ST. PETERSBURG — The girls in blue and gold gathered in the stands as bolts of lightning slashed the darkening sky. Oblivious to threatening weather, they ate pizza and showed off keepsake lockets with grains of clay from their softball field.
It was the farewell practice of the St. Pete Beach Sharks, 2012 National Softball Association World Champions for 12-and-under. Their practice field next to Lynch Elementary School — years earlier the longtime home of Meadowlawn Little League — was being sold to the Pinellas County School District.
"It's very heartbreaking," said Kayleice Hooks, 13, that dark afternoon.
Standing nearby, Catlyn Guidice, 12, agreed, saying she felt sad.
Kristine Guidice, Catlyn's mom, has coached the team for all of its five years. "Since they were 8 and under and now they're 14 and under," she said.
"It's very sad. My husband grew up playing on that field. It's been the neighborhood ballpark forever," she said of the area near 16th Street and 74th Avenue N.
Tom Carson, who was involved with the now defunct Meadowlawn Little League as a president and coach, said the man who developed Meadowlawn donated the property that became a complex of ballparks to the neighborhood children back in 1955. Carson said the one remaining field was deeded to the former St. Pete Hurricanes — a travel softball team he established — in 2009. Carson, a disabled Army veteran, said he spent "in excess of $35,000 to get it cleaned up and get it back in shape." When the Sharks asked to use the field, he agreed. Three years later, besieged with code problems, loss of the Hurricanes' tax-exempt status and delinquent property taxes, Carson said he was forced to sell.
"I don't blame him for anything. He's been awesome the whole time. He did offer the field to us to see if we could buy it, but we couldn't buy it," said Guidice, whose husband, Jerry, was the Sharks' general manager and maintained the field with their son, Mike, 15.
"When we got it, it was a mess," Guidice said. "We took two weeks and with the girls and their families, we cleaned up the whole field."
Nikki Hage, whose daughter, Chelsea, 13, began playing for the Sharks when she was 8, said that although all the parents helped, "Kris and Jerry really turned that field into a field of dreams."
Now it belongs to the school district, which bought it for $65,000.
"There isn't a plan in place right now to develop the property, so it will be kept as green space, but it will be there for the future if growth is needed," said Melanie Marquez Parra, a school district spokeswoman.
Hage said the Meadowlawn field had been convenient for her family, because it was close to their home. Besides, she said, it holds special memories for her husband, Darryl, who played with Meadowlawn Little League and most recently coached the Sharks' 8-and-under team that included their daughter, Kayla, who will soon be 10.
"This one was the main field," he said as the Sharks practiced one last time.
"When we got this field, the fence was coming down,'' he said. "One parent, Bill Rek, donated 3 tons of clay for the field."
Another parent donated a batting cage.
That final practice day, neighbor Vee Cox was riding by on her bike. She often stopped to watch the Sharks and chat. Cox's late husband, Bill, had been a coach for Meadowlawn.
It's sad to see it end, she said.
"These girls are a true family," said Kelly Singer, who brought daughter, Kimmy, 12, from Safety Harbor three times a week for practice. "I'm just heartsick."
That evening Guidice, also the assistant softball coach at Lakewood High School, gave her players see-through lockets she had bought from a Hallmark store. In each was a small shark sticker and red clay from home plate.
"For right now, it's the end. When we got this field, it was awesome. It's very hard to get a field for girls to practice," she said. "For the girls, it's just been their home."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.