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Little League tourney to leave Pinellas

A Little League player from Alabama practices before batting in the 2007 Little League Southern Regional baseball championship, which have been held in Gulfport for more than four decades.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

A Little League player from Alabama practices before batting in the 2007 Little League Southern Regional baseball championship, which have been held in Gulfport for more than four decades.

The Little League Southeast Regional tournament will be held for the last time this summer in Gulfport, leaving Pinellas County after 41 years.

Pinellas schools superintendent Clayton Wilcox confirmed the School Board has an agreement to buy the property to use as part of the expansion of Boca Ciega High School.

The Little League Southeast Regional, which hosts the champions in the 11- to 12-year-old division from eight states, is the last stop for Little League players before they head to the World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

This year's weeklong tournament is Aug. 2-8.

Little League has not determined a future site for the tournament and its Southeast headquarters. It will open the bidding to the eight states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia — in the Southeast Region.

"No question, it's the end of an era," Little League senior communication executive Lance Van Auken said.

The school district approached Little League International several months ago when it became clear it would need more land as part of the $73-million reconstruction of Boca Ciega High, said Jim Miller, the school system's real estate director. When the organization showed some interest, he said, the district offered to get appraisals. Negotiations began after that.

The School Board approved the deal without fanfare last week; it was one of several items on a portion of the agenda reserved for routine matters.

The district will pay $4.17-million for the property, which includes two ball fields, bleachers, an administration building and two sizable stretches of green space that hug the northeast corner of the school's property. All told, the district will gain 12.8 acres.

Under a sales contract between Little League International and the district, the league will retain the property through Sept. 21 so it can hold its 2008 tournament there.

The high school sits on 33 acres of usable land, below the minimum recommended for high schools by the Florida Department of Education. Original plans called for limited green space when the project is done — the football field and a small general purpose playing field on the northeast corner of the property. But the purchase will give the district extra space to locate storm drainage facilities and more room on the playing field.

In addition, the school plans to use the existing Little League ball fields this year.

"You have a lot of latitude on what you can do with the site," Miller said.

Van Auken said Little League agreed to sell the property because the complex offers little room for expansion.

"We sort of outgrew the facility," Van Auken said.

The Little League Southeast Regional is little in name only. It is a megaevent with voluminous television and media coverage.

"It's a bittersweet moment for me to see the regional move," said Van Auken, who started playing baseball at Cross Bayou in 1967 and has been involved with Little League ever since. "I watched games there as a 9-year-old.

"I know it will have an emotional effect on others, as well. But progress is progress."

Gulfport Mayor Mike Yakes said he was sad to lose the league but glad the property will be used for education.

The annual tournament was "our most prestigious event," he said. "It was our World Series, our time to shine."

Once, when ESPN broadcasters referred to the location as St. Petersburg, the mayor corrected them: "You understand, you're in Gulfport.''

"It hurts," Yakes said. "But what really hurts is we don't have the ground to replace it."

Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report. Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4169.

Little League tourney to leave Pinellas 03/06/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 6, 2008 10:38pm]
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