Dan.

    He'd prefer people didn't put two and two together though, or even see a photo of him.

    "Just call me Dan The Ball Man,"' he said. "People will know who I am. I'm pretty much a permanent fixture around here."

    He wakes up each morning at 4:30 a.m., meets friends for coffee, then drives to Hooker Oak park and starts picking up trash by 5:30. He then moves to Wildwood, cleans the Elks Lodge facility, then drives to Westside.

    All the while he's collecting balls.

    Over eight full years of keeping track, the 61-year-old has gathered over 5,700 baseballs and softballs from the local fields. At an average of $5 apiece, that's $28,500.

    But The Ball Man, who's in his 11th year of duty, doesn't keep them. He doesn't sell them, either. He washes them, lets them dry in the sun, then donates them to local teams.

    The Ball Man said he recovered a personal-high 734 baseballs and 270 softballs in one year. He's found other things, too, like 165 gloves and more than three dozen bats. Those he doesn't simply donate.

    "I bust my (butt) to give them back," he said. "Give me a way to find you."

    The Ball Man personally tracks down those who leave behind their valuables. Sometimes it takes months finding the owner without so much as a name or phone number but he does it.

    "Would someone do the same thing for me?" he asks. "Maybe not, but I will."

    That "I will" attitude is a way of life for The Ball Man.

    Who will pack the dirt in the batter's box before the game? Who will hose down the infield? Who will pick up all this trash?

    The last one eats him up inside.

    The Ball Man hates garbage. Combine that with his love for baseball, kids and being a self-proclaimed workaholic, and there's his motivation.

    "Nobody would do what I do," he said, referring to the gum, candy wrappers and bottle caps he meticulously collects from beneath the bleachers after games. "People will personally acknowledge me, then they'll walk away and throw trash down."

    He said he collected "237 of those blue Wal-Mart bags" full of trash last year from Westside alone.

    The Ball Man hates garbage because he loves the parks, especially Hooker Oak. There he can walk while watching games.

Walking relieves pain for The Ball Man, who said because of medical issues, he must remain active or suffer discomfort. He walks eight to 10 miles each day.

    "I can't go to basketball games because it's too confining," he said. "I can't go to football games because it's too cold."

So he goes to the park.

    "He's at all of our games," said Chico Nuts coach Tom Stevens. "I think that it's just nice to have anybody who cares about the players and facilities the way Dan does. He brings a real positive atmosphere to the ballpark and he's happy to be out there."

    The Ball Man watches over Hooker Oak. He keeps tabs on which teams are coming and going. He fends off those who misuse its facilities. He puts it to rest at night by turning off the lights.

    "No, don't drink out of that one," The Ball Man said to a spectator one afternoon as he approached the drinking fountain adjacent the visitors' dugout at Doryland.

    "Try that one and tell me what you think," he said, raising his walking cane and pointing to a tree-shaded fountain 100 yards away. "That's the coldest water in the park."

    He also knows the ballplayers. For six years he's been bringing gum for Pleasant Valley High's baseball and softball teams. He shares with other teams, too, but the Vikings are his teams because Hooker Oak is their home.

    It may also one day be home to a permanent bench in The Ball Man's honor courtesy of CARD.

    "Dan's a great volunteer for CARD," said Jake Preston, recreation supervisor in charge of adult sports. "The scope of what he does is immeasurable. He's an asset to the community."

    Norm Dillinger, who comes to Hooker Oak to relax, read and watch baseball, has witnessed The Ball Man perform many kindly acts over the past six years. For example, he said he's watched him unlock gates and drive handicapped fans to the field so they don't have to walk.

    Last year The Ball Man left for a month during baseball season to travel the western states in his truck. This year, he left for Arizona in November for nearly four months to avoid the cold weather.

    "When he leaves, you miss him," Dillinger said. "The infield usually doesn't get watered if he doesn't do it."

    If you ask The Ball Man, he's likely to downplay his contributions. Most who know him said that he's humble and doesn't like the attention. They're right.

    "I'm very low-key," The Ball Man said.

    He's OK with one-on-one situations, but when he thinks he's going to have to speak to a team or be honored in front of a crowd, he can't do it. He simply doesn't show up.

    And so he spends his days collecting trash and retrieving balls, watering the field and walking. He's often alone at the fields because nobody would do what he does but he stops frequently to talk with spectators, all of whom know and welcome him.

    When every last bit of warmth from the evening is gone, The Ball Man heads home. He has a big day tomorrow, beginning at 4:30 a.m.

(c) 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.

Chico Enterprise-Record (Chico, CA)

September 30, 2004

Biggs High announcer sets tone for town