Volume 16 • Issue 48 | APRIL 23-29, 2004

Safe at home! New season, new fields

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg

In fresh uniforms and caps, Downtown Little Leaguers marched with their coaches, parents, siblings and family dogs from City Hall Park to Battery Park City Saturday, marking the start of the season and the first played on the neighborhood’s new, state-of-the-art, grass fields.

Downtown Little League’s 2004 season, its twelfth, will revive old traditions and create new ones. This year, parading Little Leaguers participated in a tradition that was halted six years ago when City Hall Park closed for redesign. The season is the first on professional-grade fields, the first to publicly honor Little League founders and key volunteers, and the first to hold tryouts for middle division players.

“The field has special meaning for us, here, Downtown in New York City,” said Vito Suppa, president of Downtown Little League, during the season’s opening ceremony. “It means our state, our city, our neighborhood, our community, and our Little League are still here and we’re not going anywhere.”

Before the parade, enthusiastic players tossed balls to each other in the empty fountain in City Hall Park, shouting out “I got its!” before taking time for team photos. Parents lugging baseball bats and balls laced up shoes and herded players to line up for the march.

Suppa led several hundred players and their parents onto the fields where the booming drums of Battery Samba, a new youth music group based on Brazilian batucada samba bands, greeted marchers. Young friends reunited, as team members lined up along a freshly painted foul line to practice catching and throwing. In the background, parents touting homemade team posters and banners snapped photos.

“It’s the start of spring for most of Tribeca, and the kids look great,” said Mark Costello, coach of the junior division Reds and the league’s equipment manager. “They’re excited to get out of their lofts and play ball, and have ten times the energy we do.”

This year, about 500 players signed up for the season, and the T-ball league expanded from eight teams to 12. The league ran tryouts for the first time this season for middle division players, said Reds majors coach Bob Franchi, who has coached Downtown Little League for the past five years. Coaches and managers ranked and divided players after evaluating them for hitting, fielding, and pitching.

Franchi said that his team, like others, has grown this year. Last season his team consisted of 10 players, but this year, 13 will play and are eager to be on the new fields. “I think the field is beautiful,” he said. “It’s nice to play on the grass again, and the kids are excited.”

One of the team’s 13 players, Franchi’s son Scott, 11, has played Little League for five years. After the event, Scott said he enjoyed spending the day with his new team and seeing how everyone else plays. He also thought the new field was much better than last year’s. “It’s more professional and more level, so you don’t get wild balls in the outside. It was rocky last year and would bounce up and hit you in the face.”

Nile Green, 11, of the Orioles minors, has also played in the league for the last five years and is looking forward to the 2004 season. “It’s a fun sport,” he said after Opening Day. “We’ll probably do great [this year].”

In spring of 2002, the Battery Park City Authority reclaimed the fields from the city, which was forced to use them to park trucks participating in the World Trade Center recovery operation, cleared them and began to grow the pesticide-free grass fields. November rains prevented the fields from opening for the 2003 season, and many, like Astros T-ball coach Greg Pryor and his team, were disappointed, but now are thrilled to be playing in the park.

“You can’t even compare the fields,” said Pryor, who previously coached his team in Rockefeller Park. “This is like a major league field compared to what we had before, and is amazing for baseball.”

Councilmember Alan Gerson, Tim Carey, president and C.E.O. of Battery Park City Authority, and Madelyn Wils, chairperson of Community Board 1, attended the opening ceremony and applauded the new playing fields.

“This is a great and glorious day,” Gerson said, “a great season because we’re playing on your home field. This is what community is all about, camaraderie, and enjoying the neighborhood.”

During the ceremony, Suppa awarded former Downtown Little League president and co-founder Dr. Lewis Gross with a founder’s award, praising him for the “foresight and vision in 1993 to say that if we’re going to have a good community, we’re going to have Little League.” Suppa also honored dedicated Little League volunteers who over the years, he said, have spent endless hours stuffing envelopes, helping with batting cages, fundraising, and procuring bats and balls for players.

Wally Tuberville, the league’s treasurer, received the volunteer of the year award for 2002 for his plan to take some players to Williamsport, Pa., the home of Little League, as a special getaway post September 11.

Suppa said he is still waiting for safety fences and safe dugouts to be installed in the field, but overall is more than pleased with the fields.

Both coaches and players are looking forward to a fun season on the fields. “By the end of the season the players will all have taken major strides and learned a lot,” Pryor said. “It’s all about fun, teaching them something about the game and getting them out with other kids from the community.”

“I like just playing the game and how it’s its own community,” Scott said.

Harrison Priest, 10, of the Orioles minors, played the Rockies on opening day, and said he enjoys being out on the field with his friends. “It’s fun competing against other teams,” he said after opening weekend. “You don’t know if you’re going to win or lose, and have to play your hardest if you’re going to win.”

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