PALMETTO -- The smell of spring is in the air, and while Major League Baseball's Opening Day games launched across the country Monday with plenty of fanfare, a group of 12-year-old Palmetto Little League baseball players started their fourth and final Little League season 30 days prior with a smaller celebration on the Blackstone Park softball fields.
The players donned uniforms and took up their defensive positions in the shadow of construction of the city's new $3.3 million Little League park, featuring three new fields, a concession building, bleachers and parking lot.
After a four-year battle and political wrangling over losing the city's original fields to a new elementary school, the park is on track to open on its original estimated date in August.
"If not sooner," said Tom Yarger, construction service manager for Manatee County. "We'll probably beat that by a bit. It's about 70 percent complete. The fields are all graded, the irrigation is in, the clay is in, sidewalks are going in right now, and in about two weeks we will start the asphalt for the parking lot."
Yarger said the new concession building is about 60 percent complete, and Florida Power & Light will run permanent power to the facility in less than three weeks.
"We'll start laying sod by the end of this week," he said. "It will take a long growing period before anyone can get on the fields."
Hopefully not too long, according to Derek Goforth, Palmetto Little League Board president.
"Our 12 year olds were 9 years old when this all started, and they are the ones that kind of got the shaft with our makeshift playing situation," said Goforth. "I'm hoping the fields will be ready enough to open for one game on May 1, which is the last game of the spring season and the last game for these boys in our Little League program. It stinks they have never had the opportunity to play on a Little League field, and there is not a more deserving group of boys. I'd like to see them get that one memory that I know will last a lifetime."
Goforth, who played in Little League, knows about youth baseball memories. He said it's frustrating to him a group of boys will miss out on a special memory but he is excited for the future of Palmetto youth baseball.
"It's nice to see it progressing the way that it is," he said. "So far, so good. Everything we were looking for is being provided and at this point, we are as thrilled as can be. They are definitely going all out to build a premier park and the kids are very excited. They see the construction, and they all know they will soon be playing over there."
Gustabo Guadalupe, a lifelong Palmetto resident, has a 10-year-old son in Little League and a 3-year-old son starting T-ball next year.
"I think it's going to be great for the community," he said while enjoying a day off with his youngest son, Isaac, at Blackstone Park. "This city is my home, and I love it here. It's a hidden paradise, and this will be something that will be a lot of fun for the kids, and that's all that matters."
Guadalupe comes from a soccer background but encourages his children to play all sports to find what they love to do. When his 10-year-old told him he wanted to try baseball four years ago, he was all for it but admits he is surprised at the result.
"I didn't think he would love baseball so much, but he does and loves to watch the Rays play with his grandpa," said Guadalupe, adding his son's love for the clay diamond came from his mother's side. "She played competitive softball when she was a teenager."
Guadalupe said community sports are important to keep youngsters out of trouble and teach them about life. When dad mentioned Isaac was going to play next year, the young boy's eyes widened as much as his smile as he said: "Oh yeah."
The Pittsburgh Pirates Charities Organization donated $75,000 toward the project. Manatee County is paying most of the cost, and Palmetto contributed $800,000.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.