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Little city endures big loss

[AP photo]
Renee Dean, Rosemarie Renda, Kim Hill, and Candace Pitman, from left, react at the Fran Carlton Center in Apopka as they watch Tokyo Kitasuna win the Little League World Series championship game.

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By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 27, 2001


APOPKA -- You stand at what might be the center of the Little League universe. And you marvel at how lumpy it looks.

This is the Apopka Little League. Home of the country's greatest collection of 12-year-old baseball players.

There is grass growing in the clay on the way to first base. The rest of the infield is about as smooth as a cobblestone street. The garbage cans are stuffed and have likely gone untouched since June.

There are no McDonald's or Domino's signs in the outfield, but Park Avenue Gun & Pawn and Native Bail Bonds have stepped up as sponsors.

You stand behind home plate and it occurs to you that ugly has never looked so fine.

This rut of a field is a world removed from the modern stadium in Williamsport, Pa., where Apopka's All-Stars came within two outs of beating Japan on Sunday night in the championship of the Little League World Series.

Yet this is the place you should remember. The dilapidated field with the water treatment plant 50 yards away. The complex with the discarded couch leaning against a dumpster. The place where league officials have left their phone numbers on the concession stand wall so anyone can give them a holler.

A place where the bleachers have room for maybe 60 fans but the dugouts are big enough to accommodate life-sized dreams.

"Never give up on your hopes. That's what all of this means," Rose Marie Renda tells you. "Anyone can live their dreams."

Renda runs the concession stand at Apopka Little League, and she has just watched her team blow a 1-0, last-inning lead to Japan. She and about 500 other Apopka residents stuffed into the town recreation center.

They brought in three big-screen televisions and set up a few hundred folding chairs. They gave away pizza, hot dogs and chips and asked for nothing in return. A milk jug was provided for donations.

A lone Apopka police officer stood in the back of the room. He was joined in the second inning by another. A third arrived in the fourth and, by the end of the game, all three were shouting and cheering with their neighbors.

Apopka is not exactly Mayberry, but sophistication is not one of its stronger traits.

To get here, take Orange Blossom Trail north out of Orlando. Drive about 15 miles until you see the window designs store advertising the blowout sale where "everthing" must go. This is Apopka.

Mayor John Land accompanied the team to Williamsport, and folks figure that's just about fitting. He's been mayor, after all, for the past 49 years.

When Apopka played the Bronx in the U.S. championship game Saturday, Land agreed to a wager with Rudy Giuliani. New York's mayor offered Nathan's hot dogs and Manhattan bagels. Land put up a crate of plants. For the unenlightened, Apopka is the "Indoor Foliage Capital of the World."

Do not mistake Apopka as a bedroom community for Orlando. Apopka was around long before Mickey and his friends arrived in Central Florida.

This is a slice of old-time Florida. Where community and roots actually mean something to people. Where it is not so unusual to know the name of the person standing next to you in line at the Maryland Fried Chicken.

"When this is all over," said city recreation manager Mark Miller, "I would like to think that people realize Orlando is a suburb of Apopka."

Warren Sapp, the most recognizable of Apopka's recent exports, filled the Buccaneers locker room with chants of A-P-K after Tampa Bay defeated New England in a preseason game Saturday night. He said several of the surnames of Apopka players were familiar to him as long-time residents.

"That's just a pleasure to see," Sapp said. "Because, you know, that's all you can do in the country. We would just go out and play."

Play on a field in need of a landscape artist. Play in front of fans in need of a subscription to Vogue. Play just for the heck of it.

Maybe that's why Sunday night's disappointment seemed to flee as quickly as it arrived. The crowd had cheered non-stop for the better part of three hours and went collectively silent when Japan scored the winning run.

Five, maybe six, moments passed before a woman began chanting "We are proud of you." Soon the entire room was chanting at the soundless images on the televisions.

This is what youth sports is really about. Not ABC's umpire cam. Or George W. Bush's three-inning appearance.

It is uneven fields with unpainted dugouts. Unaffected children and unassuming parents.

It is hopes. And it is dreams.

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