At the opening ceremonies for the current season of the Brunswick County Dixie Youth Baseball—after the 300 names of the boys and girls playing this year had been called and while teams were warming up on the two fields at Leland Community Park—Shelton Perkins and his mother, Tina, were at a trophy display admiring two impressive looking awards. There was one trophy for each of the teams that represented the local league at the Dixie Youth World Series last year, held in Madison Heights, Virginia.
Shelton, who played shortstop on the AAA team that represented Leland, posed for some family photos. Playing in the World Series is something he won’t forget. If you ask Shelton about the experience today, he says it was fun.
“The most fun part was staying in the hotel with everyone,” Shelton says.
His mother remembers it a little bit differently.
“Well, the parents were more excited than the kids were…My husband thought it was the best thing since candy came out,” she says. Shelton Perkins Sr., she explains, played in the Leland league as a kid and was thrilled that his son got to be a part of the experience.
“But the kids were so surprised at everything,” Perkins says. “The size of the event, how many cameras were there, how many kids.”
Bobby Child, who has been president of the Leland Dixie Youth since 1991, was making his rounds most of the day, saying hello to children, coaches and parents. If anyone needed him, all they had to do is look for his signature Beatles ball cap. Child can’t think of many times that he hasn’t worn a hat with a logo of rock’s legendary band. He’s a big fan of the music, but he loves Little League baseball even more.
“With the enthusiasm the kids put into it and the scaled down field of play, it’s the most exciting baseball that’s played,” Child says.
He’s not alone. The roots of the Leland baseball league stretch back to the late 1950s, and in that time it’s gained a reputation as a solid organization with a large local following.
“Leland is a small area,” says Jimmy Blanton, who is on the board of directors. “But these people are crazy about baseball.”
The local Dixie Youth franchise hosts a tournament most years.
“I’d say about three or four thousand people come out for it,” Blanton says. “It must be the best thing going on in Leland.”
Child and Blanton credit the success of the organization to stability. Often the case in Little League is that the officers and board of directors serve for a short term, perhaps only while their children are playing. Things are different in Leland. Since 1976, Leland Dixie Youth has had only two presidents. Child is the second. Donald White was the first.
“He is really the father of the organization,”Child says. “Mr. White is the reason this program is here. We’re just continuing it.”
White started a Leland team before 1960, and the team played in the Good Neighbor League in Wilmington. More teams were added over the next several years, some playing in Wilmington and others in Riegelwood, until 1977. That’s when the group formed a six-team league with the Rebels, Tigers, Minutemen, Chargers, Raiders and Cougars, Child says, and began playing at newly built fields at Leland Park.
The organization applied as a Dixie Youth franchise in the 1980s.
“I’m really proud of the achievements we’ve made as a small community,” White says. “I’m proud to be a part of it.”
In 1993 the league added four machine-pitch teams for 7- and 8-year-olds to the minor league (10 and younger) and major league (12 and younger) teams.
“We ran this structure until 2003,” Child says. And then it was time to merge with the T-ball league. “Everyone decided it was a good idea,” he says. “It just made it easier to have it under one organization. Now we can help kids from 5 to 12.”
What started as a team or two that had to travel out of town to play has grown to a 23-team league with about 300 kids playing. For the older kids, the play is a bit more serious. They begin a continuous batting order and steal bases, for example.
“We help prepare them for the next level,” says Ronald Mintz, who coaches one of the teams and is also an officer of the Dixie Youth league. But there are lessons for even the younger kids. First time T-ball coach Joe Cipalla played baseball for 19 years and wants his kids, two of whom (Cicilia and Luca) are on his team, to have the same experiences he did.
“I want to give them a good foundation in life,” Mintz says. “There’s more going on between those lines than hitting and throwing.”
On Saturday, March 30, Cipalla and Patrick Windham, one of the assistant coaches, were on the field as their team played its first game (without matching T-shirts—“We were like the Bad News Bears,” Cipalla says.) and learned lessons of sportsmanship.
After a few high fives and handshakes, Cipalla, his wife, Emily, and their children went to the concession stand run by the team. In the league, each team is responsible for raising money. You can find booths set up for face painting, hair painting, food and drinks. Cipalla is relying on his own cooking skills to bring in the dough. The night before the game, he chopped peppers and onions for a big batch of Italian sausages to sell.
Each team must also select a queen, a girl who is 12 or younger, to be a representative of the money they raise. It can be a member of the community or a member of the team.
At the end of the season, the queen who raises the most money, or reaches a certain level, wins a scholarship. The teams can do just about anything, short of selling alcohol or tobacco, to add to their coffers.
The league tries to keep registration fees low.
“If you don’t, there are so many kids who can’t play,” says Randy Bowling, a member of the board of directors.
The league also buys equipment and helps teams that have difficulty finding a sponsor.
“I think the best thing about this program is that no kid is turned away,” says Bowling.
“So far it’s worked real well,” Blanton says. “We are successful financially…We’re the oldest league in Brunswick County, I know that.”
Blanton and Bowling can often be seen on game days presiding over the activities from the crow’s nest at Leland Park. They sit in lawn chairs fastened to rolling, wooden frames, so they can scoot from place to place to get what they need to do their scorekeeping duties.
Coming out to the park and watching the kids play is their retirement pastime.
“The only thing wrong is that I’m the oldest one at the park,” Blanton says jokingly.
As a coach 25 years ago, Blanton built his own ball field at his home as a place for his team to practice.
“Every day the kids would get off the bus at my house, we’d practice and my wife would feed them,” he says. That community and family spirit is important to the league.
Martha Mintz, secretary of the league, says the organization has been important to Leland for many years and she’s glad to be a part of it. Lynn Roberts, Alison Kasper, Michael Oliver, Adam Watson, Lee Bowling, Ronald Mintz, Heidi Bennett and Kim Mintz are also officers in the league.
In addition to Blanton and Bowling, the six board members include Bill Housand, Mike Troy, Bobby Ramsey and Ronnie Child.
“We do have a fantastic group of people and volunteers who make this happen,” Child says.
When he’s not at the ball field, which is usually four or five nights a week, Child works at International Paper. As proud as he was to help send two teams to the Dixie Youth World Series last year, it was also a troubling time. One 12-year-old player nearly drowned while he was in Virginia.
As this season approached, Child thought maybe it was time to hang up his Beatles hat and leave the league. He even told the board about his decision. But his wife, Debbie, wouldn’t let him go through with it. After all, soon he’ll have three grandchildren in the program.
“She wouldn’t let me quit,” he says. “She’s the reason I’m here today.”
And he’s glad he is.
“I love baseball,” Child says. “I just love it.”