Monday, May 21, 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.

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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.

     
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