Commentary: Little League organizers deserve a tip of the cap for holding a fall season after Irma

Naples Cal Ripken's fall season came to a conclusion Saturday, Dec. 2, at Veterans Park. GREGG HARDY/CSI

BY GREGG HARDY
CSI EDITOR

Playing Little League baseball was a big part of my childhood. I spent eight or nine years playing it, starting at age 6, and have countless memories from those care-free days.

One of those memories was the first truly good play I made in the field. It was a diving stop — to my left — along the first-base line that I turned into a double play. My dad, standing not too far away, saw the whole thing. That meant the world to me. I think I was nine years old.

Fast forward some 33 years later, and now it was my chance to be the dad swelling with pride as I watched my 10-year-old son Cole, playing one position over at second base, make his first big play. Actually, he one-upped his old man and made two of them … in the same inning. And he did so while playing in the final game of Naples Cal Ripken’s fall season — a season that almost never came to be (more on that in a bit).

Now here’s where I have to issue a mea culpa. 

Regrettably, I can’t speak to the first out my son recorded — a pop fly catch with while looking into the late-afternoon sun. I was sitting at the concession stand at Veterans Park — maybe 30 feet from the field — conducting an interview for this article with Naples Cal Ripken president Brian Rasnick. In my defense, I tried to keep an eye on my son’s field and was able to see his first at-bat.

A half-inning later, my interview was interrupted by an outburst of cheering coming from my son’s field. My wife approached. With the appropriate level of sarcasm, knowing I missed it, she asked, ‘Gregg, did you just see the play YOUR son made?’ I looked to Mr. Rasnick, who said he saw it and assured me that it was a “good play.”

Words can’t express the hurt I felt. I was going to have to tell my son that I missed his big play. I had already missed a majority of his games this season covering state championship events for some of our local high school teams (plus the season-opening doubleheader due to a family reunion).

But the baseball gods, or God himself, were smiling on me. A few batters later, my son made a diving stop — to his left — on a ground ball. He popped right up, and his throw to the first baseman got the batter out by a step or two to end the inning.

My wife whipped her head around at me. I was already on my way to the first-base dugout to let my boy know how proud I was of him. I had to wait, though, as he was mobbed by teammates and coaches.

Afterwards, my son’s coach asked his team who should get the game ball. That ball now rests comfortably inside a special case within our home.

The point of this article is to thank the organizers of those Little Leagues around Collier County that decided to go forward with their fall season. Had Mr. Rasnick and the other Naples Cal Ripken organizers opted against it, I wouldn’t have been given this latest — and greatest — Little League memory.

A little more than three months ago, Collier County’s parks took a big hit from Hurricane Irma. Her timing came just as Little Leagues around the county were either just finishing or were soon to finish with registration. The fall season was only weeks away.

As kids play a Naples Cal Ripken game at Veterans Park on Dec. 2, a tree felled by Hurricane Irma lay just outside of one of the park’s four baseball fields. GREGG HARDY/CSI

Three leagues — Golden Gate American, Gulf Coast and Ave Maria — promptly canceled their seasons after Irma.

Four leagues — Naples Cal Ripken, Greater Naples, Golden Gate National and North Naples — pressed on with a fall slate. But it wasn’t easy for league organizers. They had to deal with city and county officials to get a green light on field usage, and one league had to share its fields with another. They also had to deal with some parents who were frustrated — perhaps even angered — by the fluid nature of their child’s practice and game schedules. Of course, some of them may have been dealing with great uncertainty in their lives following the damage Irma wrought on many of our homes here in Collier County.

I spoke with the presidents from Naples Cal Ripken, North Naples Little League and Golden Gate National Little League (I’ve yet to hear back from Greater Naples), each of whom shared their experiences from this past fall season.

 

NAPLES CAL RIPKEN

Registration was originally set to end on Sept. 10, the very day that Irma struck. About a week later, league president Brian Rasnick said, Naples Cal Ripken announced it would talk with Collier County officials before making a decision on the fall season. He said the county had trouble committing to a date when the league could begin play. The target date was Oct. 15, but that seemed iffy.

Rasnick said the county initially told Naples Cal Ripken it could only play weekend games at Veterans Park — no practices. Having signed up 275 kids, the games would have to be played on Saturdays and Sundays.

Three days after Naples Cal Ripken opened its season, the lights were working again at Veterans Park (the county initially told the league the lights may be out until December). Weeknight practices would be allowed. But that created a new set of problems.

