WARNER ROBINS — They christened a ballpark here Thursday.
Pre-teens in cleats and hairbands, some blowing kisses to their mamas during breaks in the action, dug their feet into manicured Houston County clay and ushered in the Little League Southeastern Region’s first postseason tourney on Georgia soil.
A kid from Florida socked the first hit just after 10:30 a.m. It was a ringing, run-scoring triple against West Virginia that rolled to the fence 225 feet away in the opener of the day’s four-game slate in the Little League Softball Southeastern Region Tournament.
The game was half an hour late starting, but Erica Matich, the Tampa girl who whacked the inaugural hit in Little League Southeast Park, didn’t seem to mind the delay.
Matich, whose parents call her “Cookie,” has her late maternal grandfather’s initials inked on the swooshes of her size-9 Nike cleats. “BFM,” the white emblems read, an homage to Bert Fenton Milnes, who died of cancer a few years back.
“He was always there for me,” said Matich, who scored three runs. “He always had advice, for sports and outside sports.”
Her father, David, choked up talking about his late father-in-law and recalled seeing his daughter’s tribute to him for the first time back in the spring. David Matich told her, “You know, Pappy’s always looking down on you.”
At the stadium opener Thursday, so were a few hundred spectators. The near-full house didn’t arrive until the girls from Warner Robins American took center stage after lunch.
Early on, a fan from north Georgia who was rooting for West Virginia crooned, “Counnnntry roads, taaaake me home ...”
Before the first pitch — which, by the way, was a ball high and outside — the mother of one player sighed.
“Nerves,” she said.
“All right,” a stadium volunteer joked after the park’s first game-day national anthem was sung, “put your cell phones on vibrate, the girls are trying to concentrate.”
For a while in the third inning, the outfield scoreboard said the score was 55-3, West Virginia. But it was just an opening-day hiccup. Save for a few glitches with the public-address system — it was hard to hear announcements at times and a wireless microphone went on the fritz during the singing of the national anthem before the Robins game — Day One of Little League showtime in the South was about as charming as outdoor events in near 100-degree climes can get.
In the stadium gift shop, T-shirts read, “Stand Tall, Play Ball.”
Just before noon, 5-year-old Jasmine Nauss of Warner Robins, along with her father, Greg, became the first kid to slide down the grassy outfield slope aboard a piece of cardboard. The pastime, born on the slopes of South Williamsport, Pa., at the Little League World Series, appears to have made the journey to Georgia. Don’t be surprised if, before long, worn dirt patches emerge on the hillside beyond the outfield, the result of boys and girls plowing downhill on gravity-powered magic carpets.
“Let’s go!” Jasmine squealed as she skidded toward the right-field fence below.
“She’s got it figured out now. She’s leaning back,” her dad said, watching her bound along the turf. “Self-entertainment.”
An hour so later, at 1:14 p.m., the first official “War-Ner Rob-Ins!” chant echoed in this hollow that was once farmland, where, not far off a drag strip once roared, and where, further on toward Bonaire, there was a dairy farm, and, near it, the old county orphanage that was run, as one old-timer recalled, by Preacher Brown.
Kid-softball’s reigning world champs, in black pants and white jerseys and red, sequined hair bands glinting brighter than fresh sunburns, were on the prowl.
They’d loaded the bases with no outs in the first inning when Melissa Cox, after swatting a foul ball that sailed back over the stands toward the ladies’ room, punched a single to drive home the team’s lightning bug of a shortstop, the 4-foot, 7-inch Sierra Stella, with the Georgia girls’ first run.
Later, in the fourth inning, after eight more Robins runs had come home to roost, a jet streaked off somewhere in the distance and rattled the park with a sonic boom. Warner Robins’ Ashley Killebrew, as if on cue, then thumped a leadoff single past second and before long the metal stands thundered as the partisan Houston County crowd stomped with gusto.
“At first, when we saw all the people out here, we got a little nervous,” Cox, who plays second base, said of the midday gathering that nearly filled the stands. “But once we got playing it was all right.”
Following his club’s 12-0 win over South Carolina, Robins manager Roger Stella declared the new park’s kid-friendly confines “sacred ground.”
Claude Lewis, Warner Robins’ 83-year-old reverend of recreation, stood in the crowd above the third-base line and said as much himself.
“The eighth wonder of the world,” he called the place.
Seeing it, he said, “made me cry.”
Lewis, who was the city’s recreation-department director from 1958 until 1986, remembers days when he’d set up folding tables as backstops so children could play T-ball.
Thursday, he nearly choked up when players repeated the Little League pledge.
Gazing out at the park, where the turf is so lush it looks more like something you’d vacuum, Lewis said, “The beauty of it is that only children can play on it.”
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.