With packed bleachers, cheering families, excited players, hot dogs, boiled peanuts and definitely no crying, the newly formed War Memorial Auditorium (WMA) Youth Baseball League held its first ever home game on March 28.
The inaugural home opener was played at Pinckney Woodbury Field in northwest Ocala, part of the City of Ocala’s Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Complex.
Alex Lebron, 6, swung a bat while he waited with his mom for his turn to play in the league’s milestone game.
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"He loves it," said Alex's mother, Alyssa.
The family lives in an apartment complex near the recreation center. This season is Alex's first playing league sports.
He wears jersey No. 6 as an outfielder and plays on a team called the WMA Rookies for 6- and 7-year-olds.
"(The league) teaches Alex structure, responsibility and sportsmanship, which he can use in everyday life,” Alyssa Lebron said.
The goal: revitalizing youth baseball in West Ocala
The WMA Youth Baseball League is for girls and boys ages 6 to 12. It seeks to revitalize youth league baseball in West Ocala, which was historically popular but has been absent for many years, perhaps since the 1990s.
Laresa Scott, with the WMA Youth Baseball League, said youth from all over the county make up the group's 50-player current roster. The league's name refers to the historical name of the auditorium on the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Complex grounds that is now named the ED Croskey Recreation Center.
Julie Johnson, assistant director of the City of Ocala Recreation and Parks Department, wrote in an email that the department was directed in the early 1990s to “change how we support youth baseball to be more in line with how we support youth soccer and youth football programs – by facilitating the program as opposed to operating the program.”
Ocala Highlands Baseball, which began in 1959; Scott Carrigan Baseball, which began in the 1980s; Wrigley Baseball and Softball Association, which is based at Wrigley Fields, a Marion County park in Citra; and the 12-field Rotary Sportsplex of Marion County on Maricamp Road are among the community associations currently providing leagues for local youths.
Vincent Gillings Sr., coach and president of the WMA Youth Baseball League, spearheaded the formation of the league, working in conjunction with several area pastors and volunteers.
Gillings, an ordained minister with Welcome Stranger Missionary Baptist Church of Ocala, saw a need to start a baseball program welcoming all kids but especially for youth in West Ocala who might not otherwise have opportunity or access to playing organized baseball.
"I was at a game with my grandson at a Rotary Sportsplex field and I had a vision of baseball for the youth in West Ocala. Pinckney Woodbury Field was wasting away. I prayed to the Lord and things just fell into place," Gillings said.
Gillings said the WMA Youth Baseball League will strive to fulfill its mission statement, which reads, in part: “(w)e will instill strong character, values, respect, and life skills through mentoring and sports that will assist them in growing and becoming responsible young adults and productive citizens.”
The program will emphasize “academics, leadership, communication skills, accountability, sportsmanship, respect, teamwork, fair play, and self-confidence” through “outstanding leadership from our coaches and mentors,” the mission statement says.
Adult volunteers must undergo a background check. Registration is $60 for the Spring session, which lasts until May, Gillings said.
Parents enjoy the new league
Two of Tilda Bassett's three sons, Bailey Lewis and Lemarkus Bassett, are involved in the Majors, a WMA Youth Baseball League team for 10- to 12-year-olds. Bailey is a player on the team and Lemarkus, 22, serves as a coach. Her son Trevus Bryant, 24, came to watch.
Bailey likes the sportsmanship and Lemarkus said it’s good to see the players progress.
Tilda Bassett praised the social aspect of youth interacting in the league. She said playing is "good discipline."
Shamille Johnson was at the opener with her two children: Anthony Price Jr., 16, and Ayden Price, 8.
Vince Gillings Jr., 33, son of the league president and coach, was at the game with his son, Ayden Wright, 12, and nephew Ashton Jones, 7. Vince Gillings Jr. said he played at the field 20 years ago.
Olden Williams, a 1968 graduate of Howard Academy in West Ocala, was on hand to encourage the kids. He feels the league play keep youth positive.
Pastor Richard Howard of New St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church was at the home opener to support the league. The Rev. Jerone Gamble of Mt. Canaan Missionary Baptist Church and moderator of the Second Bethlehem Baptist Association of Ocala, also was at the game; he serves as secretary and treasurer for the WMA Youth Baseball League.
Gamble said the WMA league venture is about more than baseball; it also will include a focus on academics and field trip experiences for the players.
“This league is about (instilling) values and building character,” Gamble said.
Gamble added that the coaches will also interact with the players’ families.
Big plans ahead
Charles Dobson, City of Ocala Recreation and Parks Recreation program supervisor, said the city will provide a field for play and practice for the WMA Youth Baseball League to help launch the program. The longer range plan calls for the league to eventually be self-sufficient and sign an agreement with city to include any field usage fees, similar to other youth league associations using city fields.
Dobson said a lot of work went into cleaning, preparing and modifying Pinkney Woodbury Field for play, including adding a set of bases and a pitching mound, each with a distance reduced by about 10 feet to accommodate younger players.
Justin Miller, president and coach coordinator for Scott Carrigan Baseball, said he “welcomes a new league” to Ocala.
The Scott Carrigan program averages about 110 players and provides Cal Ripken and Babe Ruth team opportunities for youth.
WMA Youth Baseball League teams have played several games with teams from the Wrigley Baseball and Softball Association.
Jeremy Ellis, president of the Wrigley Baseball and Softball Association, said it’s “tough” starting a new league, and he wishes the startup group well. Ellis said the Wrigley Fields facility has 20 baseball teams, nine softball team and about 340 players.
Dobson said the Wrigley Baseball and Softball Association did a “big favor“ for the WMA Youth Baseball League by holding the games and the play should be a “big help” for the developing WMA Youth Baseball League.
This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: New youth baseball league blossoms in West Ocala, Florida