PLAY BALL!

East Nashville Little League teaches the fundamentals of the game — and more

  • As a volunteer with the East Nashville Little League calls the names of the 26 teams participating in the 2015 season, players pour out from behind the right field fence and begin lining up like the unfurling of a multicolored ribbon. Trotting out are boys and girls donning Cardinal reds, Dodger blues, Marlin neons.
         Michael Bell, the PA announcer and one of the many volunteers who are lending time and enthusiasm to the revitalized youth baseball league, adds a little juice to his introductions of each team: “All the way from Oakland, please welcome the Athletics,” he bellows. “From Atlanta, let’s hear it for the Braves. Straight from the Bronx, give it up for the Yankees.”
         It’s a sun-splashed opening day for the more than 300 youngsters ages 4-13 who have turned out to play America’s pastime in a three-field complex at Shelby Park. What is now branded the East Nash Little League has started just its third season, though its ancestry dates to 1914 when baseball was first played in Shelby Park.
         The festivities continue as Emily Roig, a singer- songwriter who moved to East Nashville in 2014, sings a stirring national anthem and concludes with an emotional first pitch from one of the players in the 11-13 age division. Mac Sharp, who lost his father last year to a tragic accident, tosses the ceremonial throw to his grandfather, Gary Sharp, and follows that by piercing the April air with the two words that all baseball fans eagerly await each spring: “Play ball!”
         And so begins the two-month season of the ENLL, where baseball is used to not only teach the fundamentals of hitting and fielding, but also to impart lessons meant to stretch a lifetime. The league has players of all skill levels, primarily boys, but an increasing number of girls, as well. It doesn’t necessarily exist to turn out the next Little League World Series finalist, á la Goodlettsville or South Nashville of recent years, but rather to embrace and to reflect the diversity that makes up East Nashville. It’s a multicolored ribbon, if you will.
         “If you look around, you’ll see that this is really a representation of East Nashville,” says Brent Truitt, coach of the 7-8 division East Nash Orioles that include his son, Jake, on the roster. “We have musicians, lawyers, architects, blue-collar workers — lots of different people.”
         Truitt, a musician, record producer, and Grammy-winning engineer who plays mandolin for The Steeldrivers, is something of an East Nashville pioneer, having lived here since 1984. He believes this newest version of urban baseball has pulled together the community in an almost unprecedented fashion.
         “It’s very neighborhood-oriented, from the volunteers, the parents, the kids,” says Truitt, whose wife, Kathy, is also a key volunteer. “Lots of friendships have been made between the kids, and we’ve become friends with other parents.”
         That’s precisely the point says the man who spearheaded the development of East Nash. Darrell Downs was selected as president of ENLL when a grassroots consortium worked out plans to launch a program that would play under Little League rules, but shun more restrictive measures such as holding tryouts, and he envisions plentiful competition infused with lessons of character building.
         “We want every child in East Nashville to be able to experience baseball, but we talk a whole lot more than just baseball,” Downs says. “It’s a community environment.
         “There are a lot of life lessons to be learned, and baseball is a good vehicle to teach them. It sounds like a cliché, but there’s not one single coach that doesn’t talk to kids about more than baseball. And at the end of the day, we can compete with anybody else in this area.”
         Downs and his wife, Denise, moved to East Nashville in early 2012 with their then-15-yearold daughter, Brittany, and 11-year-old son, Clay. They had previously lived in Charlotte, N.C., where Downs had grown up with a love of baseball instilled in him by his father, a high school baseball coach for 35 years. Clay shared his dad’s passion, so Downs went seeking a place where his son could register to play in the upcoming season. What he found was a program in a funk.
         The ENLL had formerly been Jess Neely Athletics, with baseball having been played under the sanction of Dixie Youth Baseball for most of the 50 years it had existed in Shelby Park. The league’s three fields were the home of some top-notch teams and games, and a who’s who of Nashville athletes wielded bats and gloves there — former NBA basketball player Ron Mercer, former major-league outfielder Michael Coleman, and former NFL wide receiver Cory Fleming, to name a few.
         But the program fell on hard times after the Cumberland River submerged the complex during the Nashville flood of 2010. A year later, Major League Baseball donated nearly $70,000 to help the league recover, but interest had waned and spirits had fallen.
         With their son set to play in the 2012 season, the Downses had volunteered to help however they could. Darrell offered to do things like cutting grass, and Denise worked in the concession stands, and it was during a meeting after the season had ended that Darrell was asked to run the show.
         “This program wouldn’t exist without Darrell and Denise,” says Brett Vargason, the league’s director of sponsorships and parent of a son who plays. “They really are the crux of this, from a macro level vision-wise and from a micro level in their hands getting dirty.”
         Work on righting the ship began immediately, according to Downs. He had tough decisions to make as he sifted through the issues blocking progress.
