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Gulfport's big Little League tradition ending

Lou Caprara and Katie Blair have a combined 48 years volunteering at Little League regional tournaments in Gulfport. The event is leaving after this year.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Lou Caprara and Katie Blair have a combined 48 years volunteering at Little League regional tournaments in Gulfport. The event is leaving after this year.

For 41 years, fans have filled Gulfport's Arnold S. White Stadium to watch the Little League Southeast Baseball Regional.

This year is the final one here.

Boca Ciega High is about to be rebuilt — in part using the stadium and complex's site — so the tournament is leaving to make room for construction.

"I just hate to see it come to an end," said Katie Blair, 82, a Southeast Regional volunteer the past 33 years.

For Blair and other longtime volunteers and employees, the stadium and site (once the Southern Regional) was more than a place for games. It was part of their history, a tie binding friends and families who made it a ritual to work together and share their experiences.

Some of those employees turned back their clocks and shared their experiences with the Times. They know that once the complex falls, a lot of terrific memories will go with it.

Katie Blair, volunteer

In 1971, Blair's daughter, Mary, was looking for help. Mary and some other girls organized a softball league and needed a manager.

"So I become one," Blair said.

That was Blair's first time volunteering.

Four years later, she decided to help out at the Southeast Regional.

Blair started in 1975 as a host for the 11- and 12-year-old players and their parents. One of her most memorable moments was watching Little Leaguers Gary Sheffield and Dwight Gooden.

"They were all dressed up and had ties on when they arrived," Blair said. "They looked like perfect gentlemen."

These days, Blair, 82, runs the souvenir stand.

"I get so much joy out of seeing the kids' faces when they walk through the door," Blair said. "There were a lot of friendships that were developed here.

"That's what I'll miss the most."

Sandy Popejoy, administrative assistant

The thought of the wrecking ball has Sandy Popejoy mourning. The Southeast Regional site is where she has spent most of her life. It's an extension of home, part of her identity.

"To say I'm sad would be an understatement," she said.

Thanks to her family, Popejoy, 47, has always had baseball in her blood. Her father, Bob Peak, was a longtime president of Meadowlawn Little League. Her mother, Alyce Peak, worked at the Southeast Regional headquarters. Her brothers played Little League.

Popejoy long imagined a route that would bring her closer to the path her family followed. She tagged along to games as a toddler. She helped her mother at work when she was a teenager.

At 18, she became an employee at the Southeast Regional site.

She has never left.

"It's really the only job I've ever had," Popejoy said.

Popejoy is loathe to change. She still uses a typewriter to fill out most forms.

Now, she has to make her biggest change yet.

"I've got to be ready for a new adventure," she said. "It's kind of surreal. I don't think it's hit me that this place will be gone.

"I never thought that it would not be here."


Lou Caprara volunteer

When Lou Caprara signed up his sons to play Little League baseball in upstate New York, he decided to volunteer.

He did it for one year. Then he volunteered again. And again.

"I couldn't leave," Caprara said.

Caprara has volunteered for 40 years, the past 15 in the bay area after he moved to Clearwater.

"I always wanted to be involved in Little League baseball in some capacity," Caprara said. "It's like one big family. That's the fun part of it."

Caprara, 72, started working in Gulfport as a host for teams during the Southeast Regional. He now spends most of his time at the souvenir stand, where he hands out trading pins he has made to players and coaches.

Last year, Caprara was given the Little League International Meritorious Service Award for the Southeast Region. The award is in the shape of a baseball and honors Caprara for his voluntary service to Little League over the years. It was one of just eight given out in 2007 at Little League's congress in Houston. They are awarded once every three years among district administrators worldwide.

Caprara still plans to volunteer after the region tournament leaves Gulfport.

"I've got a tear in my eye knowing this place will be torn down," Caprara said. "I just hope when it moves, it's somewhere close, so I can still go."

James Davis, groundskeeper

James Davis' biggest responsibility is turning Arnold S. White Stadium into a work of art.

The end result shows each August as the stadium hosts the Southeast Regional on a field that is as close to perfect as possible.

Davis, 61, has been working full time on the same field as a groundskeeper for 35 years.

"It's a tough job," Davis said.

Davis does the dirty work: mowing the lawn, fixing divots and chalking the baselines. He has had ample opportunity to give up his lawn-keeping duties, but the field became too sacred to him to allow someone else to be in charge.

"I enjoy cutting the grass," Davis said. "I like getting everything ready for the tournament."

Gulfport's big Little League tradition ending 07/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 1, 2008 1:19pm]
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