By Matthew Yoder
A community center represents a lot of things to many different people. At its core, it is an inclusive space, providing fellowship and fostering a strong community ethic. In many respects, the ballfields in Onancock epitomize the definition of such a place.
This year was to mark the 10th anniversary of the complex, and though spring baseball and softball were canceled, this past Monday practices officially reopened to usher in a season of fall ball.
If not for the persistence of the presiding members of the Central Accomack Little League, it seems as though the season might have been a complete loss. Their determination, and love for the sport their own kids compete in, have helped bring the game back, but they are but one piece of a story made possible by a total community effort.
Prior to 2010, teams played in the space that was once the home to the firemen’s carnival. As the carnival departed, so did the opportunity for kids to play on those grounds. Greg Ford is vice president of the Central Accomack Little League. He recalls the days of transition a decade ago now.
“The fire company owned the land, when they stopped doing the carnival, they sold all the land to a company so the Little League had to move, the town gave the Little League this piece of land to rebuild,” said Ford.
That year marked Ford’s first involvement with the league, though in those days he was a coach, supporting the growth of his oldest daughter as a ballplayer. Ford remembers the subtle pageantry of the move. “They did a parade and walked from the old carnival grounds with all the teams, walked here and started on opening day,” said Ford.
What they walked to was a facility, new, not yet what it is today, but certainly supported for long-term survival with a substantial grant from Little League International. To this day that initial check adorns the wall of the upstairs office for C.A.L.L. board members.
Joe Colonna was the president of the league in 2010. He helped build the foundation, but as the facilities grew, community members and businesses took a real ownership stake in the progress. If Little League put up a large sum initially, the Shore responded and continues to do so in generous ways.
Like Ford, Billy Justice has been active in the development of his own children on the field, but when offered the chance to take on a leadership role five years ago he responded with a set of criteria.
“My daughter was 16, it was 2015, it was her last year of senior softball and I was the softball vice president. I said I will take the position of Little League president if I can form a good team team behind me,” Justice said.
At the top of that list was Ford, and his wife, Amy, who now serves as treasurer for the league. “If they wouldn’t have come, I don’t know if I would have done it,” said Justice.
Both Ford and Justice are natives of the Shore, lovers of the game, and recall their own days when facilities weren’t what they are now, but interest in the game was substantially greater.
In his younger days playing in Parksley, Ford was a third basemen and center fielder, and pitched a bit too. Back then there was only one field, but as Ford says, “there were a lot of kids.”
To the south, Justice played in the Nassawadox Shore Little League and speaks of similar involvement. “I remember when I was 15, we had eight senior league baseball teams and we would always have tournaments.”
The one-time left fielder recalls being a part of a lot of winning teams, but to him, always, the game is what mattered. Outside of organized teams, the Shore supported leagues of people just looking to stay active. “Every church would have a softball team and we’d play at Melfa every Friday night,” said Justice.
It’s clear Justice’s and Ford’s goal is to bring the spirit of those days to the present. Registration numbers, which had been on the decline, are again beginning to see an uptick, and the team Justice has built seems intent on keeping the game alive. Take a stroll to the facilities and you’ll find an area well-kept and groomed. For Bryan Justice, keeping the grass maintained is a labor of love. Justice took over the expansive grounds in 2016.
“It takes probably every bit of five or six hours a day just in grass. It’s not just me, we’ve got a guy over here, Jerry Hartman, he’s in his 80s and he’ll come over here and cut grass all day long,” said Justice.
These folks are not paid to do this, but they keep at it in a timely fashion.
“I come out here, sit, and do what I have to do, I just love watching kids play,” said Justice.
That theme is tantamount to the sense of community fostered here. Prior to the shutdowns, on any given night there may be three games running simultaneously between baseball, softball, and T-ball, and as siblings make use of the playground, parents and grandparents make themselves at home. They set up tents, bring food and the simple game of baseball becomes a family event. Under the blazing sun or at night under the lights, people are here to watch, encourage and talk stories with people, be it friends or strangers.
