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Volunteers look to revive once-proud Northside Little League

TAMPA

The monument is situated in the middle of Northside Little League's fields, an enduring testament to its All-Star team that played in the 1989 Little League Baseball World Series at Williamsport, Pa.

It's a reminder that Northside has a big spot in Tampa's youth baseball legacy and the complex is much more than a collection of dusty diamonds. Something very significant and historic once happened here.

One of the Northside All-Stars was 12-year-old Kevin Cash, now manager of the Tampa Bay Rays.

"Best time of our lives,'' Cash said. "Lots of really good players and coaches. That place was packed every single night. What happened there is kind of sad.''

Northside Little League has become a baseball ghost town.

You can speculate about the potential reasons:

Changing demographics — specifically, a lack of young families — in the Northdale area. Too much turnover in the league's administration. Too many players shifting to travel ball or the Cal Ripken Baseball organizations at nearby Lutz and Citrus Park youth leagues.

But that debate won't change the facts. Northside baseball has all but evaporated. It hasn't fielded a significant league or an All-Star team in four years, even serving as host of District 6 tournaments but not offering a home-park team entry.

Troy Syversen, Northside Little League's president, hopes to change all of that.

"I have trouble wrapping my head around what has happened here,'' Syversen said. "I honestly think we can get the kids to come back and make this park back into what it should be. But it's going to take some work.''

Syversen and other volunteers — including former Rays catcher Toby Hall, active in youth baseball as a camp instructor and hitting coach — are rebuilding the overgrown, neglected fields and hope to have them playable this month.

To jump start interest, Syversen has waived the fall registration fee for the first 100 T-ball players. It's the most important group, he said, because Northside must be rebuilt from the ground up.

Syversen and Hall are reaching out to baseball contacts and Northside alumni — such as Cash — to ask for help. Whether it's donations, labor or time, all contributions are welcomed and needed.

"There's new blood and they've dedicated themselves to bringing the park back,'' said Florida District 6 Little League administrator Terry Thompson, whose children once played at Northside. "The community involvement is coming back and so is the spirit that was always there during the park's glory days.

"I am encouraged. But it will take baby steps.''

Syversen said officials from Hillsborough County's Parks and Recreation Department inquired about the vacant fields, expressing interest in making them available for lacrosse or soccer. Softball has continued at Northside, which combines with other leagues to offset low participation, but baseball needs a fresh start.

"It takes work and a lot of dedicated volunteers,'' Syversen said. "It takes that in the best of times, but when you're essentially starting over, it really takes a lot of that.

"It's worth saving and worth bringing back. There's history here.''

Northside's 1989 All-Stars was one of seven Tampa teams to reach Williamsport, including three from Belmont Heights, two from West Tampa and the most recent from Citrus Park in 2008.

"It was like riding a giant wave,'' Cash said. "We were like mini-celebrities, on TV every night. You wish feelings like that could last forever.

"In a way, it does. I've had guys in major-league clubhouses ask me, 'You played in Williamsport? What was that like?' I'll never forget it.''

Nothing lasts forever.

Sometimes, things do get forgotten.

But Syversen said he's confident that Northside Little League will have its day again.

"The kids and families will come back,'' Syversen said. "I believe that. We just need to get it rolling.''

Contact Joey Johnston at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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