Family finds home at Seymour Park

Posted: Sunday, June 29, 2003

Until Charlene Smith re-emerged into a room in the Oilers press box clutching the red, white and blue 2003 Peninsula Oilers souvenir program, the interview had been choppy at best.

The assignment is to write a story about the Smiths, a Sterling family which makes Coral Seymour Memorial Park a second home during June and July when the Oilers, featuring some of the best college players in the land, set up shop in Kenai for Alaska Baseball League action.

With the humor and candor of Dennis Smith, 46, the father in the family and the public address announcer for the Oilers, the story should nearly write itself.

In fact, one of Dennis' favorite jokes, that the "big rumor" around the park this year is that the public address announcer is sleeping with the scoreboard operator (which would be Charlene, his wife) is tailor-made for a lead.

But Dennis isn't the whole story. While he, as a former umpire, is more gaga about the baseball side of things, Charlene speaks convincingly about the quality relationships formed at the park during June and July that make all the long hours worth it.

 

With her dog Elli at her side, Charlene Smith keeps the scoreboard current during a recent Oilers game.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Then there's the kids, who all maintain strong attachments to the Oilers even though most are of the age when their parents have long since stopped determining exactly what their strong attachments will be.

The first daughter, Lisa Schreiber, 23, now lives in Wichita, Kan., which may seem like a pretty hard place to keep tabs on the Oilers. But Wichita is the site of the National Baseball Congress World Series, and if the Oilers are one of the top two teams in the Alaska Baseball League, they head down to Wichita in August. Lisa saw the Oilers play in Wichita in 1999 and 2000.

Dennis' parents also live a few hours from Wichita, but Dennis insists that the primary reason Lisa, who used to help out at the Oilers concession stand, is in Wichita is because of baseball.

The oldest son, Dustin Schreiber, 21, is at the ballpark on this mid-June evening to watch the Oilers take on the Portland, Ore., Aloha Knights. Dustin is there purely as a fan and to be with his family. The days where he had to shag balls for the club are long since passed.

The next son, Andrew Smith, also is at Seymour Park of his own free will. From 1997 to 1999, Andrew, who will be a senior at Skyview next year, served as a bat boy for the team. He now works in a cannery, but says the family home is a lonely place during an Oilers game. The comfortable place to be is in the press box with his family.

 

Charlene Smith displays a ball featuring autographs of past Oiler players including Ken Harvey (at top of bal), who now plays for the Kansas City Royals.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Finally, Laura Smith, who will be a junior at Skyview, is out at the front gate taking tickets. It is her second year performing that duty for the team.

As a reporter covering the Oilers, I've gotten to know the family and am anxious to delve into their stories.

But as I sit down with Charlene, the first to be interviewed, there's a problem.

The stories are there, but the contexts are not. When was Andrew bat boy? That's a great story. I'd like to use it. But when did it happen? What year did the Smiths start housing players?

Reporters need exact times. But the Smith family doesn't work like that. They remember good times, not exact ones.

"Jeez," Dennis says at one point during his interview, running his hand slowly through his hair and shaking his head as if he'd just received a foul ball to the face mask. "The '90s were just one big blur."

But as Charlene sits down with the souvenir program, stuffed with Oilers history to prompt the family's memory, the problem is solved. The stories are organized.

So here goes:

Past Oilers Coaching Staffs:

1993 Sunny Galloway, University of Oklahoma; Rob Clark, Westmoore High School; Fred Corral, Delta College; Ryan Gaines, University of Oklahoma

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Dennis was a hardcore angler. When asked what hardcore is, he responds, "Every night."

That changed in the early 1990s, when Dennis' fishing buddy died. After that, Dennis had a hard time fishing.

Saddled with a ton of free time, and with four kids in Soldotna Little League, Dennis decided to get into umpiring.

 

Dennis Smith and Matt Kester follow the action during a Peninsula Oilers baseball game at Coral Seymour Memorial Park earlier this month. Smith announces games for the team.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

A heightened involvement in baseball quickly led to involvement with the Oilers. Dennis works at Peninsula Sanitation (he met and married Charlene in 1984, when he was driving garbage trucks and she was an attendant at the Soldotna landfill). The job allows the family a content existence, but certainly not a wealthy one.

So in 1992, the kids got to know the Oilers through various baseball clinics and wanted to start attending games. The price was right, and Dennis was learning to be an umpire, so the Smiths started dotting the bleachers behind the first-base dugout in what was then Oiler Park.

