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Downtown to get Little League at last

Somewhere in downtown St. Petersburg, future baseball or softball players are about to realize their dreams. They owe it all to a heap of persistence and a touch of generosity.

After a 27-year absence downtown, little league baseball is set to return with the announcement of the newly chartered "ThunderDome Little League" expected to start its season in early April.

League officials warned that the final decision over naming the league after the sports facility will not be made until a City Council meeting later this week.

The new league, granted a charter by Little League Baseball on March 4, will feature at least 10 teams of players, including boys and girls, between the ages of 8 and 12. Further expansion is planned pending the success of this latest effort to bring baseball to downtown St. Petersburg.

"I think that because it's a downtown area, there aren't a lot of opportunities to get a bunch of kids together," said Ray Price, director of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority and newly elected president of the Thunder Dome League. "We've managed to carve out a niche which includes several public housing sites, such as James Park, Jordan Park and Bethel Heights which are all large multifamily housing units.

"The goal of little league is to build morale and to encourage kids to grow into strong individuals through team play. I think it's important that they learn team play and that we give them something to do in the evening. There are plenty of unsavory distractions where those kids live, so anything we can do to keep them off the streets is a plus."

If early indications are right, the new league will not be short on bodies. At least 75 children already have signed up, Price said, and tryouts continue. The next tryout session will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Jordan Park Human Service Annex, 1201 22nd St. S.

"Unfortunately, I think in the past, things were not successful in the housing developments because of two things," said Paul Pollard, Little League District 5 administrator.

"First, there was a lack of good public relations. The word about the league was not getting out to the families. They simply were not aware of practices, tryouts and other important things about the league. Then there was the expense. A lot of the families down there are large and cannot afford to have kids playing in little league."

The new league will not let that happen. At least, not at first.

According to Pollard, the new league will work around the $20 minimum registration fee set by Little League Baseball, which has its headquarters in Williamsport, Pa. Through the backing of several local businesses and organizations, the league plans to lower registration fees to $5 per player, with a maximum of $10 for families with more than one player.

Physician's Health Care Plan, a local insurance company, donated $2,000 for the league charter fees and insurance dues, Pollard said.

"It was their initial investment that got the ball rolling. Since then, several others have come on board, such as the DRB Group, Mount Zion Church and the St. Petersburg Housing Authority," Pollard said.

"We know that Little League recommends a $20 registration fee, but at no time can a child be denied the right to play baseball," he said. "The idea is that some of the families would not be able to afford the fees and so we wanted to have them play under scholarship."

The league will feature a major division with four teams for boys ages 9-12, two minor league teams for boys 8-12, two softball teams for girls 9-12 and two T-ball teams for boys and girls, ages 5-8. More teams could be added for players ages 5 to 18.

Little League baseball boasts more than 2-million participants in all 50 states, nine Canadian provinces and 74 countries worldwide. In Pinellas County there are 28 leagues with more than 10,000 players.

"Other area leagues, such as the Pinellas Park American and National leagues, the North West Little League and the South West Little League, have probably donated in excess of $5,000 in equipment in the way of uniforms, bats, helmets, catcher's equipment," Pollard said. "That's why I think it's going to work this time. We have little league helping little league."