Baseball on the island

With springtime here, it’s nice to see the Pine Island kids taking the field in Phillips Community Park again. As a baseball fan and former college player myself, I’m always grateful that the community worked together to provide such a great place for the local kids — including my own — to play ball.

It really was a community effort that helped bring the ball fields about. Interestingly, it started with a conversation between local dentist Dr. Markus Sherry and a Lee County Sheriffs Deputy back in 1980. The two got to talking, and Dr. Sherry asked the deputy what the kids on the island were doing. The deputy made an off-hand remark, noting that there were few activities on the island and some of the kids were getting into trouble by age 12.

Well, Dr. Sherry didn’t think that was very cool, so he and a few other residents, including Bob Vogenberger and Mike Frank, sought to change that by bringing Little League to the island.

First, though, they needed a place for a ball field. That’s where Tom Phillips came in. Tom actually developed many areas of the island, including digging the canals in St. James City and developing Cherry Estates, Pine Island Center, the alphabet streets (also known as Tom’s Town) and many other areas.

Tom donated the land for the Park, which was dedicated in his memory, and the group worked with the county to get the ball fields up and running. Just three or four months later, Pine Island had its Little League — one of the first Little League charters to include girls. That first season, in the spring of 1981, there were about 60 kids — enough for five teams — and they played day games. There was one field, no electricity and no buildings.

By wintertime, the organizers realized that the teams needed to play later in the day — it was just too hot to have the kids out there in the blazing mid-afternoon sun. So we petitioned the county for lights on the field. They would put the lights in — if we could come up with the money to pay for it.

Once again, the community stepped up to the plate. We sold sponsorships on the fences, and then one generous resident donor pitched in with a $15,000 donation. By the winter season, we had our lights and a real community event that island families could participate in. The Pine Island Eagle covered the games and island veterinarian Dr. Warren Compton even modified a CB radio so that he could call games from behind the plate.

I started coaching in 1982 — glad to participate in the only organized sport for the island kids. For my kids and so many other families, Little League offered an opportunity to have fun and get to know each other. And, of course, it kept us all out of trouble! In 1998, we added a second field, and today, I think it’s one of the nicest ballparks in the county.

What’s most fun for me now is to see that the kids we coached back then have grown up and are bringing their own kids to Little League — like Shane Dooley (of Dooley Charters) who brings his son Dalton, and Billy Gay, who now serves as the League President and whose kids Joey and Robby now play. Our newest Realtor in the office, Erin Lambert, is also carrying on the tradition with her husband, John, coaching T-ball and their son, JP — though he’s a little too young to play this year — looking forward to his own at-bats.

Pine Island Little League is always in need of community support and volunteers to do everything from coaching and umpiring to handling concessions. (I’m sure sponsorships and donations are also welcome!) If you’re interested in helping out, please contact President Billy Gay at 478-6251.