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Preserving decades of Gulfport Little League memories

GULFPORT — It started raining Friday evening, right around dinner time, and the drops pinged off the brown steel chair like home runs later would ping off the bats of the Citrus Park team.

From the back of the chair hung a picture of Harold Garella.

He died in April, and the chair sits there in homage to more than 40 years of Little League service. It tells you that he wore suspenders and shirts with a pocket on them, loved to tell stories about the old days of Little League and was something of a curmudgeon.

If you didn't know any better, didn't understand the significance of Garella sitting in that chair year after year as the baseball field's stalwart gatekeeper and the magnitude for so many of this final night at Arnold S. White Sr. Stadium, your impulse might have been to save the picture.

To pull the chair in as the rain grew more fierce.

To preserve this sacred memory.

"That's why we left it out there in the rain," said Joe Cowart, 62, a longtime Little League volunteer and good friend of Garella. "You see, when it rained, Harold wouldn't move — he'd pop open his umbrella, and wait it out."

He smiled.

Then, he was sad.

"I still talk to him when I walk by that chair. Sometimes I can hear him talk back. That probably sounds crazy.

"I miss him so much."

• • •

It is memories like that, and longtime friends such as Garella, that made the final night at Arnold S. White Sr. Stadium hard for people such as Cowart.

Gulfport has hosted the Southeast Regional since 1964. For decades, the road to the stadium has been the last stop before Williamsport, Pa., the Little League mecca where the best team in the world is crowned each year.

Now, the road to the stadium is lined with yellow tape, gigantic plastic garbage cans, three heaping piles of dirt, two portable bathrooms and a bulldozer.

The tournament simply outgrew the old place. The stadium will soon be razed to make room for Boca Ciega High, version 2.0. Little League sold the property and will find another home for the Southeast Regional.

A bigger, brighter, newer place with plenty of room for fans and ESPN's trucks.

This makes Chris Webb sad. The official scorer for the final game teaches at Stewart Middle in Zephyrhills, but Gulfport has been her summer home since 1988, when she was part of an umpire crew that included Cowart and another longtime volunteer, Bob Branch.

She notices that Cowart is holding a picture of the three of them, and runs her fingers over it.

"That's great," said Webb, 60. Then she hugs Cowart.

"Pals forever."

• • •

Wyatt Reid took the final swing at Arnold S. White Sr. Stadium in Gulfport. The ball sailed over the fence and into history. The local boys from Citrus Park, located in northwest Hillsborough County, hit four home runs in the final inning to lead them to Williamsport after an 11-0 win over Alabama.

Katie Blair, a volunteer since 1975, and 40-year volunteering vet Lou Caprara would shutter the souvenir stand, where hats and pennants were on sale throughout the night.

Branch would help to keep order, to make sure Garella's gate to the field was not breached in all the commotion of the championship.

Webb would score Reid's final blow, set down her pencil and close the scorebook.

And after making sure the umpires had a final bottle of water for the night, Cowart hoped to work up the courage to ask if he could take the brown steel chair home with him.

>>fast facts

Little League World Series

When/where: Aug. 15-24, Williamsport, Pa.

Skinny: Eight U.S. teams and eight international teams compete. Games are televised on ESPN and ABC. For more information, visit www.littleleague.org/series/2008divisions/llbb/series.htm.

Preserving decades of Gulfport Little League memories 08/08/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 10, 2008 12:27pm]
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