Ballpark seen as a community unifier

Published 11:28 am Tuesday, June 10, 2014

DAILY LEADER / KATIE WILLIAMSON / Caiden Quarles swings at a ball during the Annie Sanders coach pitch practice Tuesday, May 19, at the Dr. A.L. Lott baseball fields.

DAILY LEADER / KATIE WILLIAMSON / Caiden Quarles swings at a ball during the Annie Sanders coach pitch practice Tuesday, May 19, at the Dr. A.L. Lott baseball fields.

A modified softball complex, where hundreds of children play baseball daily and an outdated baseball complex, where hundreds of children play baseball daily; both are run by devoted Christian men who are adamant about working for the children.

The goals of the programs are the same and the love for the game radiates throughout both leagues. The only barrier between the two is a history that has separated Lincoln County by a railroad track.

America’s favorite pastime has a history of segregation, but in 1946, Jackie Robinson broke the big league color line when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. By the 1950s, black baseball players were thoroughly represented in the professional leagues.

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But, in Lincoln County, as in much of the South, the separation is still visible. Although there are a few crossovers, and both sides of the aisle are extremely welcoming, the county has self-segregated into the Dr. A.L. Lott Community Youth League and the Dixie Youth League.

“The separation of these communities in Lincoln County has been too long,” said McNair Smith. “It shouldn’t be east side and west side; this is Brookhaven. We have to get away from being caught up in our little cubby-holes, and just protecting what’s in the hole for us while leaving the children out. Our day is soon passing; time waits for no one.”

Smith has worked as both a coach and umpire for A.L. Lott and Dixie Youth and is part of the Baseball Facility Concept Marketing Team that has been working for the past couple years to develop the concept for a new baseball facility in Lincoln County. He feels that this facility would have the power to unite the two programs. The five fields would be open to every baseball player and league in the area.

“I think resolving some of the issues between the classes as well as relationships in Lincoln County can be resolved right here on this baseball field,” said Smith.

“Once we learn that we can work together, that we can build a program together, that we can play together, that we can leave from that field knowing that we met friends, that we met new people and we are able to showcase our talents as well as our skills together, that’s when you become a strong community.”

DAILY LEADER / MARTY ALBRIGHT / Meanwhile, in Dixie Youth baseball play, Performance Audio's Trevor Fortenberry delivers his pitch against Comfort Zone in a recent game at Exchange Club Park. Area residents are pushing for a new youth baseball complex that they say could serve both local baseball leagues.

DAILY LEADER / MARTY ALBRIGHT / Meanwhile, in Dixie Youth baseball play, Performance Audio’s Trevor Fortenberry delivers his pitch against Comfort Zone in a recent game at Exchange Club Park. Area residents are pushing for a new youth baseball complex that they say could serve both local baseball leagues.

Currently, Lincoln County has seven youth baseball fields available, and between the two programs, they serve over 500 local players. During tournaments that number multiplies and the number of little leaguers running around the county is mind-boggling.

“There are 334 kids here,” said Weldon Smith, Dixie Youth Baseball league director. “Now, that times two parents, times two grandparents, times aunts and uncles that come out here all the time, you’re looking at most everybody in this town being affected in some way, shape, form or fashion.”

The Lincoln County Dixie Youth is part of a state program that hosts tournaments for boys age 7 to 12. The players pay $100 to duke it out in different locations all summer long. The money pays for insurance, a uniform and general league support, such as baseballs and umpire fees. All of the coaches, support staff and even Weldon Smith are volunteers.

“Anybody that wants to play with us is always welcome,” said the Dixie Youth director said. “The way we look at it, we don’t care if a kid can hit a ball or even knows which end of the bat is the handle, it’s our job to teach them. When he leaves here, if he’s got a hit or knows how to hold a bat and couldn’t when he first got here, then we are successful. We’re out here for just the kids.”

The high spirits brought out by a new Dixie Youth season are dampened by the state of the current facilities. The major renovations needed for the existing fields leaves much to be desired. The fields are over used and the facilities are patched together. Despite the fields’ conditions, the Dixie Youth rally around the worn bases with gusto as parents cheer them on from rusty bleachers.

On the other side of the tracks, conditions are different. Roy Smith is preparing for another summer of baseball for the A. L. Lott league. He is proud of how well the facility is maintained by himself and other volunteers.

“People from out of town love to play here,” said Roy Smith.

