Chef Barney volunteers to put World Series food on the table

When family members are on the road for weeks at a time to support a teen-age son who is part of something special, they may not put a lot of thought into where their next meal will take place.

During last week’s Junior League World Series in Taylor, organizers solved the dinner dilemma: They fed the players for free and offered the same balanced, tasty meals to their families at a nominal cost.

Players, coaches, families and spectators were able to sit down together in the Heritage Park Activity Building, where Chef Barney and Associates served a variety of dishes buffet style every day.

“The good thing about it is you’re seeing families that are able to sit down and eat together,” said Chef Barney Sprague, a 20-year Taylor resident. “You see teams sit down and enjoy each other’s company. There’s more of a kindred spirit, a camaraderie. We’re seeing all the language barriers broken down by a plate of food, too.”

The World Series – which survives on fund-raisers, sponsorships and donations – takes the responsibility of feeding players and coaches at no charge. In the past, arrangements were made for teams to eat at various restaurants in the area. Greg Bzura, director of the World Series, said the weekly tab was $20,000, even with discounts.

Dining at local restaurants was still encouraged this year, Bzura said. In fact, teams still ate meals at Texas Roadhouse, Famous Dave’s, Denny’s, Mancino’s and other area establishments and the Taylor Moose provided lunch and special activities for visiting teams on two afternoons.

But Sprague volunteered the services of himself, his family and his staff to provide meals, especially at dinner time. The World Series paid for the food. Chef Barney and Associates prepared and served the meals at no extra cost.

Bzura estimated the savings would exceed $10,000.

Sprague also fed volunteers and a number of the umpires. Family members that wanted to take part in the meals – and there were a lot of them – paid just $5 a dinner.

The location of the Activity Center so close to the park makes it convenient for families who don’t have to miss any activities.

One day, Sprague provided baked chicken with rice pilaf and heavy butter corn. The next day, boneless pork chops were served. One night was taco night. One night, there were wraps.

“We try to keep it kid friendly, but adult friendly as well,” Sprague said. “Adults who have traveled are so glad not to have to eat fast food any more. We have a salad bar at every meal.”

Sprague is a self-taught chef – by necessity. A native of upstate New York, Sprague said he learned to cook to feed his family at age 11 when his mother died in 1972 at age 48 from a cerebral hemorrhage.

When his 18-year job as a mortgage representative ended a few years ago, Sharon Sprague urged her husband to “go try something you want to do.”

“So we took a big gamble and it took off in a big way,” Sprague said.

A coach at Baptist Park in Taylor, Sprague would serve food to his players and their opponents after games. As a result, much of Barney and Associates’ business comes from churches and schools for banquets and special events.

Oddly, Sprague said he has no sense of smell so he can not taste many of the homemade foods he creates.

Sprague’s involvement in the World Series started four years ago when he and his wife became host parents who served as guides for visiting players and their families. The first year, they hosted the team from Venezuela and provided meals for that team and a team from Texas. Last year, his crew of volunteers fed “Barney Burgers” to Texas at his church, Gilead Baptist.

“We had a couple other functions with the Junior League World Series,” said Sprague, who also umpires. “I guess they figured I could cook.”

Every day of World Series week starts at 5:30 a.m. with prep work. Sprague said his team is at the fields by 9 a.m. to serve lunch by 11:30. As soon as lunch is done, they start preparing supper from 4:30 to 8 p.m. While that’s going on, they start cooking for the hospitality suite at the Ramada Inn that opens nightly to adults after the games end.

“We’re tired by the end of the day, but by the time morning comes, we’re ready to go again. We can rest later on. It only lasts a week.”

Sprague has five children – Brailyn, 21; Baili, 20; Brenita, 18; Bethany, 16; and Katherine, 12 – and they pitch in.

“I have my entire family working for me and the people who work for me are donating their time as well,” he said last week. “They’re working 12 to 14 hours and they haven’t seen a single pitch yet.”

Sprague said helping contribute to the success of the World Series – which has been played in Taylor for 26 straight years – is worth the effort.

“I like the program that Greg runs,” Chef Barney said. “I like the community spirit. Our minister (Rev. Thomas Downs) encourages us to be involved in community outreach. This is a way to be involved. And this is fun. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of relaxation. By the second or third game, when the kids are calling you by your first name, it gives you a good feeling.”

He made a lot of fans throughout the week.

“The food is very nice,” said Mike Murdock, a 14-year-old player on the Alexandria, Virginia, team. “It’s great that it’s always there for us. I liked the Hawaiian bar they served.”

“Everything I’ve had this week from Chef Barney has been great,” said scorekeeper Steve Vitale of Lincoln Park.

“I don’t know why he calls it comfort food,” added host parent Sue Phillips of Taylor. “You eat more than you should and you’re stuffed.”

Bzura, who founded the series in 1981, praised the efforts of Sprague and his team.

“Chef Barney is a caterer, a Little Leaguer and a coach,” Bzura said. “He took a week off from his business, including his employees, and has provided a temporary restaurant at the Activity Building. We can’t thank him enough.”

(For more information on Chef Barney and Associates, call 1-313-525-1629.)