We closed Fleet Park to Little League games on Saturday after 54 years on the Navy property. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm, the perfect setting. In the final game, no one lost. My Junior Yankees tied the Junior Phillies, 9-9.
Here are the remarks I made at the closing ceremony, where several players dug up home plate for safekeeping until we find a new home.
First, if you played a game out here today — Tee Ball, Coach Pitch, Minors, Majors, Softball, Juniors — please join me on the field. This is your place, your day. Thanks to Amber Pickrell, Dennis Richardson, Shawn Padgett, and Casey Walker for pulling together this day.
I’d like to think of this as an old fashioned wake for a grand old ballpark, a celebration of the good times and the great memories.
Fleet Park has been one of those special places in our lives, a place that will be with each of us forever, good for a smile each time we think back to the day…. Before I talk about those memories and the legacy of Fleet Park, I’d like to look to the future, the near future.
As you know, we will temporarily be moving to the Azalea Little League complex on East Princess Anne Road. We owe a big thanks to Azalea Little League for agreeing to share that facility with us. We owe thanks to the City of Norfolk for investing $170, 000 in improvements to those eight fields. Those improvements are already in motion. We’ve leveraged volunteer energy and donations to make them happen faster and make the city’s money go further. We’ve had an architect, who is a Fleet Park parent and volunteer, do the drawings for new dugouts, expediting their construction. Through Shawn Padgett, our obsessive compulsive field maintenance marshall, we’ve convinced Dominion Power to take down the lights here and put them up at Azalea. For free. There will be new scoreboards, a new PA system, new batting cages, and other amenities in place by spring.
I pledge to you that those fields will look as good as these fields by the time we begin play on March 24, 2012.
I also want to make it clear that Azalea is not our final destination. With the closing of Fleet Park, the city loses six fields, including five lighted fields. Norfolk, which has been a regional leader in so many ways, lacks recreational facilities, especially baseball fields. Fleet Park has been home not only to Little League, but to Maury High School, Granby High School, Norfolk Collegiate School and recently a handful of travel teams here. These fields must be replaced by new ones. Soon.
Mayor Fraim and Mr. Winn were instrumental in creating this facility in 1993. I have faith they will work with us to find a new baseball home for 650 children and their families
That’s the future. Today is about the past, about the memories made over more than five decades on this ground. Take a minute with me and conjure those remembrances special to you. The first time your child walloped a ball to the outfield in Tee Ball….and then ran to third base. The smile of delight on a 9-year-old’s face after a big hit. The awful strikeout that sends her stomping to the end of the bench. The look of surprise on the face of an infielder who just stabbed a screaming line drive. The long, never-ending game that concludes with a play at the plate and a trip to the snack bar for one of those free hot dogs left over after it’s closed.
I think of my son finding his love for baseball out here, learning the value of practice and effort, and discovering how much he enjoys being part of a team. I think of my daughter, pitching against the boys and being part of a championship Majors team. And I think of all those lunch hours and off-season Saturdays and Sundays out here alone, the solitude of sitting on the tractor mowing the grass or grabbing a shovel and working on a field.
Mostly, though, I think about the people, the great kids I’ve coached or watched grow and develop through baseball. I think of the parents I’ve gotten to know, many by name, some only by face. And I think of the volunteers, coaches,and board members who have come together here to build something that transcends sport.
Fleet Park has been a playground, a Cathedral, and a school, a place for sheer joy, a place where you learn to believe, and a place where adults teach children and children teach adults some of life’s fundamental lessons.
More than anything, Fleet Park has been a catalyst for creating and sustaining community, an ever elusive — and necessary — thing in our fast-paced, ephemeral world.
Yes, today we’re losing a part of all of us, a special place. But we’re not losing the tightly-knit community we’ve built.
That’s eternal, more precious, more valuable, than any baseball park.