Text and photos by Connie Leinbach
Amazement and wonder was on many islanders’ lips Sunday afternoon as they watched Ocracoke children at baseball practice for the first time on the newly built ball field at Community Park.
“It’s hard to believe,” said Vince O’Neal, president of the Ocracoke Community Park organization, as he watched about two dozen 7- to 9-year-olds warm up in the sunshine for their tryouts for the Blue Claws team. “It’s just a dream come true.”
Lena Donlon and Cheri Ely hesitated for a few seconds before answering.
“You’re almost speechless,” Donlon said about this day’s arrival. “The fact that we’re out here….”
“It’s exciting,” Ely said.
Watching the coaches and kids from a higher vantage point in the new scorer box, island native Sharon Justice said the location of the park in the filled-in marsh at the end of Maurice Ballance Road was the perfect spot.
“I never thought we’d have something like this,” she said about when she was young and kids played in empty lots in the village.
Hyde County would not give the group any land, nor would the National Park Service.
“This spot worked out the best,” she said.
Four years ago, O’Neal and several others in the community began the quest for a bona fide baseball field for island youth. In 2012, the first step toward the dream of a real field became a reality when the Ocracoke Youth Center, the umbrella organization for the field, purchased the two-acre Burrus property.
It was the last sizeable land within the village suitable for such a project.
The first official games will begin March 23, and a grand opening is planned for some time in April after Easter, O’Neal said.
They have eight years left on their 10-year, owner-financed mortgage, said Greg Honeycutt, who is the co-chair of the capital campaign.
Again this year, the group will raffle off a custom-built golf cart, said John Giagu, owner of Island Golf Carts, who is building the cart for the third year. Along with donations and a capital campaign, other fundraising include seeking grants, selling merchandise, and the proceeds from both the 5K/10K on April 25 and the Village Thrift store along Sunset Drive.
The sod and clay for the diamond is down, the fence and dugouts are up as is the scorer/press box, and all of that is paid for, O’Neal said. An underground irrigation system is capable of spraying all the water they need for the grass, said Danny Worsely, the volunteer groundskeeper earlier in the morning.
Still to arrive are the bleachers, batting cages, bull pens, and a removable fence that will be placed 200 feet out from home plate for the younger players. Also, a concession stand the construction of parallel parking along the road are pending, as is an activity center.
Thursday, the scoreboard sign will arrive, purchased by Tommy Hutcherson, Variety Store owner, Worsley said.
The field, built about four feet above the marsh, was designed to have a soccer field, and adults are talking about one or more softball teams.
“It’s exciting out here,” Worsley said, echoing several others on Sunday. “It’s first class.”
In the last few months, the call went out for help laying the sod–a type of Bermuda grass that’s resistant to heat, sunlight and drought, as well as finishing the score box and dugouts.
“There’s so much volunteer help that’s getting this done,” Worsely continued. “The turnout when there’s a call for volunteers is phenomenal.”
Sue O’Neal, wife of Vince, whose young son was trying out for the Blue Claws, noted that the high school team played on the field for the first time last week on a day that the island experienced socked-in fog.
“They were so excited they didn’t want to leave,” she said. “They’ve been playing for years in yards—wherever they could scrape a place to play.”
Even with such conditions, Ocracoke teams held their own against other teams last year, especially the Blue Claws who won the Hatteras Island Babe Ruth League.
Worsely and Vince O’Neal noted how this field is truly a community place—bought and paid for privately by the community.
“This is a community park for the entire community,” Worsley said. “It’s your park.”