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A diamond in the rough

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Its players come from poor neighborhoods and its fields are patchy, but the Belmont Heights Little League has pride in past players and faith in its future.

It is about two hours before game time, and Belmont Heights Little League president Monty Bostick is getting ready for another evening of baseball. He has a rake in one hand, a trash bag in the other, and he is picking up garbage.

A vandal has knocked over trash cans and strewn litter everywhere: in the parking lot, under the bleachers, near the dugouts. It is one week after a thief ransacked the concession stand, stealing everything from catcher's masks to corn dogs.

Both the thief and the vandal attacked the Belmont Heights Little League as if they had never heard of the major leaguers it has produced, the world championship it won and the World Series titles it almost won. Bostick shrugs it off. In the neighboring public housing projects, he says, kids have seen a lot worse.

"All you do is keep playing and keep your faith that things are going to get better," he said.

And if there is anyone who knows the truth of that statement, it may be Monty Bostick.

Searching for saviors

In a city rich in baseball history, the Belmont Heights Little League holds a special place. In the 1970s, Tampa's most talented black kids flocked to its fields, just as the sons of Latin immigrants played at Cuscaden Park 20 years earlier.

From 1973 to 1982, six Belmont Heights teams in three different divisions made it to World Series competition. Along the way, the league produced more than its share of pros, including Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Derek Bell and Carl Everett.

Belmont Heights' major-league program got the most attention, finishing third in 1973 and second in 1975, 1980 and 1981. In 1979, a senior division team from Belmont Heights placed second. In 1982, a junior division team that included Bell and Sheffield won the world championship.

Bostick managed the 1982 world champions, and in some ways his life is a reflection of the challenges facing the league and the surrounding area. Coaching kids' baseball has given him a measure of personal redemption, even as the league itself searches for saviors in one of Tampa's toughest neighborhoods.

Bostick, 45, grew up near the Little League, which is near two big public housing complexes, but preferred football and basketball to organized baseball. As a young man, he drifted into trouble. He hung out on the street, got in fights and was shot in the right leg. He saw friends sent to prison and believes coaching Little League has helped him avoid a similar fate.

"Once I seen them kids playing, I just liked it," he said. "I've been coming out here ever since."

But even that has not always kept him out of trouble. In 1984, two years after the world championship, Bostick was charged with selling small foil packets of cocaine and heroin to undercover officers on the street. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to two years probation.

Later, Bostick heard that the Little League's board of directors had voted whether to expel him over the arrest. It was close, but he was allowed to stay.

"I was embarrassed," he said. "I was hurt because they found out. Boy, that killed me."

Since then, he said he has put those problems behind him. He also said he has applied the lessons he learned not only to coaching baseball but to his job interacting with patients as a mental health technician at St. Joseph's Hospital. He likes the Little League because it teaches discipline, rewards teamwork and creates self-esteem. He tells kids, "This tells me how you're going to do in school. This tells me how you're going to do at work."

A series of setbacks

Today it takes only a glance to see that the league's resources don't match the energy displayed on its fields. The scoreboards don't work, and the grass is brown and patchy. Years of pitching and base-running have eroded the pitcher's mounds and left depressions in front of each base.

The problems didn't happen all at once, nor were they caused by the same thing. In 1995, the league's longtime president and several associates resigned after complaints about the way money, coaches and volunteers were managed. At one point, the Little League's district administrator suspended Belmont Heights' charter, a move reported by Sports Illustrated.

Belmont Heights' supporters reorganized themselves and their charter was soon reinstated, but the league isn't as big as it once was. Four years ago, Belmont Heights signed up 450 boys and girls. This year, the number is between 200 and 300, Bostick said.

One reason is that the neighborhood is undergoing dramatic change. Using a big federal grant, the Tampa Housing Authority is tearing down and replacing 1,300 aging public housing apartments at College Hill, just south of the Little League's fields, and at nearby Ponce de Leon. The demolition is well under way, and many families have moved.

Those who remain come from some of Tampa's poorest neighborhoods. Belmont Heights charges a $10 registration fee. By comparison, other Tampa Little Leagues charge as much as $95 a child.

"I know a fair number of the other leagues, they have contractors come in and maintain the fields," coach Gregory Currington said. "With our fees so low, we can't afford that kind of service."

But, he said, "if we had those kinds of registration fees, we wouldn't have the kids on the diamond."

Building on donations

Bill Sims lives about five miles from Belmont Heights and works in St. Petersburg, but when he read about the concession stand break-in, he was outraged.

He convinced his company, Priority Oxygen and Medical Equipment Inc., to donate $500 to help make up the loss. Since then, he has approached nearby grocery stores about allowing fund-raising on their property and hopes to enlist neighboring businesses in the effort, perhaps to the tune of at least $200 each.

"They've torn down the projects over there (and) they're getting ready to build new homes," Sims said. "It would be a crime to keep that park looking the way it is now."

He is not alone. Last week, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' groundskeeper toured the fields and will put together a repair estimate for the team's management to consider.

Sims also thinks the league must have a strong local base. Without it, he said, outsiders will not help.

"If the community itself is not doing anything, then a lot of people are going to say it's not even worth it," Sims said. "If those kids have someplace to go to . . . some of these kids are going to mold themselves into good teenagers, and then some of them are going to mold themselves into great adults."

And both kids and adults tend to stay involved. Currington once coached his son Gregory Jr. at Belmont Heights. Now his son coaches with him.

"Nothing but good'

After 24 years with the league, Bostick is not a coach, but is the league's president, a job in which he does administrative chores, works in the concession stand, turns on the lights and locks up at night.

Bostick prefers coaching, but the league needed a president, and he had a consideration of his own. He is on probation again, this time for a 1998 charge that he disciplined his girlfriend's son by hitting him with a leather belt hard enough to leave welts.

One of the conditions of his two-year probation is that he have no unsupervised contact with children without another responsible adult present. Bostick says he obeys that restriction, even at the Little League.

"I got coaches out here, I got parents out here, I got adults over 18 out here," he says. And, he adds, "everybody knows me," and his past troubles.

Coaches and parents say what counts is what someone like Bostick does now to help the league. Belmont Heights is a poor neighborhood with more than its share of crime and temptation.

Against that background, organizations like the Little League welcome every bit of help they can get, even from people who have made mistakes in the past.

"Ever since (Bostick) has been coming around here, he's been doing nothing but good for us, and you've got to respect him for that," said Alexander Young, who coaches one team while his wife Carolyn coaches another.

"I wish," he said, "we could get more people to come out and do what he's doing."