06/05/05 — Their league of dreams

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Their league of dreams

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on June 5, 2005 2:02 AM

Gary Phiffer put his arms around Ezekiel Gonzales and showed him how a real ball player holds a bat.

The field was muddy, and the National Anthem was an afterthought. The players didn't always know where to run or why they were running in the first place, but none of that spoiled the budding renaissance of baseball in Goldsboro.

Ezekiel's smile as he made contact with the ball for the first time guaranteed that.

Baseball made a mud-splattered return to the city's fields Saturday as the Jackie Robinson League opened play at Fairview Park.

More than 200 boys and girls stood caps-over-hearts as a volunteer sang the National Anthem acapella and then took the field for the first games of the season.

Enthusiasm was more in abundance than skill.

While trying to find a glove to fit a small boy, Coach Gene Thomas asked the boy which hand he writes with in school. Both hands went up, and then they both went down. The would-be infielder then put up his left hand, quickly followed by his right.

"It's going to be a long day," said a nearby coach, smiling.

A rainbow of colored ball shirts bearing the words "Jackie Robinson League" dotted the ballfield Saturday morning. Robinson, the first black man to play major league baseball, is the inspiration for the league. To the youngsters, his name is magic, even if they are not quite sure why.

"Put your shirt tail in," said Garry Phiffer, league president, to a young player.

To Phiffer, and the other dozen coaches volunteering, courtesy and respect are two traits their players must learn, along with baseball skills.

Goldsboro Mayor Al King and businessman Richard "Rooster" Narron formed the league last year. Its membership has more than doubled in its second season.

Narron, a former major league baseball player, and King shared a concern about how baseball had become less popular in the city.

Narron said Goldsboro has fielded great baseball teams, but the game's popularity among young people has diminished.

But that tide is shifting.

Just under 100 participated in the league's first season, but Phiffer said 225 boys and girls, ages 4 to 12, signed up this year.

"And this year we have over 50 girls on the teams," Phiffer said. "Last year, there were about 10 girls."

There are 12 teams, with 15 to 18 kids per team, in the league.

Phiffer said most of the children in the league are from the city, with a handful from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and Dudley.

Coaches this year include Earl Lewis Jr., Gene Thomas, Robert Hines, Steve McKinney, Mark Colebrook, Sandy Draper, Jim Courter, Melvin Ward, Edwina Artis, Phiffer, Cathy Davis and Mike Ratliffe.

Courter comes from Norfolk, Va., each weekend to spend time with his family and coach in the league. He has a 9-year-old son playing this year.

Practice began once school let out, Phiffer said. "We didn't want to do anything until they were finished with the end-of-grade tests."

The biggest challenge facing the league is how to get all the players to the ballfield.

"One of our coaches brought 20 kids today. We have community car pooling," Phiffer said.

McKinney said he coached several years for the Parks and Recreation Department, but had to stop when he went back to school at night.

"This gives a nice alternative because we only practice or play on Saturdays," he said. "This is great because everything is free for the kids."