It wasn't until 1993 that Dennis began public address announcing. An umpiring friend, Sacha Sanguinetti, was the public address announcer at Oiler Park. Dennis had done some radio at the University of Alaska Anchorage before what he calls his "sophomore flunk-out season" in 1976, so he told Sanguinetti he wouldn't mind filling in once in a while.

Sanguinetti, a junior at Kenai Central High School at the time, gave Dennis his chance midway through the season.

With butterflies churning in his stomach and no clue how to work the microphone and music, Dennis walked into the booth and ran smack into late Oilers stalwart Coral Seymour, who the park was renamed after in 1998.

"Who the hell are you, and what are you doing here?" inquired Seymour, the former Marine drill sergeant Dennis describes as an Alaska character with a gruff exterior and a real smooth interior.

Dennis explained he was there to do public address announcing. Seymour was bristling mad because he hadn't been apprised of the plan. But Seymour also was lacking one more thing.

"You can't leave," he said. "We ain't got an announcer. So if you're here to sub, you might as well do it."

Sanguinetti never showed up for the job again. In 1994, Dennis did the public address announcing job part time, and in 1995 he took over the job full time. Except for missing a few games early in the 1995 season due to a concussion he got while umpiring, Dennis has been to every Oilers home game since.

Oilers All-Time Roster:

Ward, Matt (p) 97

Sobek, Erik (i) 97

Candelaria, Scott (i) 98, 99

Graves, Bobby (p) 98

Skaggs, Jon (i-o-p) 99

Nichols, Jeff (p) 97, 99

Tribe, Philip (p) 00

Underwood, Daniel (o-p) 02

Schoenberger, Garrett (c) 02

There's a difference between watching a close friend play baseball and watching an unknown player, even with your community's name on the jersey, play baseball.

That's why, even with Dennis announcing on a regular basis, the Smiths did not reach an intimate level with the Oilers until they became a host family. The Smiths became a host family in 1997 by taking in Matt Ward and Erik Sobek. They then hosted each of the players listed in the all-time roster.

"When your host son, or summer son, is out there, you really get into the game," Charlene said. "You learn different and funny things about all the guys, and that makes it more interesting."

Of course, being a host family has more value than merely making a baseball game more interesting. Dennis said it's always refreshing to see visitors react to the special recreation opportunities, like fishing, the peninsula offers in the summer.

"In some ways, we act as a tour guide," Dennis said. "We share the location with these young men, and they in return share their youthful enthusiasm with us, and, of course, the game itself."

Being a host family has offered its share of special stories. In 1997, the Anchorage Glacier Pilots were in town and their pitching coach, Derek Johnson, was turning 26 and had never had a birthday party before.

During the party, some of the Smiths' children were playing basketball with Johnson and Pilots player Marc Bluma. Laura apparently was on fire that evening, because the men on her team kept yelling, "Hit her again. Hit her again."

The neighbors, hearing the banging and shouts about hitting women, called the Alaska State Troopers.

 

Dennis Smith and Matt Kester follow the action during a Peninsula Oilers baseball game at Coral Seymour Memorial Park earlier this month. Smith announces games for the team.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

"They thought it was domestic abuse," Charlene said. "They had to come out and check with everybody, and make sure they were all right.

"How many people can say they were having an innocent birthday party and the troopers came?"

Then there was Dennis' barbecue in 1998, where he cooked 10 pounds of chicken breasts, 20 pounds of pork spare ribs and 20 pounds of beef ribs. Charlene added a potato salad. Among the players getting involved in a rib-eating contest that day was Oilers infielder Ken Harvey. Harvey now plays for the Kansas City Royals.

"It's just so weird to see these people in your back yard, then look up years later and see them on television in the big leagues," Dennis said.

Each summer son affords special memories, but the Smiths have had a particularly memorable experience with Daniel Underwood and Garrett Schoenberger.

The two stayed with the Smiths last year, and this year Schoenberger is back with the Smiths.

"When (Schoenberger) came in this year, he walked up to my room and said that he might as well get comfortable because he knows where everything's at," Andrew said.

Schoenberger, a catcher, said that when he decided to come back to the Oilers this year, there was little question where he would stay.

"They're such an easy family to get along with," said Schoenberger, who attends Arizona State University. "They all give each other a hard time and have a lot of fun."

Part of that fun included a water fight last summer where everybody ended up soaked.

