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Hampton's pitch easy home run for county

Citrus County has not seen a lot of its residents achieve national prominence, but what we lack in quantity we make up for in quality. Mike Hampton is Exhibit A.

Hampton achieved icon status on local baseball and football fields in the 1990s before catapulting to stardom in Major League Baseball. A mainstay on the staff of the powerhouse Atlanta Braves, he has been recognized for many years as one of the top left-handed pitchers in the game.

In an era when professional athletes become swept up by their success and conveniently forget their humble beginnings, Hampton has time and again demonstrated through his words and actions a genuine appreciation for the role Citrus County has played in his personal and professional development.

Hampton also has never missed a chance to return the favor. His latest gesture toward enhancing the quality of life in Citrus County is further proof of his sincerity.

On Tuesday, Hampton went before the Citrus County Commission with a plan to build a sports center for youth and adults that would stand among the best facilities in the nation. He envisions a sprawling complex that would include a football field, two youth baseball or softball fields, a flag football field, a gymnasium for adult and youth basketball, volleyball and indoor soccer, a cheerleading training pavilion, and an indoor baseball training site with batting cages.

Hampton said he is willing to put up the money to build the center, roughly estimated at $5-million, if the county donates the land, approximately 50 to 75 acres. He also would like the Citrus County school system to get involved by agreeing to build the parking lots.

Money is not really a problem for Hampton, who in 2000 signed a then-record $121-million contract with the Colorado Rockies. He could afford to create the complex on his own, but he wants to be a partner with the community through its local governments. "I want everyone being part of it," he told the commissioners.

Details of the proposal, which the County Commission and the school district strongly supported on Tuesday, are a long way from being worked out. A key question will be public access. If tax dollars were involved in acquiring the land and in creating the parking areas, how much, if any, should the public have to pay to use the facilities?

Finding open land should not be a problem for Citrus County, which has several large expanses of property in its inventory. Last year, for example, the county acquired 325 acres outside of Crystal River from developers who had hoped to create the Betz Farm subdivision. Citrus has no specific plans for the site, so a sports complex could be a nice fit.

If the sports teams at the district's schools can be guaranteed access to the facilities for training and events, building parking lots would be a small price for the school system to pay.

Plus, the lack of fields for the county's recreational teams, from youth baseball and soccer to adult softball and other leagues, is well documented. A new facility not only could accommodate those existing uses, it could lead to unprecedented growth in recreational opportunities for Citrus residents.

Similar partnerships have worked elsewhere in the country, so there are models available for the county and school district to follow. And unlike situations where professional sports teams have all but blackmailed their host communities into building them elaborate stadiums, with fans left paying higher taxes and ticket prices, Hampton's proposal stands to benefit the community much more than himself.

Time and again, Hampton has stepped to the plate to help his hometown. His Mike Hampton Foundation has funneled thousands of dollars to local groups, notably the Boys and Girls Clubs of Citrus County. He has donated boxes of baseball memorabilia for charity auctions, created generous scholarships, conducted baseball instruction clinics and annual Family Day events at local fields, and brought fellow pro players to Citrus for charity events. In December, when Hospice of Citrus County held its first Hike for Hospice fundraiser, Hampton was the first one in line for the 6-mile jaunt.

Now, the local legend is making his biggest pitch yet for Citrus County. It is an opportunity that he certainly did not have to offer, but one that shows his deep affection for the community that helped him reach his goals and succeed beyond his wildest dreams.

As for Citrus County government and the school district, there is only one direction to go with this offer from Hampton: Play ball!

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