         “We took over the program and had to make changes right away,” he says. “The league was $10,000 in debt, and vendors hadn’t been paid in a year. My wife and I went and met everybody and said we would pay them, whether it was $25 or however much. A few of us sat down and started figuring out a plan, which was to reach out to the community and get them to understand how this program works.
         “In places like Franklin, Murfreesboro, or Mount Juliet, the city comes in and takes care of the park. They set it up, they build the mounds, they bring in the dirt. We actually rent this facility from the city. Anything that needs to be done here, besides a landlord-tenant relationship, is the league’s responsibility.”
         The group consulted an accountant and was told the best option was simply to shut down the existing league and start fresh. The new program was established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and when the 2013 season began, Jess Neely Athletics had changed to East Nashville Little League. The number of players has nearly tripled from where it began two years ago.
         “We see growth every year,” says Bell, the opening day PA announcer who serves as the league’s vice president. “We’ve grown from putting signs all over East Nashville and knocking on people’s doors to promote the league to doing very little marketing.”
         Word of mouth is helping to bring in volunteers, truly the backbone of the league. As expected, many are parents who are realizing the benefits of the program and want to be involved. Some, such as Bell, a seventh-grade math teacher at a Nashville middle school, have no children, but possess a passion for baseball and its merits as a teaching tool.
         And then there’s the volunteer who more or less stumbled into the role. Nick Ewald, director of coaches for the ENLL’s 11-13 division, climbed over the outfield fence with a friend one Saturday night while Downs was completing some clean-up duties and his son was taking a few swings with the bat.
         “We saw the lights were on, and we just wanted to come out and throw the ball around a little,” Ewald recalls. “I saw Darrell and his son, and I was a pretty good player so I offered to give his son some tips. Darrell told me I should coach, so I showed up Monday ready to go.”
         Downs says Ewald made contributions from the get-go. “He’s done so much for our older kids, and they really look up to him,” Downs says. “It’s been amazing. I always say we got one of our better volunteers because he was trespassing. He’s giving back to a community where he didn’t even grow up.”
         Jamaal Stewart, on the other hand, did grow up in East Nashville and was considerably influenced by the youth baseball he played in Shelby Park. He was part of the Jess Neely League from age 7 to 19, playing on a team that won a state championship in 2008. Stewart graduated in 2007 from Stratford High, where he played football and baseball, and was on the football team at Cumberland University in Lebanon his freshman year before transferring to Tennessee State University and earning his degree.
         Now a teacher and coach at Overton High, Stewart is giving back to his old league and his community as an ENLL umpire. He may not fit the exact definition of volunteer since he is compensated, but it’s at a reduced rate from what he’s paid at other umpiring jobs. He believes that just being part of the league’s comeback is more valuable than any amount of money he might collect.
         “There’s nothing like coming home to a great program like they have here,” says Stewart, who has been umpiring since he was 15 and has been head umpire for the Jess Neely and East Nash leagues for five years. “They got some people who know what they’re doing, and they’ve really turned it around. It’s the best atmosphere, and it’s the most kids I’ve seen playing here in a long time. There’s lots of involvement.”
         While the idea of community is central to the league’s mission, and no child is denied an opportunity to play, participants insist it isn’t all singing around the campfire. “You want to have competitive baseball,” Vargason says. “It’s not good just to have junk.”
         And indeed, they’re playing some pretty good baseball in East Nashville and turning out some fine athletes. To find those diamonds in the rough and move them toward developing their talents, the league has been fortunate to enlist the help of some volunteer coaches with an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball.
         Someone like Pete Hawes, for instance. A Nashville resident for around 20 years, Hawes absolutely embraced baseball as a youngster growing up in Southern California. He played shortstop all four years at the legendary University High in Los Angeles, and eventually played in the instructional league as a rookie for the San Diego Padres. He knows baseball and can spot the raw talent that may not have otherwise been discovered were it not for the ENLL.
         “There’s an obvious need down here for instruction, and there’s an obvious affinity for it,” Hawes says. “People want to see it. A great example of that is in a kid named Malcom on my team. He first came to play with jeans on, no cleats or hat, and within five minutes, I could see that he’s probably my most talented, most athletic player.
         “When you’re around the more established areas (outlying suburbs), you just don’t see that. They’re all so well-groomed. Here, it’s really apparent that you’re giving a kid a chance.”
         The ENLL is still finding its footing in what could be described as its early innings, but Downs and others involved are optimistic it’s on the right path to attract more kids and community input. The league’s board is working with Metro to secure funding one day to add a field and make the complex a quad that becomes a centerpiece.
         “Our ultimate goal is to create the best small program in the state of Tennessee,” Downs says. “We can’t compete with Murfreesboro because they have 15 fields. We have three. East Nashville has athletes. We’ve got parental support. We’re getting the proper coaching. And it’s taking a village to run it.”