It was, ceremonially, the eve of the last day of the 2017 Little League® season. The Little League Baseball® World Series Championship Game on the last Sunday in August marks the unofficial end of a year-long Little League season, and the U.S. Champions from Lufkin, Texas, were preparing for a game against the International Champions from Tokyo, Japan, but they weren’t sure how they were going to get home.
Hurricane Harvey was bearing down on Houston, and Lufkin, located just a short drive away, was square in the path of what was being forecast as a historic storm. While the team from Texas had a remarkable time and run in Williamsport, falling just short of the World Series Championship, they got home safely, and their community was largely spared from the brunt of the storm. The city of Houston, and the thousands of Little Leaguers® and their families, were not as lucky.
“It was an event that happens only once every 1,000 years. There has been nothing like it in modern history,” said Hugh Tanner, Little League International Board of Directors Chairman, Houston resident, and former West University Little League President. “The weight of the rain that fell on Houston actually depressed the Earth’s crust in the city.”
Hurricane Harvey was just the beginning.
Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, swept through the Caribbean and southeast United States with catastrophic winds. On September 19, central Mexico was shaken and stricken with a deadly earthquake. At the same time, the Caribbean was battered again when Hurricane Maria, also a Category 5 hurricane, barreled through the region already trying to recover from Irma’s wrath. And as island nations were experiencing historic devastation, wildfires ravaged northern and southern California in the fall and winter of 2017.
According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), 2017 was the costliest year ever for weather and climate disasters in the United States.
“The U.S. Virgin Islands saw two Category 5 hurricanes in two weeks,” said Steve Parris, U.S. Virgin Islands District Administrator and Little League International Advisory Board Member. “You cannot fathom the devastation. So many lost everything. It will be 12 months, at least, until we can recover. But our islands may never be the same.”
Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the islands throughout the Caribbean. Homes were destroyed, lives were lost, landscapes were shifted. As the calendar year turned to 2018, many were still without electricity, yet hope remained.
“It will be a different Puerto Rico,” said Antonio Gonzalez, Puerto Rico District 14 Administrator, Little League International Board of Directors Member, and the Engineering Supervisor for the Municipality of Cayey, Puerto Rico. “They will talk about the Puerto Rico before September of 2017 and the Puerto Rico after. There are so many kids who have lost everything.”
Unfortunately, children losing everything from disaster was not isolated to just the Caribbean. Nine-year-old Loren Jade Smith, a player at Mark West Little League in Santa Rosa, Calif., broke hearts around the world when his letter to the Oakland Athletics went viral:
To the Oakland A’s,
I love watching your A’s games. I want to be an A’s player, and I play at Mark West Little League in Santa Rosa. I played baseball in my backyard all day loving the A’s and making up my own game. In my backyard, they won six World Series in a row. But my house burned down in the Santa Rosa fire, and my saddest things were my baseball collection cards, my 17 jerseys and 10 hats and my baseball from the game and also a ball signed by the whole team and Rickey (Henderson) and Bob Melvin. I am 9 years old and I had a major league baseball and it all burned up, so sad. I know you’re not all together but hope they get this.
The Oakland Athletics, and many MLB clubs responded, and then some, showering Loren with memorabilia to replace what was lost.
“There were more than 110 players, a quarter of our league, that lost their homes,” said Kevin Wood, Mark West Little League President. “It’s so much bigger than one kid or one league, even. We so greatly appreciate the blessings for Loren, specifically, but there are lots of kids out there who could use an equal blessing.”
Ricon Valley Little League, which neighbors Mark West LL, was in danger of losing their entire park and fields to the fires. Thankfully, Brady and Bryce Cannon, who grew up playing in the league and whose father was a past League President, rushed to the field, putting out hotspots and turning off electricity. They used the few remaining wheelbarrows that hadn’t been incinerated to shuttle water to places where hoses wouldn’t reach.
“Once my family was safe, and thankfully my house, the first thought was ‘save the field,’” said Mark Douglas, Ricon Valley Little League President. “Our park is in a rural area, and is really the center of our community. What Brady and Bryce did is really so special and shows what our league really means to our players.”
Communities Coming Together
In the wake of a tragedy, neighbors rally around neighbors. And communities are bound together through their Little League programs.
“One thing that I’ve learned through this is just how important our league and park is,” said Mr. Douglas. “I’ll be walking through the store and people I don’t know will ask if the fields are okay and if they can do anything to help. That support is huge.”
From the Caribbean to California, and everywhere in between, the families that have been hurt and impacted through these natural disasters have been propped up and supported by their neighbors, community, and from the support of citizens from around the world.
“It’s amazing to see how we watch over and protect each other as a community,” said Mr. Wood. “Within weeks after the fires, we held a rally to support our kids and try to get gloves back in their hands. The outpouring of support was amazing.”
Support ranged from donation of baseball and softball equipment to people opening their homes to families needing a place to live.
“We had people clearing trees and roofs out of the road, so that we could get through to help others,” said Mr. Gonzalez, who, as a civil engineer, worked for two months straight, trying to help rebuild his community in Puerto Rico. “These people lost everything, but there are good things from the community working together.”
A Return to Normalcy
As the calendar turned to 2018, the longing for the return to the ball field has provided a glimmer of hope in the communities that are struggling to come back to life. And at Little League fields around the world, families realized that time back at the field can provide the relief needed to recover.
“We tried to have our parks open as soon as we could,” said Mr. Parris. “With all the devastation, people need recreation as stress relief and return to some sense of normalcy, especially the children.”
That path to normalcy is one that many communities are struggling with, but that local volunteers, businesses, neighbors, and other supporters are coming together to get Little League seasons, and communities, back on their feet.
As disheartening as the stories of disaster have been, the stories of support are inspiring.
Major League Baseball and the clubs have been actively working to help out Little League communities. Stories of MLB clubs supporting the players plagued by the fires, with continued support of equipment and supplies, continue as leagues begin playing. The Houston Astros are actively working with the leagues still recovering from the historic flooding, as is DICK’S Sporting Goods, and other Little League partners. Little League International is also working with Pitch In For Baseball and the newly formed Pitch In For Softball in identifying Little Leaguers in communities who are in need of baseball and softball equipment.
Perhaps the largest spotlight on the support for local Little Leaguers came at the MLB Puerto Rico Series, where Little League International received a $75,000 donation to supply new equipment to teams in Puerto Rico impacted by the hurricanes.
Through Little League International’s Grow the Game program’s disaster relief grants, all leagues, including those hit by the natural disasters in late 2017, are able to get financial support to aid in their recovery, as well. And Little League International has been working with local volunteers to identify those needs and work with its partners and through the grant process to provide those much-needed funds, supplies, and equipment to make the future seasons as successful, and fun, as possible.
Little League seasons looked a lot different in many communities this year. There might not have been as many games under the lights, and fields that used to be well-maintained were a little bit more ragged. But what didn’t change were the children playing, the smiles on their faces and on their families cheering them on.