Make us your home page

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Fennelly: Belmont Heights Little League reunion overflows with pride

TAMPA — They were young princes, a Tampa treasure, bringing a city together. They were driven through city streets in military jeeps and Cadillac convertibles, along a parade route, after trips to the Little League World Series.

They played at a place in the inner city, between a cemetery and a housing project, and performed youth baseball with sustained excellence like no league ever has in this area or anywhere else.

They were the Belmont Heights Little League.

"Those memories are like yesterday," said former major-league star Gary Sheffield. "It was brotherhood. You felt the love."

There was a loving reunion Saturday, the kind the guys from the Heights had never had. Men in their 40s and 50s split into teams and played softball. It was special. Until the lightning flashed. Game over. To be rescheduled. Oh, well.

Former Belmont Heights player Eugene Gilbert, with help from Belmont alum Derrick Pedro, put together the game at the USF baseball stadium to salute the East Tampa league, which turns 50 next year, and help raise money.

Belmont Heights was iconic. It produced four Little League World Series teams, in 1973, 1975, 1980 and 1981. It spawned major-league players Sheffield and Dwight Gooden, whose names adorn the fields at Belmont Heights. And major-leaguers Derek Bell, Floyd Youmans, Carl Everett and Vance Lovelace.

"All that history on those little fields," Everett said.

RELATED: Man falsely imprisoned for 27 years returns to his Tampa field of dreams.

And it produced businessmen and firefighters and school administrators. It produced a lot of citizens set on their path by lessons learned at those little fields.

"It's a place where kids came out and made a bond with the community," said retiring Tampa Police chief Eric Ward, who played at Belmont Heights and who attended Saturday's game. "It taught you self-respect and discipline. It gave me structure. And pride. There was a lot of pride."

"Wearing the burgundy and gold meant something," said Sheffield, who played on the 1980 Little League World Series team.

"The 'BH' on your hat was a whole different ball game," said Ty Griffin, who played on the 1980 and '81 Series teams.

The league grew out of the riots that rocked Tampa in 1967. A group of adults decided that kids in the inner city needed a rallying point, away from the streets, a place for themselves, a place for families. Legendary Middleton High and Hillsborough High coach Billy Reed was one of the league's co-founders.

"We had some bad kids, and we lost some, but a lot of them we saved," said Reed, an honorary coach at Saturday's game.

There was violence and hardship on the streets all around them.

"But we had our own world," said Bell, who played on the Series teams in 1980 and ’81 "There wasn't money. We used to have just two bats that teams shared in a game. We had one batting glove. We passed it around. We didn't have a lot. But there was such camaraderie. We were from Belmont Heights. We were the best."

The league isn't what it once was. Belmont Heights hasn't been to a World Series in 36 years. The complex is a little ragged. The league has had problems.

One reason for Saturday's game, league president and former player Artis Gambrell Jr. said, was to help expansion into youth football, track and field, dance and educational enrichment programs.

"What we need is for some of the guys here today to reconnect with the league and show kids today what it meant," Griffin said.

How do you explain what it meant back then?

Griffin remembered the 1980 World Series runnerup team being flown to New York, to Yankee Stadium, by Yankees owner and Belmont Heights booster George Steinbrenner. The Belmont kids took the field with the Yankees. Many ran to rightfield to be with Reggie Jackson. They sat in a luxury box for the game.

"But I also treasure just riding my bike from 40th Street and Hillsborough (Avenue) all the way to Belmont Heights practice," Griffin said. "Or those days when we made All-Stars, when we'd put all these different-color shoe strings in our shoes."

Burgundy and gold.

And pride. There was a lot of pride.

Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Fennelly: Belmont Heights Little League reunion overflows with pride 07/08/17 [Last modified: Sunday, July 9, 2017 12:00am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Cubs down Dodgers 3-2; force NLCS Game 5 Thursday


    CHICAGO — Javier Baez snapped an 0-for-20 skid with two home runs, former Ray Wade Davis hung on for a six-out save and the Cubs avoided a sweep, holding off the Dodgers 3-2 Wednesday night in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series.

  2. Bucs' Vernon Hargreaves: 'I'm not making any plays'


    TAMPA — Eli Manning gathered his receivers together on the sideline during the Giants' Week 4 game against the Bucs and told them he planned to target the weakest link of the secondary all afternoon.

    Patriots receiver Chris Hogan gets position in front of Bucs cornerback Vernon Hargreaves for a 5-yard touchdown pass in New England’s win on Oct. 5.
  3. Lightning's J.T. Brown to stop anthem protest, focus on community involvement

    Lightning Strikes

    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Lightning wing J.T. Brown will no longer raise his first as a protest during the national anthem before games.

    J.T. Brown says he will work more with the Tampa police and groups that serve at-risk young people.
  4. Signs point to Jameis Winston dressing vs. Bills


    TAMPA — The Bucs didn't sign another quarterback Wednesday, which would suggest they are confident that Jameis Winston can be active as a backup to Ryan Fitzpatrick on Sunday at Buffalo if he doesn't start.

  5. FSU doesn't feel need for ongoing reminder of last year's beatdown at Louisville


    Of course Florida State remembers what happened against Louisville last year. The 63-20 loss was one of the worst defeats in Seminoles history.

    Louisville's Lamar Jackson looks back at the action from the sidelines during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Murray State, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)