ROBOTHAM - Field Of Dreams
Fleet Park little league has touched the lives of thousands
of kids and parents. Alas, next year, the league may be homeless.
Baseball has been an integral part of my world for most of my lifeand over the years I've collected a lot of memorabilia. Most of my baseball cards are gone, but I still have a full-sized Mickey Mantle signature bat that I got on bat day at Yankee Stadium when I was 10, my father's baseball glove (one of those pancake-flat mitts that players used in the 1930s), a large photograph of Jackie Robinson leaving Ebbet's Field, my own Little League team photo, and several autographed baseballs.
Among the balls is one autographed by my son's 2003 Little League team, which I helped coach. It may be the most meaningful possession of them all, for two reasons. First, it reminds me of a golden age when my children were young and the joys of fatherhood were in full bloom. Second, it symbolizes my own reconnection with the heart and soul of America's pastime after a period of disenchantment with the sport.
I first fell in love with baseball not simply because of the beauty of the game but because of the many rituals associated with it.
Every Sunday throughout my childhood, for example, my family and I would stop at a neighborhood delicatessen on the way home from church so my father could pick up his copy of The New York Times. More often than not, he would give me a nickel for a pack of baseball cards. The first thing I'd do after opening the pack is smell the cards, which were coated with powder from the bubble gum; the aroma was every bit as magical as the fragrance of Christmas trees. Then I'd stick the gum in my mouth and look to see which players I'd picked up.
In 1965, when I was 9, I was initiated into the rituals of the major-league spectator during a visit to Shea Stadium. Shea had been built a year earlier to accommodate New York's newest teamthe Metsand to coincide with the World's Fair. The Mets were terrible but loveable. In any event, I was awed by the stadium itself. It had neither the charm of Wrigley Field nor the mythical aura of Yankee Stadium, but that didn't matter. To my eyes, it might as well have been the Roman Coliseum.
Four years later, I sat on the edge of my seat in my living room as the Mets played the Baltimore Orioles in game 5 of the World's Series. When they won, I ran outside, hopped on my green Schwinn Stingray and rode to a friend's neighborhood to celebrate. That night, after the celebration had subsided, I found myself alone in the shadows with a girl named Debbie. I'd had a crush on her for months but had not had the nerve to do anything about it. My exuberance finally gave me the courage to kiss her. Those two eventsmy team's triumph and my first kissare inextricably linked in my memory for all time.
Seventeen years later, I celebrated again as the Mets beat the Red Sox in the seventh game of the Series. My friend John and I had watched the game from seats near the first base dugout at Shea. We cheered so loudly, during the game and in the streets afterward, that we were hoarse for two days.
Alas, my love of the sport began to fade soon thereafter. I was especially disgusted by the strike of 1994 and by the antics of arrogant playersparticularly Vince Coleman, whom the Mets had picked up in 1991. I'd never liked him to begin with, but came to utterly despise him two years later, after he threw a firecracker into a crowd of fans who were waiting for autographs and injured three young children. He got off with a sentence of community service.
The beauty of the game might have been lost on me forever had it not been for Little League at Norfolk's Fleet Park. In 1999, when my son was 6, I signed him up for T-ball and became an assistant coach. Some of the kids had no idea what they were doing. I remember one boy, in particular, who hit a little dribbler off the tee and promptly ran to third base. But that was part of the charmtaking kids who had no knowledge, skill or athletic ability, and teaching them as best we could.
The following year, my daughter also joined the league, playing girls' softball. She played a variety of positions, but distinguished herself as catcher. I recall one game in particular, when she took a pitch in the dirt, rose up and caught a runner off second base with a perfect throw. It was more exhilarating than any major league play I've ever witnessed.
As much as I enjoyed coaching my son, in fact, it was my daughter's experience that most impressed me. Thanks to a wonderful coach named Eric Gilkerson, she became a good athlete and developed a new sense of confidence.
But girls weren't relegated to softball exclusively. When my son was 10, one of the best players on his team was a girl. The coaches and other boys treated her like any other playera scenario that would have been unthinkable when I was a kid.
That memory, in fact, captures the essence of Fleet Park Little Leaguethe atmosphere of inclusiveness and support. I'd heard horror stories about overbearing parents and coaches who berated kids for making errors and were even more abusive to children on the opposing team. They were in it for their egos, not for the kids. Occasionally we encountered such idiots during inter-league play. But within Fleet Park Little League, such incidents were rare to nonexistent. The place wasand is to this dayrun by parents who love the game as a source of fun and personal development and want to pass that love to the next generation.
Now, it appears, all of that may come to an end. On May 10, the Navy sent a letter to league president Charles Triplett, informing him of plans to close the facility by the end of 2011 because it can "no longer postpone addressing safety concerns ..."
The concerns are legitimate. Fleet Park sits within the "clear zone" of Chambers Field, where planes routinely take off and land, and as flights increase over the next few years, so will the likelihood of a crash, according to an updated study by the Navy.
Triplett does not dismiss the concerns lightly. Moreover, he recognizes that the Navy is "well within its rights to close the facility." But he adds that Fleet Park is on the "outer extremities" of the clear zone and that in his 12 years of involvement with the league he has never felt unsafe there. People have been playing there since 1968, he says, and the park in its current configuration dates back to 1993.
Now, at the very least, the league is hoping for an extension so that it will have time to find a new location, build a new facility and raise the money to do it. He and the rest of the board members are trying to enlist city officials to help them reach a compromise with the Navy.
Even if they succeed in doing all of this, however, the ending will be bittersweet. "Fleet Park," Triplett says, "is the finest Little League facility in Tidewater."
To that I would add that it's run by some of the finest people I've ever met, Triplett very much included. I suspect that in time they will find a solution. But Fleet Park is more than a great facility. It's a piece of local historya place where thousands of parents have bonded with their children, and where those children have bonded with one another while discovering their own potential. It will be sorely missedHRM