WARNER ROBINS — Little League Southeast Park, as the region’s new, crown-jewel diamond is known, is so fancy, so spiffy, so waaay-cool, so big-league neato-looking that the kids who’ll begin playing in it today could hardly believe their eyes.
For many of the softball-playing all-star girls from eight states across the South who saw the stadium for the first time Wednesday, it was if they’d landed in the lap of Little League luxury.
The place was all but empty at noon when Ansley Gilreath, the shortstop for the South Carolina team, turned to her father at the top of the stands.
“Dad,” the 12-year-old, whose fingernails were red and blue, her team’s colors, said, “I’ve got butterflies.”
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“It’ll be OK once you start playing,” Ansel Gilreath told his daughter.
“Dad,” she replied, “they’ve got stairs going down into the dugout. ... The dugouts are underground! ... We’ve always been in, like, crappy dugouts.”
Ansley’s dad had to admit it. Yeah, the place sparkles.
“We can’t believe it’s this nice,” he said. “We weren’t expecting something like this.”
Atop the brick columns that support the stadium’s wrap-around metal roof that shelters the bleachers are concrete orbs in the shape of jumbo baseballs or softballs. They’re so detailed you can see the stitching etched on them.
And how many kiddie softball or baseball parks do you know of with air-conditioned gift shops?
Not to mention the grass. It’s Bermuda, Tifway 419 to be exact, trucked in from south Georgia. They spoon-feed it fertilizer every 10 days, mow it three times a week, water it twice a day and edge it weekly.
Even in the midday haze, the field glows as swamp-green as the lily pads on nearby Lake Joy. There is lush and there is this: pool-table smooth.
South Carolina right fielder Summer Underwood, who was snapping photos with her cell phone, deemed it more verdant than anything she’d set foot on back home in Greenville.
“Wow,” she said. “This is definitely better than any field I’ve ever played at.”
When the squad from Wilkes County, N.C., wheeled up in its tour bus, players and parents applauded.
“We don’t have any fields this green back home,” assistant coach Larry Johnson said.
Natasha Brown, the team’s manager, said, “We knew that it was new, but I don’t think we were really prepared for all this.”
The mother of one player made big “Os” with her fingers and held them up over her cheeks. “When we got here,” she said, “the girls’ eyes were like this.”
Catcher Tristan Johnson couldn’t get over how much room there was between home plate and the backstop, and how the backstop was made of netting strung up to the stadium roof.
“I’m gonna have to work harder to stop balls and keep them from getting past me,” she said.
Oh, and she added, “The underground dugouts are pretty cool.” And then, “We’re really excited to be here.”
A Little League volunteer from St. Petersburg, Fla., a man who had ties to the old region playoff site in neighboring Gulfport for much of the past decade, sat in a lawn chair and watched the softball girls arrive.
“Their jaw drops and they say, ‘Wow,’ which is what most of the adults I know say when they come in,” said Gary Kay, who has been a volunteer at the Little League Baseball World Series since 1993. “For me, coming here is about being around other people who love the game. The kids play it because they love it.”
Besides, he said, “I don’t play golf.”
About that time, the man responsible for nurturing the field for the past few months — laying the sod, raking the infield, hand-plucking weeds, warding off fire ants, army worms and mole crickets — climbed the stairs where Kay was sitting, his masterpiece complete.
“Turned out nice, didn’t it?” grounds pro Jason Womack said.
“Turned out great,” Kay replied.
Womack, who helps run a Tifton sports-surface company, had a camera in his hand. He wanted pictures of his handiwork, the field he laser-graded and had been his baby since the spring.
“College players don’t play on fields this nice,” he said, gazing out at the turf. “It’s amazing how little kids will get to play on a field like this.”
Not only that. Their folks will get to see them on it, see their childhood dreams in action.
As will the spectators of Middle Georgia.
What amounts to a five-day, mid-summer family picnic will unfold before them, too.
They will no doubt be star-struck themselves when, for the first time in coming days, they soak in the confines of Little League Southeast Park and realize a place like this, a resplendent landscape with man-made shade, where hot dogs cost a buck and a half and Little League meets big league, is in their own backyard.
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.