The A.L. Lott baseball program caters to boys age 4 to 16. Children from the community pay $20 to play ball all summer long on two 280-foot fields that are maintained by the Brookhaven Recreation Department.

Similarly to Dixie Youth, all the coaches and staff support are volunteers. The A. L. Lott league is organized by the local community action group and funded through local business sponsorship.

“We are out here trying to teach our kids some good citizenship skills, leadership skills, about sportsmanship and building friendships as well,” said Roy Smith, in a previous interview. “We are trying to get kids acclimated to the game. Once they are acclimated, and if they like it, we don’t have to worry about them for the rest of their lives.”

Although 27 teams, including boys and girls, use the facilities, the fields were originally designed for softball. Roy Smith said the league is less concerned about the actual game of baseball and is more concentrated on creating successful citizens.

Everyday the A.L. Lott fields are packed with kids of all ages; some playing ball and some hanging out with friends. It plays host to entire families looking for a summer activity. The increase in attendance this year is a testament to Roy Smith’s hard work, but the numbers have fluctuated over the years.

“I’ve watched A.L. Lott baseball program start with 600 children go down to less than 200,” said McNair Smith. “Brookhaven didn’t get any smaller, but where did those 200-300 children go? When you see [Police] Chief [Bobby] Bell and all the rest of them running from here to there all summer, people go to work, doors having been kicked in, people having been robbed in our community. Do you really wonder where those children are? I was told a long time ago that idle time is the devils playground, especially when it comes to a child. When a child has nothing to do then he is going to get in to some devilment.”

Not only are children kept busy over the summer, but studies show that participation in athletics results in higher academic performance and greater personal development. Between Dixie Youth and A. L. Lott, more than 500 kids are becoming better citizens.

To incorporate the two like-minded programs in one facility has always been part of the plan for the Baseball Facility Concept Marketing Team. It was important to them that all demographics of Lincoln County were represented in the planning meetings. In discussions a few concerns immediately came to the table, the main issue being money.

The Dixie Youth League charges $100 to play, while A.L. Lott charges $20. The committee decided the best way to bridge this gap would be to establish a foundation to offer scholarships to any child who applies and qualifies. The specifics of the foundation will be hammered out if the Lincoln County Board of Supervisors moves forward with building the proposed new baseball complex.

“Every child will be able to use the field,” said McNair Smith. “Money will not be an issue for anyone.”

Even though the new facility could be a field of dreams, reality hits home with a steep price tag: $2.5 million. The marketing team proposes that this will quickly be made back by the revenues received in the area from the increased out-of-town visitors.

Covering the cost of the complex would require a bond issue that would cost approximately $10 more in property taxes for Lincoln County, according to engineering estimates. A bond issue could require a referendum vote by the citizens, depending on the type of bonds issued.

If constructed, the five new fields would be located between the civic center and existing Hansel King Sports Complex, which serves softball and tee-ball.

For some, the tax increase is a deal breaker.

“I’m not anti-baseball but $10 is a lot for someone on a fixed income,” said concerned citizen George Wilson Sr. “Who gets the money from this; the merchants, not me.”

“You may attract approximately 2,500 at the max at this complex, which is only about 10 percent of the registered voters in the county, and you want all taxpayers to pay for this monstrosity,” Wilson said in a letter to the editor of The Daily Leader.

Wilson questions the tax increase. As he sees it, this will be similar to gas prices; even if the actual price of gas goes down, the price at the pumps won’t because people are used to paying a certain amount. The tax increase will never go down, they will just continually increase because people will be used to it, Wilson argued.

Wilson feels the money would be more effective if it were used toward better infrastructure and Lincoln County should utilize their existing fields.

The new baseball facility is still far from breaking ground. At the last Lincoln County Board of Supervisors meeting, the supervisors agreed to have a bid packet compiled that would give more specifics about details that that have been discussed by the baseball committee. Both the board and marketing team requested community involvement in the discussion.

Nothing will change for this baseball season. A.L. Lott will play their games and Dixie Youth will play theirs, but a common mantra echoes through the two “it’s for the kids.” No one was able to explain why the leagues have remained separate, but both groups are primed for change.

“There is a desire and a need to get away from being segregated in programs,” said McNair Smith. “This is a Lincoln County opportunity for every child versus this is Dixie Youth or this is A. L. Lott. I think it’s a sad day for a man to live in this world and not have given anything back. When opportunity presents itself to give back to the community that’s going to impact your children and grandchildren for the rest of their lives, we have to take advantage. We are obligated to take advantage.”