Coach Kurt Donaldson knew something was up when he saw his sister and brother-in-law from Alabama as well as a good friend from Oklahoma.
Then he saw the sign after the veil came off: Kurt Donaldson Community Park.
“I was in shock most of the day,” said Donaldson, 61. “I saw my old players, they took pictures. I was really flabbergasted. It was hard not to cry.”
Almost a year to the day — May 17, 2014 — Hancock Little League officials, parents and players honored Donaldson for his 30 years as a youth coach. He has coached football as well as baseball.
Before coming to Fort Myers, Donaldson also coached youth baseball in Alabama, Georgia and other parts of Florida for 11 years.
Brian Porvaznik, Hancock Little League’s president the past eight years, needed quite a few meetings with the board of county commissioners to get county property named after Donaldson. The only reason that Porvaznik and the community completely surprised Donaldson is that the coach shies away from social media and forgot to pick up a newspaper that Friday, which told of the event.
“It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy,” Porvaznik says, chuckling. “It’s an awesome thing. I have so much respect for the man. You have to witness it. We’re to the point now where there are minor boys, 7, 8 years old, coached by guys Kurt coached when they were that age.”
When Porvaznik first started as president and met Donaldson, he wondered “What the heck is he doing out here?” After all, Donaldson never married, never adopted. How does a tenured chemistry professor reach young baseball and football players?
Donaldson, who earned his doctorate in molecular biophysics from Florida State, said, “You find innovative ways to keep their attention and get them to visualize. There’s a lot of similarities. You have to connect with them.”
He admits he now sees his players as his “baseball and football grandkids.” And like a grandfather, he spoils them.
Trips to Dairy Queen and movies for team bonding. Jerseys, helmets and bags for the all-star players he coaches. The coach of the Pirates for all these years, he saw some nice black and gold baseball shoes on the Internet, so he bought them for a couple of years so the players could have matching apparel.
There also are a few drills Donaldson teaches filled with incentives.
In bunting for bucks, he puts dollar bills on spots inside the first- and third-base lines that would be considered quality bunts. Those bunters closest to the dollar bills get to keep them.
Batting practices can include games where players get points for ground-ball hits to the outfield. However, if there are fly ball outs, points are taken away.
Over the years, Donaldson has noted players’ attention spans have become shorter and shorter, so drills are shorter, too.
“10 to 15 minutes, then move on to something else,” he said. “Tweak it a little bit, do it for a little bit. Kids get bored if it’s too long. With all the instant access, they need change.”
Donaldson said he had begun to wonder a bit if what he did helped, if what he did made a difference. Seeing that sign — Kurt Donaldson Community Park — and all the well-wishers quickly answered those thoughts.
“It definitely sunk in what impact I had,” he said. “Before, I didn’t know if I made an impact.
“It was quite a day.”