That sense of community extends to the sponsorship that keeps the lights on, and the blades of grass cut. The mowers that Justice puts countless hours on were offered at a very fair price by Devon Fairhurst at Fairdale Farms in Accomac. The addition of two zero-turn mowers dramatically cut the time the crew spends mowing, and Fairhurst even assists beyond his initial stake.
“Devon has been a big help to us. He donated a tractor to us and has been maintaining our mowers and not sent a bill,” said Justice.
The list of people involved seems to cover a lot of the area. Amy Greene at Onancock Building Supply has built a tremendous relationship with the league. Ford commented on all the ways OBS has managed to assist the league. “They provide weed and feed at good costs, turf is big money, and paint, they sponsor a couple teams every year, and every all-star team every year they donate big money to,” said Ford.
Donating money to all-star teams can be extremely important, especially if a team displays a lot of talent on the field. In this regard, the 2019 season was particularly memorable, for the fact that both the boys and girls sent teams deep into postseason play, with the boy’s teams reaching the Little League World Series in South Carolina. Everything happened at lightning speed, and accordingly, the community jumped into action to ease the financial costs involved. The numbers generated, when mixed with the time available, were staggering.
Justice explains: “The boys won states on that Friday and they had to be to regionals on that Tuesday and Barry Mears and Wayne Farlow at the Elks Lodge did a spaghetti dinner in less than 48 hours and raised over $30,000. It’s crazy.”
Others acted quickly as well. “Hannah Annis did a GoFundMe page thinking we’ll do $5,000 and they raised $17,000 in two days, it was crazy, all community,” said Justice.
That seems to be the common thread. People willing to put up in times of need, and now Ford and Justice are ushering the return of baseball in a time of great social need. Kids started coming back. Unofficially, some have been honing their skills all summer in waiting, but games will commence again in a matter of weeks.
Nearly 300 kids are signed up to play this year, a number though down from days past, is still up over 30% from when Justice took over the league. Justice pays keen attention to the environment of Little League baseball regionally and goes out of his way to make the atmosphere unique for kids on the Shore.
Facilities are in place to help the kids achieve the levels of excellence that were reached last season. A subsequent Little League grant started the process that made an indoor hitting facility available. Past C.A.L.L. president Jeremy Wert helped raise the building after more funds were gathered in the community. Now it’s available to anyone who wishes to practice away from the elements.
A similar enticing feature is the special events throughout the season. The annual Sundog Tournament brings teams from hours away and generates great revenue for the league and town. That tournament alone helped build the playground, and its tradition will continue this fall. Also, to make the situation more unique, Justice was timely in registering the league to take part in the T-Mobile Homerun Derby, a first of its kind for the league.
“The first 70 Little League teams that registered were eligible to take part. They’re going to give T-Mobile bat bags to everybody, balls and softballs. I’m going to put it out for everybody on the Shore to come but I can only do 40 participants of girls and boys,” said Justice.
A lot is always in the works in the minds of these men, but what truly sets these ballfields apart is the shared experience of watching kids play. That’s what brings kids out practicing at their own volition, parents coming out to relax, and also drives the actions of Ford and the Justice brothers.
Bryan Justice, too, has kids playing on the grass he expertly looks after, and he cares about the experience of all kids collectively.
“I just love watching kids play, my kids play, they’ve been playing for the last seven years. I just want to see the kids playing again. They feel like my own kids,” said Justice.
It’s not uncommon to find people who just love the game, who stroll by to catch a couple innings, or grab a bite at the snack bar when it was operational. There’s a tranquility and nostalgia that is difficult to touch on, but it’s real. It’s highlighted in the words of Ford, a man who undoubtedly loves the game that lives on here. “I like it, I sit out here most nights when my kids aren’t playing.”