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19

Dec, 2019

Back in the Game - Henrico Citizen Cover

Puddles fill uneven slopes of dirt at the Highland Springs Little League fields on Read Street on a recent blustery Monday morning, evidence of the previous day’s downpour. Jim Gallagher surveys the water, eyes the uneven ground, glances at the patches of missing grass.

This isn’t baseball weather, but it isn’t baseball season, either. Then again, it hasn’t been baseball season in Highland Springs for several years now – ever since the league shut down operations when years of waning participation became too difficult to overcome.

Gallagher has heard stories, though, about what things were like when the league was thriving.

“A lot of people were telling me that on any given Saturday, there were 300 kids out there playing ball,” he says.

The measured focus in his eyes as he looks around suggests that he believes such a scene is possible again.

“That’s what I want to see,” he confirms.

Highland Springs seems one of the least likely places ever to be mistaken for a hotbed of baseball. A few blocks away, visitors can steal a glance at one of four state football championship trophies earned during the past four years by the Highland Springs High School Springers, whose 40-game unbeaten streak ended with a loss to rival Varina in this year’s state playoffs. Saunter through town and you won’t get far before the sound of a basketball hitting the pavement echoes through the streets, too.

Those are the sports of choice in this place, where about 30 percent of all households have only one adult and more than a third of all children 18 and younger live below the poverty level.

But next year, thanks to the efforts of Gallagher and a small group of passionate volunteers he has assembled to realize his ambitious dreams, the Highland Springs Little League is coming back. It will be about baseball and softball, he promises, but also about much more than that.

For the love of the game
For Gallagher, who operates a home improvement business based in Highland Springs, this is a calling. He coached his daughter’s girls’ softball team the past five years in the Sandston Babe Ruth League but grew frustrated with matters beyond his control.

“Things didn’t go the way I thought they should go,” he says, simply. So he began looking into the history of Highland Springs baseball and softball and learned the region’s Little League had gone dormant. After a few phone calls and inquiries, he discovered that the league – the first in Virginia to affiliate with Little League Baseball decades ago, he says – still had its charter from the organization.

Gallagher checked with some others in the community, who were similarly intrigued about the idea of breathing new life into the league.

Then, for the second time in recent years, he recruited his friend Jeff Jackson to help take action.

Jackson, who grew up in suburban Maryland with a love of baseball passed down from his dad, had coached the sport from the age of 13 until his two sons were finished playing. He figured those days were gone for good – until Gallagher reached out and invited him to help coach girls softball in Sandston a few years ago.

“Then I remembered why I loved it,” Jackson recalls. Soon, he was coaching his own team there but gladly agreed to assist Gallagher’s efforts in Highland Springs – where’s he’s lived for the better part of two decades – when his friend asked this year.

Their efforts began with a phone call.

“I reached out to Little League and said, I have 10 to 12 people – parents, volunteers – that are interested in bringing this association back, what do I gotta do?” Gallagher says.

The months that followed have been a whirlwind of meetings, recruitment efforts, paperwork and planning – culminating several weeks ago with the official clearance from Little League to restart the league. The process has been arduous but worthwhile.

“Now I’m finding out that there are so many people in the area that either they played there and they want to see it back, or they’ve got kids that they want to play there,” says Gallagher, who is serving as league president.

For Jackson, the league’s vice president, helping to re-establish the organization is a chance to give back to the community he loves – through a game he loves.

“I’ve seen when it was booming 20 years ago and you could barely get down Read Street because there were so many cars at baseball games,” he says. “People say that baseball is a boring game to watch – not if you understand the subtle nuances. I just think it’s an untapped sport. You may not understand the game, but allow your child to learn it. You may come out pleasantly surprised.”

The two men believe the scene in Highland Springs can be similar again soon. They recruited Darryl Husband, Sr. – a pastor and friend who shares their love of the game and connection to the community – to join the board, on which he’s serving as vice president of baseball, softball and Challenger League (a program for children with special needs).

Most of the other board members are parents of girls coached last year either by Gallagher or Jackson. Several others also coached in Sandston. One coached for years in the original Highland Springs Little League.

‘Good people looking to help’
The league’s boundaries are wide: they include all of Highland Springs, Sandston and Varina, as well as all of Charles City County. Gallagher anticipates that the new league will pull some players from each area. (Varina and Sandston each have Babe Ruth baseball and softball leagues, but there’s no restriction that would prevent children or teens from playing in both if they want to, he says.)

He hopes the league will field at least one baseball and softball team at every level, from t-ball all the way through to seniors. But, he concedes, there’s no way of knowing for sure until the season starts.

“I’m actually ok if we only fulfill three-quarters of that,” he said. “We want to give the kids what we got when we were growing up playing baseball, make it a fun, safe environment for them.

“I just want to see the boys and girls happy, catch ‘em before they get in trouble, show them, Hey, there are still good people looking to help you.”

Developing a sense of family among the children who join the league and being able to mentor them beyond baseball and softball are key components of this effort for the league’s organizers.

Many children grow up here without fathers; Highland Springs ranked third nationally on a list compiled by the New York Times in 2015 of “missing” African-American males between the ages of 25-54 (men who were absent from the community, due to early death, incarceration or other reasons). Poverty also can be a roadblock to participation in youth sports, but Gallagher is determined not to let it get in the way.

He anticipates doing what he’s done in the past, if necessary: paying registration fees himself for families who can’t afford them, in exchange for their efforts serving as league volunteers (operating concession stands, keeping score or performing other tasks).

“We’re going to make it happen,” he says, flatly. “We don’t know what people’s situations are. We don’t know what these children go through on a daily basis with [many] not having both parents in the house. We want to see them all have the opportunities that we had.

“If I see a child that really wants to do something and I can help them, by all means, I want to help them.”

Gallagher has met with officials from the Richmond Flying Squirrels, who plan to assist the league. He and Jackson praise representatives from the Tuckahoe Little League and other leagues in the region, who have assisted with their efforts to reorganize.

“They’ve been extremely helpful in offering advice, guidance, suggestions,” Jackson says.

For now, the league will play its games on three fields at its former complex. One day, games could take place at the 99-acre Taylor Park near the Chickahominy YMCA in Sandston, which Henrico will begin planning next summer.

In the meantime, Gallagher is seeking business sponsors to assist with everything from renovation of the fields to operational expenses.

Varina District Supervisor Tyrone Nelson contributed some of his own money to help get the league on its feet and has attended meetings with Gallagher and checked in regularly.

“He’s stood behind me and stood beside me,” Gallagher says of Nelson. “I can’t give him enough credit for what he’s done for us. I told him, ‘Our Opening Day, I really, really want you to be there.’ This Opening Day for Highland Springs Little League is going to be the biggest and the best that the East End has ever seen.”

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