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In wake of Sandy, Little League fields get new life

BAYONNE, N.J. -- By the time Hurricane Sandy had finished punishing the Northeast last October, there was nearly nothing left of the Bayonne Little League fields. Certainly not enough for the upcoming 2013 season.

Yet on Saturday, the league's scheduled Opening Day, there they were -- hundreds of boys and girls, coaches and parents -- marching down West 1st Street in the Bayonne Little League Opening Day parade.

And thanks to countless donations and support, including a grant of more than $83,000 from the Baseball Tomorrow Fund and an additional $8,000 raised by Major League Baseball groundskeepers, the parade marched straight through the left-field gate and onto the completely restored Volunteer Stadium field at the Bayonne Little League complex.

"You were hit hard down here by Sandy," said Bayonne mayor Mark Smith in an on-field ceremony prior to Saturday's opening game. "And, as mayor, it's my job to ensure that you folks are able to have this season and it's my job to come up with contingency plans. In one of our meetings just after [Sandy] with the volunteers here from Little League, we were discussing the potential of perhaps having to have this season somewhere else.

"It was at that point that Joe Spengler, your president and your leader, looked me dead in the eye and he said, 'Mayor Smith, we are playing Little League baseball in our stadium.'"

At that time, such a statement hardly seemed realistic.

With the complex sitting right along the water at the tip of the Bayonne peninsula, Sandy had ravaged the fields and destroyed pitching machines, catcher's equipments, hundreds of helmets and uniforms and more than 1,500 baseballs.

"When Sandy hit us, [Spengler] walked into the compound and initially he thought we had escaped with minor damages," said Brian Petty, the league administrator and emcee of Saturday's ceremony. "But when he started opening everything up, he saw the devastation. He broke down into tears. After a few minutes, he composed himself, started his plan and from there the wheels started spinning. They have not stopped spinning since and they will not stop until the end of the season."

One of the steps of that plan involved reaching out to the Baseball Tomorrow Fund, which in 2005 had awarded the league a $50,000 grant to install lights and a new backstop. At the time, Baseball Tomorrow Fund executive director Cathy Bradley left Bayonne with a simple message: If you ever need anything, just ask.

Seven years later, they didn't need just anything -- they needed almost everything. Still, it was a no-brainer for league treasurer Michael Conway that the first e-mail he'd sent would be to Bradley and the Baseball Tomorrow Fund.

"The Sandy storm devastated so many communities and, for those of us who were not directly affected, it's really nice to be able to help out in some way to get your communities back to where they should be," Bradley said. "So, on behalf of all of us in the baseball family, we are happy to help out, especially the Bayonne Little League and the city of Bayonne."

With that, Bradley presented a ceremonial check for $92,186 to the Bayonne Little League. Along with the approximately $83,000 grant given by the Baseball Tomorrow Fund, the check included more than $8,000 raised in an auction held by the league's groundskeepers at their annual conference in New York City.

That money played a key role in rebuilding the fields, as well as providing equipment and uniforms for the league. The donation also contributed toward batting cages and equipment for the girls softball program run through the league and the community.

"Thanks to the money we received, the hard work of the officers, Little League volunteers and contractors from this community, we are not only better, but stronger and safer as we stand here today," said league safety officer, John Hennessey. "This field is in better shape now than it ever was."

Looking at the Bayonne Little League complex on Nov. 1, it would have been hard to picture any games taking place at the fields again, let alone in just five short months. For some, like Spengler and the rest of the Bayonne Little League board, there was never any other option.

"I knew we'd be here today," Conway said. "I didn't know what shape the field would be in, but I knew we'd be here -- playing on brown grass or green, we'd be here."

Thanks to the overwhelming support in Sandy's aftermath from the community and beyond, the grass on Saturday was greener than it had ever been in Bayonne.

Paul Casella is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella.