Saturday, September 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

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.

     
Comments
For starters: Rays at Blue Jays, with Meadows in the lineup

For starters: Rays at Blue Jays, with Meadows in the lineup

After a crushing defeat Thursday and Friday's bounceback win, the Rays take on the Blue Jays again today, first pitch 4:07.OF Austin Meadows, who made an impressive showing coming off the bench on Friday gets his first start today in rightfield. Mead...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Rays bounce back big after a debacle

Rays bounce back big after a debacle

TORONTO — The way the Rays played Friday — all nine innings, lesson learned — in beating the Jays 11-3 provided the best answer on how, or even if, they could rebound from the crushing loss the night before that all but ended their ...
Published: 09/21/18
Updated: 09/22/18
Rays journal: Carlos Gomez says ump should’ve been ejected

Rays journal: Carlos Gomez says ump should’ve been ejected

TORONTO — After unleashing a Twitter rant criticizing umpire Andy Fletcher's work behind the plate Thursday, Rays OF Carlos Gomez doubled down on his comments, saying he was even more upset about how Fletcher treated him when questioning a thir...
Published: 09/21/18
Marc Topkin’s takeaways from Friday’s Rays-Blue Jays game

Marc Topkin’s takeaways from Friday’s Rays-Blue Jays game

Mallex Smith has his moments in the outfield, but he can produce highlights. He made two dazzling catches Friday. On one he went running and sliding across the foul line; on the other he crashed into the rightfield wall, though twisting his right ank...
Published: 09/21/18
Rays Carlos Gomez doubles down on criticism of umpire

Rays Carlos Gomez doubles down on criticism of umpire

After unleashing a Twitter rant criticizing umpire Andy Fletcher's work behind the plate in Thursday's game, Rays OF Carlos Gomez doubled down  in his comments Friday, saying he was even more upset about how Fletcher treated him when questioning...
Published: 09/21/18
For starters: Rays at Blue Jays, trying to bounce back

For starters: Rays at Blue Jays, trying to bounce back

UPDATE, 6:15: Cash talked about how tough Thursday's loss was, that he doubted many on the team got a good night's sleep. He said he took Kiermaier out to get Meadows an at-bat and doesn't know if Kiermaier would have caught the Kendrys Morales bloop...
Published: 09/21/18
How do you really feel, Carlos Gomez?

How do you really feel, Carlos Gomez?

Rays veteran OF Carlos Gomez made his feelings about being ejected from Thursday's game by home plate umpire Andy Fletcher quite clear in a series of Twitter posts and a live video.Gomez was in the dugout complaining about being called out on strikes...
Published: 09/21/18
How to kill playoff chances? Rays blow six-run lead in 9th, lose 9-8 to Jays

How to kill playoff chances? Rays blow six-run lead in 9th, lose 9-8 to Jays

TORONTO — The Rays had done so much right in making their entertaining, exciting and endearing September run to make it a race for the final American League playoff spot.But it was what they couldn't do Thursday night, get the final three outs ...
Published: 09/20/18
Updated: 09/21/18
Marc Topkin’s takeaways from Thursday’s Rays-Blue Jays game

Marc Topkin’s takeaways from Thursday’s Rays-Blue Jays game

As if the Rays haven't been innovative enough — with relievers starting and starters relieving, with pitchers playing infield spots and infielders playing the outfield — Thursday they unveiled a four-man outfield.Thursday was another exam...
Published: 09/20/18
Rays journal: Austin Meadows gets called up, but there’s nowhere to put him

Rays journal: Austin Meadows gets called up, but there’s nowhere to put him

TORONTO — After taking his first look at OF Austin Meadows in Rays colors, manager Kevin Cash said the promising prospect is a "huge part" of their future. But he also acknowledged that they might not get much of a look at that future over the ...
Published: 09/20/18