 

Peninsula Oiler catcher Garrett Schoenberger, left, gestures to make a point during a boisterous dinner after a recent game. This is the second summer the Smith family have hosted Shoenberger, who is the latest member of an extended family of ball players who have made the Smiths' home their own.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Underwood, now playing for the Colorado Rockies' rookie team, developed such a tight relationship with the Smiths that he came back to visit during Christmas break in 2002. Dustin picked Underwood up from the Kenai airport, and the two decided to have a little fun with their "mom."

"He called her and said that he missed his flight, and that he couldn't get in until 10 o'clock," Dustin said. "A couple minutes later, we walked in the door and she freaked out."

But isn't it weird, having heart-to-heart talks with a "son" that's not really your son?

"I always thought it would be, but it's not," Charlene said. "When you take somebody into your house, and they're there for two months, and you're seeing them every day, it's not abnormal to develop a special relationship."

And it's those relationships that have the Smiths so attached to the Oilers.

"Everybody has their subculture, whether it's quilting, guns, baseball, fishing or hunting," Dennis said. "I changed mine and became involved in a baseball subculture.

"It's much more than that, though. It really gets to be quite the family fraternity that people on the outside aren't aware of."

Past Oilers Coaching Staffs:

1998 Scott Marr, Oral Roberts University; Gary Adcock, Riverside Junior College; Marlin Jones, Yavapai College; Steve Lundby, Magnolia High School

It wasn't until 1998 that Charlene got what she calls the "best seat in the house" by becoming the full-time scoreboard operator. This set up a unique marital duo in the press box at Seymour Park.

 

Charlene and Dennis Smith and their daughter Laura talk about the Peninsula Oiler memorabbilia the family has collected over the years.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

"He's shocked a couple of people with it," Charlene said. "He'll come in and say, 'Hi, honey' and then tell other people, 'Don't worry, I don't talk to everyone that way.'"

Dennis said the partnership has been good.

"It allows us points of conversation because we can share thoughts on what we've seen," Dennis said. "She's very supportive of my activities and I'm blessed in that standpoint.

"If a lot of guys were doing this, it'd be a point of conflict with their wives."

The two say watching Andrew be a bat boy was a highlight of their time in the press box. They also enjoyed watching Soldotna High School graduates Chris Mabeus, Jackson Coleman and Paul John Zobeck play for the Oilers. Charlene, who has only missed one game since taking over scoreboard duties, also has had the opportunity to share in Dennis' mistakes.

"There was one time he told everybody to please stand and rise for the national anthem," she said. "That's a common joke around our house now."

Charlene also has shared in the tribulations of the job, such as when a university team from Japan came to town to play against the Oilers.

"That was three nights of terror for me," Dennis said. "It was just nerve-wracking.

"The only foreign language I knew was ordering at Taco Bell. But I felt so strongly that I wanted to get it right that I didn't want to say the wrong thing that I worked with an interpreter and actually learned something about the language."

And, of course, Charlene has gotten to share in Dennis' wacky sense of humor, which can leave the press box rolling at times.

One of Dennis' favorite ploys comes when overcast conditions hit Seymour Park. He will announce over the loudspeaker that the visiting team needs to turn on the ballpark's lights, which are located in the visiting team's dugout.

Befuddled players and managers scuttle through the dugout, then ultimately look up to the press box with arms raised in questioning posture. It all makes for great theater because Seymour Park, in the land of the midnight sun, has no lights.

What of the future?

The Smiths are continuing to ramp up their involvement with the Oilers. Dennis is now vice president of the Oilers board of directors, a position that has brought him even more fulfillment.

When Dennis graduated from Ben Eielson High School in 1975, he spoke at the commencement address about how important it was for individuals to be involved in their community. Being on the Oilers board, which does things like issue scholarships, has allowed Dennis to do that.

"I'm 46, and when I look back I can honestly say I've held true to my word to be a good neighbor," Dennis said.

Mike Baxter, the baseball operations manager for the Oilers, agrees that Dennis and his family have been good neighbors.

"They're involved in so many ways. Do you have 30 pages?" Baxter asked. "If they told me they weren't going to be involved next year, I don't know what I'd do."

Dennis says he'd like to get out from behind the microphone and just be a normal fan for once, but it's hard for him to imagine giving up his seat behind the mic.

Charlene said as long as Oilers keep coming to town, the Smiths will keep hosting them. And Laura says the only day family members don't look forward to going to the ballpark is when it's raining.

"I like giving to the Oilers community because the people I'm involved with are very generous," Dennis said. "I'm happy to help because I know if I ever needed help, they'd help me.

"That, and I get to see ballplayers with incredible skills. It's one of the best-kept secrets on the peninsula."

It also makes for a good story just as long as the Oilers keep publishing souvenir programs.



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