North Naples Little League needed a place to practice at night and was allowed to use one of the three youth fields at Veterans. Naples Cal Ripken’s use of all three fields was limited to one or two nights a week, according to Rasnick, who said there were nights when three or four teams were practicing on one field.

“It was a moving target, the whole thing,” recalled Rasnick, who had only just recently taken over as league president before Irma struck. “I was very uncomfortable with it. I had gone to the board and said, ‘Listen, do we want to do it? The county wants us to do it; a lot of our parents want us to do it, but we’re really setting ourselves up for failure … .”

Naples Cal Ripken’s efforts to deliver a fall season came with an unexpected reward, Rasnick said. Dick’s Sporting Goods, which has a sports partnership with Cal Ripken, told the Naples league organizers that they would be eligible for funds from a disaster relief program. Naples Cal Ripken ended up receiving a check for $10,000 from Dick’s. After putting $8,000 of that into the league’s operating account, Rasnick said Naples Cal Ripken used the remaining $2,000 to create a scholarship reserve account. That money will be used to sign up kids whose families can’t afford the cost of spring registration.

“There are some good things that came out of (the hurricane),” Rasnick said. “(People from Dick’s Sporting Goods) are going to be at our opening day (in the spring). That’s an incredible amount (of money).

“As much as I said to the board, ‘Hey I think we’re making a mistake,’ in the end I think it was what was best for the kids. The kids are happy; the kids are still playing the same as what they were doing as if there was no storm.”

 

NORTH NAPLES LITTLE LEAGUE

With the lone field it uses for games Monday through Saturday — lighted Starcher-Pettay in Naples Park — rendered unplayable by Irma, NNLL was truly displaced. Initially, all of the league’s games were played Saturdays at lightless Osceola Elementary, which is normally used as a practice field throughout the week.

Relief came about a quarter through the season as Collier Parks and Rec gave NNLL field time at Veterans Park for practices and at North Collier Regional Park for games. Some games that would’ve been crammed into the Saturday schedule at Osceola were moved to Tuesday nights at North Collier. But since the fields at North Collier are softball fields, temporary pitching mounds were brought in by NNLL officials to simulate proper field conditions.

“We made it work the best we could,” NNLL President Matt Overmyer said about the league’s eight-week season.

Fall registration for NNLL closed just prior to Irma. After the hurricane, Overmyer said the league issued somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-60 refunds due to the delayed start of the season and to its makeshift schedule. However, Overmyer said NNLL took on a number of kids from other leagues that were forced to cancel its season. 

The majors division “took a huge hit” as most of the refunds came from those registrants, Overmyer said. Usually comprised of four or five teams, NNLL’s majors had just two teams this fall. Rather than have the same two teams playing, Overmyer said something different was done each week to make things interesting, including having kids draft the teams themselves. During the last couple weeks of the season, NNLL was able to schedule games with Greater Naples at the latter’s Fleischmann Park.

“People don’t like change. It’s just about managing expectations of parents and kids,” Overmyer said. “‘Hey be flexible, be understanding that this is not going to be your typical fall season, and let’s just go out there and make the best of it.’ The idea is to get the kids out there to play. Fall ball for us is typically more casual and instructional anyway. We’re usually about half the numbers that we would get in the spring.

“The easy thing would have been to cancel, but I didn’t want to do that. And I think everybody was very happy with us putting the teams out there.”

 

GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL

Despite an altered schedule and no lights at Golden Gate Community Park, GGNLL enjoyed a strong turnout this fall.

Numbers-wise, it was the healthiest fall season in five or six years for GGNLL, according to league president Sherrad Reites. He said approximately 130 kids signed up to play in the fall — about 30 shy of the league’s normal spring turnout. There were 11 teams total, with 13-14 kids on a team. And even though a refund was offered to parents due to the delayed start of the season, there were no takers.

Reites said GGNLL spent three weeks playing against teams from Greater Naples. He gave a tip of the cap to Collier County Parks and Recreation for getting Golden Gate Community Park ready for play in the weeks following Irma.

“We did the best we could with what we had,” Reites said. “I’m an advocate for the Parks and Recreation; I think they did a good job on getting us going as soon as they did.”

Email Gregg Hardy at editor@colliersportsinsider.com. Follow CSI on Twitter at @239CSI or like CSI on Facebook at facebook.com/CollierSportsInsider.