February 14, 2018. A day that members of the Parkland community in Florida, and the entire world, will never forget. A day when a single high schooler at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School took the lives of 17 innocent students and staff members while injuring 17 others in a tragic shooting.
Parkland is a community like many others. Located between Boca Raton and Coral Springs, it’s a bustling, suburban city that is minutes to the beach, a quick ride to Miami, and home to passionate Little League programs. Members of Parkland Little League and North Springs Little League, both situated in the Broward County Public School District, which Stoneman Douglas is a part of, found a way to step up and provide the community with one place that everyone could come together, even if it was just for a brief time out on a Little League field.
Originally scheduled to host their Opening Day just weeks after the deadly tragedy, the Board of Directors of both leagues were faced with a difficult decision: “Do we host our Opening Ceremonies as planned, or cancel all league operations to let the community grieve?”
“After everything happened, we stopped all baseball activity all together, but with Opening Day coming we tried to figure out how to get back to some type of normalcy,” said Robert Travinski, Parkland Little League President. “The reality is that this community will never be normal again and will never be the same, but we wanted to try and bring this community back together and the best way to do that was baseball.”
Looking back on the decision to open the gates and hold opening day turned out to be one of the most meaningful and inspiring decisions the leagues could ever make.
“It was a tough decision to hold Opening Ceremonies, but part of the healing process is trying to do the best you can to return to normalcy, and having that event allowed the city and the community to start to do that,” said Richard Walker, Parkland City Commissioner and former Parkland Little League Umpire-in-Chief. “It was tough to do, but I think it was the right thing to do. It was good for our community to get the kids back on the field, get the parents back out interacting with each other, and let everyone in this community come out and get back to normal. Opening Day is not just about baseball, it’s more about the community and having fun.”
While many of the players, volunteers, and families were still riddled with tears and filled with emotion, the short magic of Little League Opening Ceremonies gave everyone something to smile for, even if only for a brief period of time.
“Little League Opening Day was one of the first normally scheduled events that occurred after the tragedy and for some of us it was the first opportunity to see people we haven’t seen since that day,” said Christine Hunschofsky, Parkland City Mayor. “It was beautiful to be here and see the families and community members coming out to celebrate Little League Opening Day with one another, but also just reminded all of us what a special, close-knit community we have here.”
As that 2018 season progressed, the entire community continued to grieve and deal with the pain caused by such a tragic day, but the short few hours spent out on the baseball field provided a sense of hope and normalcy as the healing process continued week after week.
For North Springs Little League, a league coming off one of the most exciting years with a win at the 2017 Senior League Baseball World Series, Opening Ceremonies were meant to celebrate the tremendous accomplishments in Easley, S.C., but instead were spent missing one of their own, Joaquin “Guac” Oliver, who was one of the 17 killed on that tragic day. As part of the Opening Ceremonies for the league, Guac’s father, Manny, took a moment to address the members of the NSLL community about his son and thank the league for naming one of the fields in his honor.
“Opening Day was something that everyone needed, and what happened that day was something special. Watching Manny step out onto that field and share the most powerful, unscripted speech on what Little League and being at the field has meant to him and his family was incredibly moving and touching to everyone one of us there,” said Sal DiMartino, former North Springs Little League Manager. “A lot of that day was supposed to be a celebration of the team’s World Series accomplishments, but we all knew it wasn’t going to be about that. Coming here and seeing the huge crowd and the support from this community for these players, most of who were inside the school when it happened, was truly inspiring.”
One year later, after yet another exciting run by the NSLL Senior League team to make it back to Easley, just one game from the Championship, both leagues took back to the fields for Opening Ceremonies. It was a year since the shootings, with the wounds only partially healed, yet the leagues are helping to find ways to bring joy to the faces of families across Southeast Florida.
“The biggest difference at this year’s Opening Ceremonies was that the sense of sadness wasn’t there anymore,” said Jason Rosoff, North Springs Little League President. “It’s not that we’ll ever forget that day, but it was really nice to come out this year and have Opening Ceremonies be about baseball and having fun around the game throughout this community. At the end of the day, it always comes back to community and to North Springs nation.”
While the pain from that tragic day will never fully subside, the opportunity for members of the community to come out to the park and enjoy Little League at its purist level among their neighbors, friends, and classmates has provided a sense of relief and normalcy that will continue to bring everyone together and make the community #ParklandStrong.