As the diamond dust settles under a warm summer sunset in Saint Paul, young ballplayers pile into minivans and head home with smiles on their faces and grass stains spread across their jerseys.
This is Highland Groveland Recreation Association baseball. This is Dennis Merley’s vision for how the game is supposed to be.
As acting commissioner for the past 17 years, Merley’s fingerprints are scattered all over Saint Paul’s recreational program, which hosts more than 500 players across four different levels of competition. “Our organization is all about making friends and playing the game the right way,” Merley says. “We have a league where everyone gets to play and have fun, regardless of age or skill set.”
Merley, an attorney for Felhaber Larson Law Firm for more than 30 years, got involved with HGRA when his daughter and two sons were participants in the baseball and soccer leagues. After being on the HGRA board of directors for two years, an opening for commissioner surfaced, and with the rest of the board uncertain about who should take the reins, Merley stepped in and never looked back.
While the home fields and emphasis on fun have remained the same since Merley started his tenure as commissioner in 1999, HGRA certainly looks much different today.
“When I first started, coaches had to make their own arrangements in regards to finding field space for practice,” he says. “One of my biggest developments as commissioner has been to take on that scheduling, and I think it’s taken a huge amount of pressure off of our wonderful coaches.”
Speaking of coaches, Merley believes the volunteers who contribute their time and effort are the heart and soul of HGRA. Coaches range from parents to friends of the program to former HGRA players.
“I’m incredibly proud of the parents and the coaches that keep the league alive,” Merley says. “They are what makes it such a special experience for the players.”
One of the pivotal characters that Merley refers to is Danny Klecko, CEO of Saint Agnes Baking Co., who has coached in the organization’s minor league for more than 15 years, even after his son graduated from the program. Klecko and his coaching peers agree that Merley has truly taken the organization to its highest potential since signing on as commissioner.
“In a city where baseball is so immensely popular, I appreciate how Dennis has made this league comfortable for each and every player who wants to play,” Klecko says. “That’s why we come back. That’s why HGRA is such an institution in Saint Paul.”
Being such a popular establishment in local kids’ sports, it is not uncommon for graduates to come back from time to time, whether to volunteer as instructors or to simply say hello to Merley and the coaches. “I have kids that played on my team 12 years ago that pop in and see what the league’s become,” Klecko says. “In the end, you can tell that they had a lot of fun and that’s what it’s really about.”
With the evolving nature of intense competition taking over youth sports leagues, Merley has firmly established that creating good memories and making friends shouldn’t have to sit on the bench.
“It’s a really special feeling to be able to bring this great game to people who may not have access otherwise,” Merley says. “I’m really proud of where this league stands and where it’s going.”
Highland Groveland Recreation Association