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Burglar empties baseball building

The $5,000 theft of food and equipment from the Belmont Heights Little League saddens supporters.

By RICHARD DANIELSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


TAMPA -- No Little League baseball diamond in Tampa Bay has the historic luster of the field at Belmont Heights, but that reputation apparently meant nothing to a weekend thief.

On Sunday, a burglar pried open a shuttered window at the concession stand and stole everything in sight: $250 in coins, baseballs, shin guards, bats, catchers' masks, a television, a radio, hamburgers, hot dogs and corn dogs, and restaurant-sized bottles of ketchup.

"They even took the bleach and the rags we use," said Colette McDonald, whose 8-year-old son pitches and plays shortstop on one of the league's teams. "I really don't understand. It hurts." And the kids, she said, "are just confused."

Tampa police spokesman Steve Cole said the thief took items worth nearly $5,000. A detective has been assigned to the case, but police are hoping someone calls their tip line, (800) 873-TIPS, with information.

"It really is disturbing when somebody does a burglary, but when you steal a kid's stuff, it makes the hair on the back of your neck go up," Cole said.

On Tuesday, a St. Petersburg businessman who lives near the field persuaded his company to donate $500 to help overcome the loss.

"This is just a $500 start, but we intend to raise some more money," said Bill Sims, sales manager of Priority Oxygen and Medical Equipment Inc. "We were so outraged by this that we just wanted to do something about it."

Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher Dwight Gooden got his start in the Belmont Heights Little League, and on Tuesday the Devil Rays said they would help the league make up the loss.

"We obviously want to help in some way, and we will help in some way," Devil Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn said. He called the team's concessionaire, Volume Services, about restocking the food and intends to make more calls today. Gooden, reached Tuesday night at Tropicana Field, had not heard about the theft. He said it was sad news.

"When that sort of thing happens, you're talking about an individual who isn't seeing things straight. Whether they're thinking about drugs or alcohol or anything else, they just don't realize that what they're doing will hurt kids."

In a neighborhood troubled by drugs, crime and violence, the Belmont Heights Little League has often given residents something to be proud of.

In 1982, Belmont Heights fielded a team that made it to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. That group of Majors All-Stars finished third in the nation and included Gooden, as well as major leaguers Gary Sheffield and Derek Bell.

But the field, just north of the College Hill Homes public housing apartments, has also seen more than its share of problems.

In 1994, a visiting Little League coach from Land O'Lakes took a stray bullet to the groin during the all-star playoffs.

Three years later, vandals caused $10,000 to $15,000 in damage to electrical equipment at the complex. The damage was done to get copper wiring that could be sold for scrap, although the stolen copper was valued at only $20 to $30.

McDonald said parents were grateful for all the help they got Tuesday. One woman, she said, got on a bus from West Tampa to bring over $20.

Sims said he hopes to raise money to improve the facilities and field at Belmont Heights.

"Last night was a sad night, (and) this morning was sad," McDonald said. But "when (Sims) called, flowers went to bloom."

- Times staff writer John Romano contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or danielson@sptimes.com.

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