On this Monday night, Golden Gate Community Park is nearly empty, except for the baseball diamond in the back corner, which is overflowing with electricity.
- AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Brothers of the field
If you look around the field, you can see it in every pair of eyes.
The players. The parents. The coaches. The umpires. They are all focused on the moment of the 9- and 10-year-olds playing their game. Chanting from the dugout and cheers from the bleachers seem to drown out everything but baseball.
To the rush-hour drivers overlooking the park from the I-75 overpass, the Little League game looks ordinary under the lights. But this game is one in the 2007 Florida District 18 All-Star Little League Championships, which, besides the 9- and 10-year-olds, includes 11- and 12-year-old boys baseball as well a parallel tournament for girls softball. Forty-five teams in all, the best of the best players and coaches chosen from local leagues.
The play kicked off June 22 and ends in late July in the parks around Southwest Florida.
"We are like brothers out there. It is as tight of a bond as you can get," said Dave Bullock, 39-year-old coach of the Golden Gate National. Parents affectionately nicknamed him "Buttermilk" after Walter Matthau’s curmudgeonly coach in "The Bad News Bears" — because he yells a lot, he explains, and can be a bit scruffy in appearance.
Bullock, who works as a roofer, spends more than 20 hours a week coaching 12 boys, among them his son Lane, 10. The team has since won the district championship and will move on to play in the sectional tournament Friday in Fort Myers.
"I can without a doubt say that either work or sickness — no matter what — I would be there," Bullock says. "I would not miss one pitch of one game."
The winning team of 9- and 10-year-olds ends up representing Florida at a 24-team invitational tournament in West Virginia. The state winner of the 11- and 12-years-olds tournament will compete in the Little League World Series.
None of it could be done without the coaches, says Andrea Tormey, a 42-year-old stay-at-home-mother who has two sons involved in the tournaments. Her son, Christian Tormey, 11, is a co-captain on the North Naples 9- and 10-year-old team.
She’s seen the team evolve since they started playing in early June, she says. Now it’s more about the group than the individual. "Their confidence has been built immensely," she says.
"It takes a special kind of kid and a special kind of parent to be involved in this program," she says. "They are at this great age where they love baseball, and to see the pleasure on their faces when they leave that field — it’s amazing."
In the end, she says, it’s not about the winning or the losing or the errors or the great catches. It’s more about the journey of the game and the connections you make along the way.
"It brings us all closer," Tormey says, "because we learn life’s lessons out on the baseball diamond."